Thursday, 31 December 2009

So 2009 finishes... and thank you to everyone who's followed this blog this year

I can't believe 2009 is nearly over - in around two hours from now, in fact. It's been a rollercoaster of a year for me, feel free to let me know what it's been like for all you guys!

Thinking back to the start of the year, I can't believe how different my life was back in January to what it is now:
  • I was an accountant in a reasonably well-paid (but temporary) job working in a bank
  • I was totally bored in my job
  • Actually, I hated my job
  • ...and possibly feeling slightly bitter about having ended up as a chartered accountant when I'd never really wanted to be one
  • Didn't really "fit in" with many of my accountancy colleagues (at any of the places I worked at, come to think of it)
  • I hadn't had any writing published since 2002 when I wrote for my university's student magazine
  • I knew that I wanted to change career, but had no definite plans of how to do it.
Actually that last bit is probably slightly inaccurate: I was saving money from my job every month "for the day I change career", but I had no idea when and if that day was going to happen. I had vague ideas about maybe being a journalist, and vague ideas about needing money in savings to retrain as a journalist, possibly even getting a second degree, and funding myself through the low-paid journalism employment every school and university careers book says you must do before actually being able to earn a living from being a newspaper or magazine employee.

Then from February onwards, things changed. I lost my job.

As you all know, I figured that I'd soon get another one, so that I could keep saving up for the "big day" that I finally changed career. To pass the time while I was jobless, I decided to do some distance learning courses in English Literature and Sociology; partly because I'd always wanted to do them, and partly because I figured they'd come in useful for "the day I do a journalism-related degree".

I also started this blog in March, just for a bit of fun. Even though I don't post here very often (I know, I know...) I underestimated just how much effect simply writing this blog would have on my life.

I think I can honestly credit you guys, all of you who have followed this blog, left comments, and given me your time and support, for the direction my life took after that - because without it all, I think I would still be stuck moaning about hating being a chartered accountant!

You guys encouraged me to take a chance. You guys encouraged me to overcome my fears and just go for it. You guys did your best to keep my spirits up when I hit roadblocks in my initial job hunting. And your feedback made me realise I needed to stop wishing for a change and come up with a definite, concrete plan on making it happen. Sometimes I wonder why the hell I didn't do this sooner - I'd already quit my job once before, only to take up the same job but in a different organisation (i.e. the temp job in the bank until this February).

I think I can honestly say that, once I'd taken stock and decided to pursue the journalism idea, I might not have got the confidence to approach a national newspaper for an unpaid two-week work experience placement in June if I hadn't had so many of you rooting for me in your blog comments.

It also encouraged me to get my arse in gear and do something about this flippin' career change - after all, what would be the point of any of you reading about my career change if I wasn't actually doing it?

By the end of my two-week work placement in June, I was still jobless and with no hope of getting a job either in the dreaded accountancy profession or any of the newspapers in this recession, it was suggested that I try going freelance, and breaking into journalism that way.

After some research (well, mainly reading "The Freelance Writer's Handbook: How to Make Money and Enjoy Your Life" by Andrew Crofts - which I thoroughly recommend for UK readers, by the way, though there are some really good US books too that I'll go into another time) not only did I realise that it WAS possible to make a living as a freelance writer, but also no extra qualifications were required as long as I was prepared to be persistent, professional, imaginative and able to market my current knowledge and skills - nope, I didn't even NEED a journalism (or English) degree! I couldn't help thinking back to my rant on the value of education on learning this!

