Anne Wollenberg is a freelance journalist for the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Computer Arts and many more – and specialises in writing about design and the creative industries. She tells us about the importance of saying "no" and explains how to build a freelance career...
Full name/age/job title…
Anne Wollenberg, 31, freelance writer.
Please give us an overview of your average day.
Strong coffee, papers, brave the bloated inbox. Then it’s a mix of brainstorming ideas, chasing people for information and pictures, interviews, invoicing, accounts – and actually writing.
I do lots of phone interviews and the odd celeb one-to-one (Sarah Beeny’s a recent favourite) and sometimes visit design studios and type foundries in the course of writing for Computer Arts and Computer Arts Collection.
I work for a real mix of clients (the Guardian website, a couple of charities, a copywriting agency, a mobile phone magazine) and have reached the stage where people often come to me with commissions, but that’s after years of relationship-building.
What is the most common misconception about your job?
That it’s all about writing, and any deadline stress must be down to writer’s block. Actually, writing is the easiest and least time-consuming part of my job – my problem is unhelpful PR block, flaky interviewee block and unanswered email block! Being a good writer isn’t enough – coming up with ideas, talking to people and being persuasive are equally important, if not more so.
What is the hardest thing about your role?
Knowing when to say no. It’s all too easy to overload yourself due to a nagging fear that you’ll never work again if you turn down this or that project. It’s also hard to keep a good work/life balance when you work from home.
I find it helps to strictly limit my working hours and keep weekends absolutely sacred. I also have a designated workspace in the spare room in an (often fruitless) attempt to keep some boundaries between work and leisure.
When did you decide what you wanted to do with your life and how did you set out to achieve it?
I wanted to be some kind of writer but journalism wasn’t quite on my radar and I fell into it by luck – I did an MA in English, then got my first journalism job by impressing on work experience at a film magazine (the now-defunct DVD Monthly). I then worked for Future Publishing in Bath and London.
I realised I wanted to freelance when I started getting to know other people who did it. I started by pitching ideas to the Guardian and gradually built up my freelance cred before taking the plunge and becoming self-employed. That’s the beauty of freelancing – you just have to keep asking until someone says yes.
What can you do to get a head start?
Make yourself known to editors. Don’t send finished articles, or emails that start “Dear Sir or Madam”. Do find out their names, read their publications and send well-written, targeted pitches. Some of my clients said no to my ideas for months, then turned to me when they had something that needed doing. Keep in touch with people – if you’ve written an article for someone or met them while doing work experience, don’t let those relationships slide.
Could you describe the creative element to your job?
I often talk to people who do amazing, visually creative things like animation and illustration, and I think I forget to see my writing as something creative. I’m just so used to doing it quickly, on demand, under pressure. But there’s a real difference between a lively, well-written article and a dull one that drones on.
Ideas are the other really creative element of my job – you need to come up with a constant stream of them. Not new ideas (no such thing!) but new takes or twists on existing ideas and new ways of seeing things. This is something you get better at with practice.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known at the start of your career that you know now?
That saying no won’t be the kiss of death to professional relationships, and it is not only fine but completely essential to take time out sometimes.
Also, that it really is important to set up your desk correctly. We are all just one maladjusted chair away from a very large chiropracter’s bill.
Which organisations/websites/resources do you think would be useful for people entering your industry?
Gorkana Media Alerts
NUJ – the National Union of Journalists
NCTJ – National Council for the Training of Journalists
Visit Anne's website.
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