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January 18, 2022

Switching it up: How diversifying your beats will make you a better freelance writer

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When I had a full-time job as a cinema curator – and, thus, a sustained monthly paycheck, as opposed to an erratic trickle – writing was an absolute laugh. I didn’t pack my evenings with pitching, and I could comfortably pick-and-choose what I wanted to cover. 

With my freelance career in its side-gigging nascency, I strove towards film criticism: as you might expect, not exactly the most profitable of endeavours, being such a competitive, low-budget field. But it felt like a natural space to occupy. I’m a film man, as Daniel Plainview might’ve once asserted in his gruff baritone, and so it became my beat. I did bits and pieces across other desks, particularly in the months that I really wanted to bolster my income. But for the most part, it was all the movies.

But then Covid hit. Two things happened as a result: firstly, I was thrown into career precarity, with this perennial sword of redundancy hanging over my head, threatening a cold, swift end; perhaps more pertinently, having been on furlough across the cinema’s closure period, I had a lot of time on my hands. But alas, the film sector was locked in stasis, anyway, and you can’t cover stuff that isn’t dated or that doesn’t even exist. 

Even in “The Before Times”, when you could guarantee three or four independent film releases and a couple of blockbusters a month, commissions remained thin on the ground. So I came to an annoying, albeit inevitable truth: as helpful as it is to carve out a niche, it’s a bloody struggle to pay the bills with just film reviews. 

If you want to survive across the broader world of culture writing, and you don’t have a sustainable, cushty staff job at some austere broadsheet or a glitzy fashion mag — you gotta diversify, baby. At least, that’s one way of providing some level of financial security. The cinema closed two months ago, tearing away my full-time blanket, and in that time, among other filmier subjects, I’ve written on:

This experience has brought me to wonder: diversifying beats may be one tactic to tackle the inconsistency of freelance journalism, but is it the only tactic?

Is it actually more conducive in the long run to, say, pick up copywriting gigs — the nonsense commercial stuff around vodka brands or Pez or dog grooming that pays relatively well but no one, thankfully, sees — while you carve out a public-facing niche? And what’s to say that we only diversify coverage in the pursuit of capital, anyway? Naturally, I reached out to my wildly more successful friends for their takes.

Ella Kemp, writer-editor extraordinaire for outlets like the NME, Empire and The Quietus, began her freelance career, like me, as a film writer. Having started four years ago, her first forays outside of film coverage didn’t come until 2020, when she started writing about music. “I was thinking, you know, I enjoy music as much as I enjoy film. So I want to see if I can incorporate this into my career somehow,” she says. 

It’s a natural impulse, and perhaps one of the guiding notions that led me to diversify my own output: there’s a tangible throughline of queerness across my work, beit film-centred or otherwise, and given I hold my own queer identity so dearly, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it would manifest as a professional passion. One of the crucial ingredients to being a good writer is having an authoritative voice, I think, and that comes from qualification — another reason we might feel the impulse to monetise our lived experiences. 

Concerns around her qualification to write about music led Ella to take pause: “I studied film,” she says, “and studying film, I felt I was qualified to be a critic. I just thought: I don’t really know if being a journalist is enough expertise in itself to expand into another beat. But I started doing it, and the editor didn’t stop me.” She just profiled blackbear for the latest cover of Marvin so, suffice to say, she must be doing something right.

Douglas Greenwood is a contributing editor at i-D and a writer across Vogue, The New York Times and Vulture (yes, this man is living all of our The Devil Wears Prada dreams) and got his start writing on youth schemes at the Edinburgh Film Festival when he was 16. His approach to professional journalism, however, was always a tad more diverse. 

“When I first started I had a slightly skewed vision of me spending my life as a critic across many platforms; I wanted to write about how film, music and fashion made me feel,” he says. His impulse wasn’t towards one particular beat: on the obverse, he was “indecisive,” and wanted to write about “anything, as long as it related to some sort of art, or creativity, or culture.” But this approach wasn’t cultivated by the cold, pressing demand of financial solvency. “My attitude wasn’t so much ‘I’ll do anything that pays,’ moreso that I’d write anything paid that I felt vaguely comfortable with,” he says.

So, if expanding your beats isn’t your go-to ploy for financial success, what other tactics might one use? Ella, for one, is a huge proponent of freelance shifts on news desks. “There’s never a guarantee that any of this is ever going to be sustainable, even if it is for the next three weeks, or the next three months,” she says. “You might not really shifts, and they might not pay loads, but you know you’re always going to have them.” 

Douglas agrees: “Keep an eye out for shifts at newspapers and magazines you read,” he says, adding to “accept commercial work wherever you find it.” Shifts can be an vital antidote for the inconsistency of work that banes most-every freelancer across industries, and while diversifying beats tends to offer more gig opportunities, it doesn’t always guarantee more work month-by-month.

“I think you have to be aware of commercial opportunities, and not feel like you’re devaluing your work as a consequence of doing those things,” says Douglas. “There’s definitely a middle ground between doing glorified PR for someone, and accepting a commercial rate for a job. My personal safety net is as much music biographies and media training for artists as my i-D work, which is permalance stuff.” 

He’s keen to note, too, that shift work isn’t just about giving yourself an additional revenue stream — those collective experiences, of working with writer colleagues day-by-day, can be immensely conducive to one’s growth as a journalist. “I don’t actually find it at all that laborious, I find it to be a very fruitful experience, in terms of learning how to edit, and commission,” he says.

It’s a numbers game, really. The more stuff you’re open and willing to cover, the more authority you feel you can imbue in your work across subjects, the more opportunities that are going to arise. It is fundamentally the job, after all: some of the best writers out there boast an eclectic output because the ability to rigorously research a subject alien to your own subjectivities, passions or desires is just, well, journalism. 

Yes, we live in a current moment where proximity is elevated as authority, and that can lend crucial insights for, say, a first-person op-ed; but when it comes to traversing from cinema to art, art to music, or music to sport? Be bold! It’s all culture, anyway, and the overlaps are far more distinct than one might imagine: and hey, if an editor likes what you do, nothing else matters.

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