So here's where my life stands now, in December 2009:
  • Four articles published in a national newspaper during the work experience in June
  • My first paying client - an accountancy magazine who were happy to take on a former chartered accountant with a small portfolio of published writing for a two-day paid trial in their offices in July
  • Being commissioned again and again by that accountancy magazine as well as pitching an article to them that I wanted to write at home
  • Being self-employed, as opposed to being employed - and having to be completely responsible for EVERYTHING now, rather than my employer being responsible for everything
  • Actually GETTING PAID to write - the joy! I'm actually a writer now!
  • Winning my second and third paying client this month, in quick succession. And looking forward to payment for my articles for those publications in January.
The second publication was a tax-related magazine that I pitched an article to, where they only pay on publication (fortunately they published my article in December) and with much more favourable contract terms, meaning that I get to keep the copyright in my work and can re-sell it on to other publications if I wish, as long as they get First British Serial Rights (i.e. the right to publish that article first in the UK before any other publication, usually for a limited amount of time, after which it can be reprinted elsewhere. Like how First North American Serial Rights works for articles published in North America).

The third publication was the sister publication of the accountancy magazine - a monthly magazine which will publish my article at the beginning of January 2010 - and came about because the editor of the accountancy magazine recommended me. Hooray!

I really couldn't have done it without knowing you were all rooting for me every step of the way. Of course I have the support (and grocery money!) of Lovely Boyfriend to be grateful for too, but I honestly, actually don't think I would have achieved any of the things I have this year if I hadn't had this blog to focus me on my goal, and all of you to sympathise, joke, encourage and give me the occasional kick up the arse along the way.

So for that reason alone, I hope you all have a brilliant New Year's Eve and an absolutely bloody fantastic 2010 in which all your hopes and dreams come true. Thank you again xxx
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Monday, 2 November 2009

Back after a 3-month absence... and how things have changed!

Oh my God, is it November already???? And did I really last post on this blog in July????

I really can't believe I've been away from the blogosphere for so long - I've not even logged into my Blogger account since August. Again, many many apologies, and perhaps it's just better for me to say I'm only going to post sporadically from now on... sorry guys... but I will take the time to check all your blogs and catch up with what I've missed from the last couple of months - starting from after I finish this blog post.

So many things have happened since I last posted here that this is going to be one long blog post I'm afraid! I turned 28 just over a month ago, and the days in the run-up to any birthday are always a time for reflection on what you've achieved in the year. At least, they are for me, anyway.

In my final days - well, final months, really - of being 27 years of age, I actually started to feel a little depressed. That was partly the reason why I didn't post on this blog during August and September - I just kind of felt that I was fast approaching 30 with not much to show for my life career-wise, and I'd always imagined that in my late 20s I'd be hugely successful and fast climbing the professional ladder in a high-powered career.

The reality, of course, was completely different. I still hadn't got a job, and it didn't look like I had any hope of getting one - despite hating accountancy, I was still applying for those jobs just so that I'd have an income to pay off the mortgage and bills. It sounds crazy, doesn't it - why the hell would I still be applying for jobs in a profession I was so desperate to leave to begin with? To my great shame, the only answer I can give you is that it was what was familiar, and the habits in my brain were telling me to go back to what was familiar rather than risk trying something new and unknown. I think most of us do that to some extent, even when we're consciously in the process of changing things for the better!

Thanks to the ongoing credit crunch, I still couldn't get an accountancy job. Ever more accountants were being made redundant, yet I still foolishly kept trying to get an accountancy job. What made it even worse was that I'd already been commissioned for a two-day reporting stint at a magazine in late July. I think I mentioned a little bit in my last blog post. So it's not as if I was totally failing at the freelance journalism thing at that point. There was another reason too, for why I felt a bit down, which I shall go into later in this post.

But it's not all doom and gloom. The other reason I didn't post in August was simply because I was out of the country (on a dead-cheap European holiday) for some of it, which was pretty nice.

And getting my first commission was a pretty pleasing result. As mentioned, I used the four articles from my work experience stint on a national newspaper for my portfolio, bought a copy of The Writers' Handbook 2010 (it was on sale at half the price, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered) and worked my way through it. I decided to target magazines specialising in accountancy and finance to start with, on the grounds that I used to be an accountant and therefore would be able to draw on my knowledge and training in writing about it.

