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Sarah - freelance writer
Name: Sarah
PhD discipline: Architectural History
Area(s) of work: Heritage administration; freelance writer
Year of graduation: 2004
Date of Interview: 19/06/2008

Now Playing: Sarah - freelance writer
Sarah gives a detailed insight into her current role as a freelance writer and describes the qualities needed to undertake this kind of work.

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Tell me about how you see your current role 

My current role is incredibly varied because I work for myself, I work freelance and I've only just had the confidence to say that I am a writer, but that's what I do. I have submitted my first book, it is with a publisher at the moment and that publisher has just commissioned me to write a second one, which is very exciting. I am writing for magazines, I do a bit of TV work, I'm still doing voluntary work, I'm still keeping up the sort of academic side of my PhD, I still lecture on my PhD subject as well as on the subject of seaside history, which was another theme that I was interested in during the course or my PhD.

Being a freelancer I have realised that you have to do 12 things at once. It is not just getting paid, it is about having the work because if people don't know that you are out there, you have got nothing to do. You have to get out there and ask for the work. You have to say 'This is who I am, this is what I can do.' Then you start building up a basis on which you can build further. But it has been extremely important to know the people that I met during my PhD because some of them have put work my way. It is very much the people you know and having the confidence to call on them. You have to ask 'Do you know anyone who could get me some work doing this?' That's really important.

How much time has elapsed from the end of your PhD until now, when you can call yourself freelance?

I've only been freelance for a year, just over a year. I knew it was the right decision from the beginning, but I am just beginning to feel that it might be financially possible as well. I'm very lucky in that I don't have to support myself because I live with my partner and he pays the mortgage. I could not do what I'm doing now without that; there is absolutely no question. But I think it is that PhD self-discipline that I enjoyed that makes me want to work freelance. I want to be able to decided when I work, what I work on, how I do it and that is the kind of training I suppose I had from doing my PhD. I don't particularly want to be working in an office although I liked the companionship, discussing things with other people. I'm quite happy to organise myself really. 

Are there other aspects of your PhD such as the style or the mode of working that have carried on influencing you?

I suppose the discipline for writing a PhD is incredibly important for me now working as a writer. What I learnt doing that PhD was how to write concisely, how to get through an enormous amount of information very quickly and to condense things and to communicate my ideas clearly. My word limit for my PhD was only 80,000 words including footnotes and that is not very many. I think I had developed a writing style through doing that that I now use on a daily basis and that was really, really important.  

I like the fact that I can choose what I do. I do quite a lot of lectures. And whereas in the past I might have been doing lectures very often for The Victorian Society and related things, I am now lecturing for the V&A, I'm lecturing for a wider range of people. I want to get into doing more paid lecturing because it is something I really enjoy. I find I am still sharing my passion and so even though I am not able to do that to a group of students in an academic setting in a way it is more satisfying to do it to an audience who are paying because they want to be there and that is not always the case with university students. You know they've picked a subject because they've had to pick a subject and they might not be particularly interested in what you are saying. Whereas I know the people who are sitting down in the lectures that I now give have put down their £10 on the table and they do want to know what I'm saying. That's quite gratifying and you get interesting questions.

It is more of a performance I suppose. At university I did quite a lot of amateur dramatics and I find I get that buzz from lecturing now. It is one strand of what I'm doing as a freelancer and I like the variety of it. I like the fact that I might get a phone call from a TV company asking if would I be willing to give an interview (my other subject is wearing my seaside hat, I am the national expert on beach huts, which is rather an odd thing to be and when I was doing my PhD I didn't imagine that that is where I was going to end up). But there is no competition which means that you know when magazines want articles or newspapers want pieces then I very often get interviewed for that. That is all very useful when I'm writing because it means I am building up my profile. Doing TV work is really good fun. I have now got to the point where I can ask for payment and this was a really important thing. When you are working freelance to start with thinking you are very low down the pecking order and why should anyone pay you because you haven't been doing it for very long. You don't really know what you are doing and you are making it up as you go along. But you do quickly get to the point (because financially you have to) where someone asks you to do something and you say 'Yes I will do it, but how much will you pay me?'  The first couple of times I did it were quite tricky but I am now absolutely fine with it!

