One of the social media groups I use is for freelance women journalists. For all Facebook’s flaws, the group is brilliant: like an open-plan office with none of the irritations and all the companionship of 4000+ colleagues who’ll always deliver on requests for advice, feedback, sympathy, or last-minute contacts. Those shout-outs for contacts appear every day. “Looking for local post offices that still have a resident cat”, writes one. “Does anyone know a media-friendly volcanologist?” “I’m looking for a woman aged 30+ who showers at least twice a day. The more the better.” (These were all real requests. They all got multiple responses.)
Anyway, a while ago someone posted a question. She was planning a feature on portfolio careers and wondered what we all did alongside writing. She herself was also a bricklayer. Yes, really.
170+ comments followed as other writers revealed their other lives: stand-up comedians, garden designers, casting directors, life coaches, photographers, dance teachers, consultants, event managers, bakers, and one priestess-in-training.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, given my own career mix — but these ladies were taking diversification to another level. Their responses made me think. Most obviously it was a reminder, as if anyone needed it, that making decent money as a writer or journalist is very hard. But also a reminder of how writing can fit alongside almost anything, and perhaps the whackier the better (you can write about bricklaying or cage fighting or baking, or at least mull over your latest draft in your head while getting your hands grubby).
It’s not easy mixing things up. You get overtaken in terms of experience, networks and salary/day rate by those who’ve chosen to focus solely on something you can only dedicate limited time to. Your restricted availability means you have to turn opportunities down. But it can work really well. For many ‘multi-hyphenates’ (I’m hoping to find a better word someday), it means earning a decent living while still spending at least part of the week doing what they really want. For others, it provides a healthier or more stimulating balance (e.g. doing hands-on, physical or team-based work alongside desk-based solitary research and writing). As writers, other work also connects you to the real world and prompts ideas.
Those who make it as freelance writers/journalists seem to be either very focused on their niche, plugging away for years and years — or they’re uber adaptable, ready to learn and try anything. About two years ago I attended a talk on how to make money as a freelance journalist. The speaker advised steady pitching and tweaking the same story several times for different publications — but also told us she had seven different streams of income. Seven! I can’t remember now what they were, other than that one involved writing romantic/fantasy fiction ebooks (under a pseudonym). Although, compared to my cage-fighting, bricklaying ‘colleagues’, that now sounds pretty tame.