I cold-called a few of the editors, and most of them simply asked me to send them my CV and a sample of clips from my portfolio. However, one of them, on hearing I used to actually be an accountant - qualified and everything - asked me to come into their offices in London for coffee and a chat. I dragged my portfolio along with me and he gave me the most gruelling "chat" ever. It turned out he was being so tough simply because he was treating it as a job interview - unbeknownst to me, he was thinking of hiring me for a reporter role and just wanted to see how I interviewed under a pressured situation! I saw the funny side though, and he did apologise for putting me on the spot like that!

As a result of our interview "chat" he decided to give me a two-day trial at the end of July to see how I got on, knowing that I had very little journalism experience and even less news-reporting experience. He offered to pay me the usual daily rate for reporters.

So that's where I left off from my last post. I was so proud to send my very first invoice, for quite a nice amount too. However, it turned out I had to sign their Freelancer Terms & Conditions.

I was very unhappy with some of the clauses - especially the ones where the freelancer had to agree to take all responsibility for any legal action brought against the publication - and tried to suggest an alternative contract, which I don't think the editor was too happy about, especially as it had to be sent through their legal team. As the weeks wore on, the contract remained unagreed, and I still hadn't been paid, I began to feel very very unhappy. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), who usually advise freelancers not to sign contracts like this, refused to help me as I wasn't an NUJ member but I couldn't become an NUJ member until I'd been paid. As a result I didn't blog or even do anything to further my budding freelance journalism career during August or September, that's how unhappy it made me.

By mid-September, it was clear that the contract was never going to be changed, and until I signed it, I wouldn't get paid. I still had no other clients, so I decided to just swallow my pride and sign it. After all, as a brand-new freelancer without a name for herself, it was hardly likely I'd have much negotiating clout in these matters anyway. I decided that if I signed it, I'd simply have to be careful what I wrote about (to minimise any chance of court action) and look into getting professional indemnity insurance. Funnily enough, even though I wasn't totally happy about signing such a contract, once I had signed it the depression lifted and I was soon buzzing with writing ideas.

The moral of the tale here is: agree on a contract first before agreeing to do any work for anyone - it really was my own fault for blindly going into something without first making sure I knew exactly what I was getting into!

So I rang up the editor at the end of September, told them I was signing and sending back the contract (so that I could actually be paid for July's work) and while I was at it, pitched a new idea to them. The editor agreed to commission the article from me, and gave me a week to do a 1,000-word article which they featured as a three-page spread in the centre of the magazine. Nice!

Due to a hiring freeze, I didn't get the reporter role that he initially wanted to hire me for (even after making me do a screen test to see how I coped on TV - they have their own web TV channel for topical interviews), but fortunately that editor was so happy with the work I've done for them so far they've agreed to commission me as a freelancer anyway. I've signed off Job-Seeker's Allowance as a result - which is great, because fortnightly trips to the Jobcentre were really doing my head in!

So to conclude my story, I spent a total of seven days in October covering on the newsdesk in their offices whenever any of the reporters were away, and contributing a lot of articles to both their website and their printed paper publication. My portfolio is now considerably larger and I actually feel like I've established myself as a freelance journalist - even though I currently only have one client!

About a week ago - yes, near the end of October - I finally received payment for July's outstanding invoice (really need to do better at credit control and cashflow in future) and have sent two more invoices to that publication, establishing a 30-day term for payment so that I don't have to wait so long for payment again (though I admit I had a lot to do with the hold-up for not agreeing the contract). I registered myself with the tax authorities as self-employed - a scary but necessary step - and am now looking for my next client and next article commission.

Funnily enough I am STILL registered with recruitment agencies for accountancy jobs and have had my CV forwarded to employers even now, but the lack of success and/or response is no longer bothering me. I'm hoping that my freelance journalism career will soon be so well-established, and paying me so well, that I'll never need to be bothered about accountancy jobs ever again.
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Friday, 31 July 2009

A flurry of activity

I am so sorry for being absolutely useless; it really has been a month since I last posted! I won't be able to post much from now on but I will attempt to be better than what I have been right now!

The main reason for me being away is that I thought I should finally get down to this sodding career change once and for all - after hearing that another 300 accountants in my area of expertise have been made redundant (so that's another 300 people chasing after increasingly scarce jobs in my field), I realised that frankly, the accountancy thing just ain't gonna happen. Or at least, not for another couple of months. So I decided to simply take the plunge and change career once and for all. Sod it, it's not like I'm getting anywhere with my main profession (the one I'm trying to leave anyway), so why not?

So that's what I've been doing for the whole month of July. I have a small portfolio of articles (4 articles in a national newspaper) and I've been trying to use that as a selling tactic when advertising myself as a freelance journalist. Most of my days this month have been spent as follows:
  • cold-calling accountancy firms offering copywriting services ("I'm a freelance journalist who's recently been published in a famous daily newspaper and I used to be an accountant..." etc)
  • cold-calling the PR firms the accountancy firms use ("Accountancy firm X have referred me to you, and I'm a freelance..." blah blah blah),
  • cold-calling the PR firms I used to write one of my articles on my two-week work experience in June
  • being sneered at
  • being hung up on
  • being on the receiving end of someone's annoyance
  • being on the receiving end of someone's sympathy
  • cold-calling magazine editors (after weeks of the above)

And that's not to mention the following things I spent my days doing (when I wasn't annoying strangers on the telephone):

  • keeping meticulous records (in Excel - yeah I know it's sad, but I did use to work in Finance) of who I contacted, when, and what was the outcome,
  • extensive reading of freelance writing, working for yourself, and buying writers' handbooks,
  • attending free journalism workshops
  • doing my accounts to keep track of my (tax-deductible) spending,
  • trips to the local library to get scans into PDF format of my rather small portfolio,
  • planning who to pester - sorry, advertise my writing skills to - next
  • researching into copyright and setting fees, and coming up with my own set of fees to charge corporate clients (haven't had this tested yet)
  • drinking numerous cups of tea to calm the stress.

As I write this, I have just finished completing my accounts for the month of July and now need to get ready to go out - got someone's leaving drinks to attend. This week has been particularly busy as I (accidentally) managed to land my first commission, which I shall talk about in a later post.

I shall try to post again as soon as possible and in the meantime, thanks to all of you for your support and comments xxxxx

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Friday, 26 June 2009

R.I.P. Michael Jackson 1958-2009

I first heard the news last night, just before I was to shut down the computer and head to bed. Words can't really express how shocked and gutted I felt - bad enough hearing Farrah Fawcett (of Charlie's Angels fame in the Seventies) had passed away, without this as well. A lot of my friends had got tickets for his comeback concerts in London next month, and this was the last thing we were all expecting. I must confess part of me thought it was a weird hoax until it was definitively confirmed a few minutes later.

Laura Reviews: How Michael Jackson Changed The World Of Words

Michael Jackson was as troubled as he was talented, but whatever one's opinions on his private life or his music, there is no denying that he probably made the biggest contribution and impact on popular music and popular culture. His songs inspired and touched millions, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, country to country, and today the world seems united in grief for the tragic loss of this incredibly gifted performer.

I'm not sure if there's any images I can use for free so I thought I'd round off this post with a video of one of his songs from my childhood that I really like - "Heal The World". Rest in peace, Michael.
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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Final article published today

I cheered up considerably this morning on learning that my "Ten of the Best..." article had finally been published in today's newspaper. It actually managed to distract from the fact that I've been rejected for so many accountancy jobs, including the ones I visited for a job interview. I immediately sat up in bed using my iPhone to email all the PR departments of the companies I contacted to use pictures and details of their products for my "Ten of the Best..." article; within an hour they had all kindly emailed me back saying they'd seen it in the paper and thanked me for my work.

So that was the final result of my fortnight's newspaper work experience: wrote 5 articles, had 4 published (the fifth one was subsumed into my editor's much longer - and more interesting - article), edited about 10+ freelancers' articles, and typed up 2 interview transcripts, not to mention the hours of research for some of the articles I wrote or had to edit. Think I did pretty well.

Changing career for anyone isn't exactly a bed of roses, more so in a recession; but hopefully now I can build on what I've done.

(I just wanted to include this picture of a bed of roses to be honest. Sorry!)
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Monday, 22 June 2009

Newspaper journalism work experience - Days 9 & 10

OK, I'm more than a week late... sorry about that!

Day 10 was my last day of my two-week work experience stint, and seeing as I was out for the whole of that weekend (i.e. 13th and 14th June) I actually meant to blog about days 9 and 10 last Monday. However, Friday saw me sending emails back and forth between recruitment consultants as I suddenly had a flurry of job interviews. This is the reason for me staying away for the whole of last week - I had loads. It was like waiting for buses: you wait ages for one and then 3 come along at once.

Unfortunately for me, I didn't actually get any of the accountancy jobs that I went for interiew for. Once again I got told that I interviewed really well, but lost out to someone who was more qualified and experienced than me. This is getting quite disheartening now!

Day 9 - the Thursday - was spent on three things: the first was struggling to get into the office on time with all the Tube strikes (which were over by the Friday of that week, thank God). The others were writing up that 800-word personal finance article that my friend had agreed to do, with 3 more financial advisers giving their advice. As Thursday was the deadline, I submitted it in the afternoon for possible publication on Saturday 20th June. I was told that the first of these articles I'd done the week before was to be published on Saturday 13th June with my byline - the editor even showed me how the page looked in Quark on his computer, and it looked really good, so I was quite excited.

True to his word, that article was indeed published on Saturday 13th June in the Money section, with my second of those articles published in the newspaper on Saturday 20th June. It was so great to finally see my name in print. Needless to say, I was so excited I bought 3 copies of the paper on both days!

The rest of Thursday was spent ringing up the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK and Eurocontrol in Brussels for airline punctuality statistics. Was chuffed to get an embargoed press release from the CAA, on the condition that we didn't publish our article before Monday 15th June (the date until which the press release was embargoed).

My final day on Friday wasn't spent doing much - my editor asked me to do an 800-word piece involving the flight puncuality statistics I'd collected, but trying to convert a wall of numbers into an interesting 800-word article was really difficult. The worst part was trying to pad it out - especially as I didn't have any quotes or other news to report in the article. I submitted the article (798 words of drivel in the end) by close of play on Friday, but wasn't surprised when they decided not to publish that article - in the end, the editor published part of my article in his own, subsuming the more interesting and relevant statistics into his 1000+word column.

So, all in all, out of the 5 articles I wrote, two were published with my byline on Saturday 13th June (one in the Travel section - the article on South Africa - and one in the Money section), one was published with my byline on Saturday 20th June, one won't be published as it's been subsumed into another person's article (I don't blame him, 800 words of statistics isn't the most exciting read) and my "Ten of the Best..." article is yet to be published. Having my name in print has definitely boosted my confidence and made me more optimistic about seriously taking up writing.

I was quite sad to end my two-week work experience. I think it's fair to say I enjoyed every minute of it, even when it got really stressful and busy. I even enjoyed the subsidised canteen and the chatty coffee shop barista who kept laughing good-naturedly at my incompetence with a cup of tea (I was always spilling it). The canteen food was really cheap and gorgeous to the taste, and I really felt that journalists working on that newspaper are bloody lucky to be in the jobs they are!

However, when I tried asking if there were any jobs at the newspaper going, I was told that there weren't any - in fact, half the journalists there had been made redundant and the only work that was being commissioned at the moment was from freelancers. One lady even advised me: "If you want to break into journalism at the moment, perhaps the best thing to do is to try freelancing. You've made lots of contacts here and they like your work, so that'll make it easier to break into it." Could be worth giving it a go...
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Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Newspaper journalism work experience - Days 7 & 8

Struck by Tube strikes

I am tempted to vent my rage on the page with this post; it's an understatement to say I am truly pissed off and livid with those bloody London Underground workers who have decided to go on strike - for yet another piss-poor reason - and are the reason I have spent FIVE HOURS (instead of two) commuting to and from the office today.

Normally Tube strikes aren't a problem as I hate the Tube with a passion (it's sooty, smelly, hot, over-crowded and brings out the worst in people) and therefore prefer to walk or get the bus, but unfortunately the location of the newspaper offices in relation to my home means that the only viable method of transport is the Tube. I'm prepared to do a 40-minute walk through London to work - and have done it many times before - but walking for 1½ hours from the rail station to the office simply isn't feasible. Especially as I'd already have got the overground train into the city centre from South London, an area which is thankfully devoid of Tube trains.

So, I took more than two hours in the pouring rain this morning to get into the office - waiting 45 minutes for a packed bus - and came in at 11:30AM, and I spent more than two hours getting home (one hour on a bus that hardly moved) this evening and have actually only just got in through the door of my flat, and it's 10 o'clock. And I wanted to use this evening to blog and prepare for a job interview that I've got tomorrow; thanks to those greedy RMT idiots who are going on strike because they haven't been given guarantees that they'll keep their 5% payrises AND their jobs this recession (yeah guys, I wish we could ALL have guarantees that we'll keep our jobs this recession) I have lost most of my evening and haven't done everything I planned this evening. AAAAAAAARGH!!!!

Anyway... rant over. Lovely Boyfriend has come to the rescue with a large mug of hot Cup-a-Soup (he was home far earlier than me as he was easily able to walk to the rail station from his workplace) so it's time to settle in with a post about my latest journalism work experience antics...

...but not before I share this YouTube jingle from someone who hates London Underground as much as I do right now. Do excuse the swearing and terrible spelling, but - sung to the tune of "Going Underground" by The Jam - it's still pretty funny (and accurate too)...

Yesterday (Tuesday) was day 7 of my work experience week at the newspaper... and from death statistics, I'd progressed to airline statistics. This involved making a lot of phone calls the press offices of various airlines, the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK, the Association of European Airlines, and Eurocontrol's Air Traffic reporting department. The statistics are for an article that I initially thought my editor was doing, but it seems I might actually be doing it instead...

As there are no spare desks for work experience temps - and all the people on the Arts desk who were away last week are back in the office - I am currently sitting on the Sports desk, even though I'm not working on anything sport-related. (Just as last week I sat on the Arts desk even though I wasn't working on anything Arts-related). The Sports guys work slightly different hours to everyone else: coming in at midday, they stay as long as needed to get the required sports story - which frequently means finishing up at nine or ten o'clock for evening matches and so on.

I am also due for writing another article for the Business & Finance department - the same type as last week, and another friend kindly agreed to help me out - but generally, Tuesday was less busy than previous days, though rest assured I didn't have time to twiddle my thumbs or anything like that. The great thing about journalism is that it's one of the few jobs where your boss won't mind you randomly surfing the Internet - it's all in the name of research.

Today was a bit more frantic - the Travel department had seven articles they wanted me to perform fact-checking exercises on, which I spent all afternoon doing (I hardly had a morning due to the delayed commute, as mentioned earlier). One of my recruitment consultants had arranged an accountancy job interview for me for tomorrow (Thursday), so emails were flying back and forth about the interview (which, I'm ashamed to admit, I'd forgotten about amidst all the journalistic deadlines and excitement).

The 3 financial advisors who had looked at my friend's personal finance questionnaire got back to me round about midday today, but I'm not able to write up their advice in an 800-word article until tomorrow as the fact-checking exercises that my editor gave me to do were quite urgent. In addition to this I was also fielding emails from the press offices of the companies I spoke to last week asking for pictures for my "Ten of the Best..." article, as they were very keen to find out when the article (featuring their products) was going to be published. All I could tell them was that it hadn't been published yet, but I'd let them know when it was so they could buy themselves a copy. They replied to say they couldn't wait and hoped it would be published soon. Frankly, so did I.

Let's hope the rest of the week is less stressful. And that the accountancy job interview (for a media company, believe it or not) goes well.
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