And TV companies pay?

They do pay but not very much. I've done work for the BBC and they've paid me and another company. They are using my expertise and so they pay. And even if they don't it is still worth asking. I am doing something else where they won't pay me because it is a smaller budget but you weigh that up against the publicity value for your project and, since I am ultimately trying to sell a book, the more people that know who I am and know what I'm doing, the better really.

And so we are talking about beach huts now. How did that come about?

Beach huts are a strand in my life that started about the time I finished my undergraduate work and because I was still living in –, doing my odd jobs, I spent a lot of weekends going out to the seaside in East Anglia. I started noticing beach huts and started noticing that they were different everywhere. It was at the point where prices were going up hugely, you could be talking tens of thousands of pounds for a beach hut, which even though I love them dearly, it is sometimes a little bit silly, the prices people will pay for them. So at the point where I was considering my options and thinking I might like to write, I was thinking that maybe there is a book in this. If people are willing to pay thousands of pounds for a beach hut surely they would be willing to pay a few pounds for a book on beach huts. I started doing research on that even before I did my PhD and then kept going with it almost like a hobby really throughout my PhD. I took time off one summer during my PhD. I took two months off on the quiet and travelled around the English coast starting in County Durham going by public transport around the English coastline ending up on the Bristol Channel.  

That was another thing that gave me a lot of confidence because the whole point of doing that was to visit beach huts and to speak to people who had them and who loved them. I tried to really understand what all that was about. You can't be a shrinking violet if you are going to do that. You have to go up to complete strangers, say 'Hi my name is – and this is what I'm doing, and would you talk to me?'  The fact that they did, meant that I was in a position where I felt much more confident about being able to do that. That was incredibly useful for my PhD and for my work afterwards because it gave me a sense of confidence. If I could manage that, then I could probably manage most other situations because you step up to the mark and get on with it. That was a really important thing to do as well. Also it was a passion, it was something that I really enjoyed.

Going back to PhD things I know some people who have fallen into a PhD subject because they were given it by someone else and never really felt satisfied about it. I think mine was successful because I enjoyed it and because it was my choice. It was something that I really cared about and I think that is really important. Again with the beach huts thing, I have been very lucky in that I can exploit things that I really enjoy.

I got to the end of my PhD and I had two specialist subjects. This has been very, very useful in trying to establish myself as a freelancer. I've got my academic subject, which I can also do for a popular audience, (so I have a credibility on that level) and then I have my seaside history hat. There is a very small group of people working in this field and so I know all of them. That is another group of people and another element that I can pursue. That is very useful in freelance terms because I am not just a one-trick pony. I can offer something more.

I am still pursuing my PhD research and I'm still using all of that material for lectures and articles but the beach huts give me a subject that I can do popularly, which means I can write for magazines and things. My PhD subject would be a bit of a non-starter in terms of writing for magazines because at the moment it is a bit too obscure. There is no way I could make a living from my academic subject without an academic job. I just don't think that's possible because all the academic writing you do is unpaid. In architectural history you have to have photographs you very rarely get those for free you have to pay copyright and licensing. So you end up paying for the privilege of publishing. As an academic that is part of what you have to do and you can get money from your institution to cover those costs. On your own you wouldn't. Unless you have a private income, I just don't see how you could do that. I suppose if you can publish in a more popular form then that is what you would want to do. Again I think you have to have lots of different things, to be able to do lots of different things, to be able to make it work.

Are you managing to keep your academic publishing going at all?

I did publish two articles last year from my PhD. After that, I suppose, not hugely although I am lecturing on the subject to various groups and I am involved in the Victoria & Albert Museum putting together an exhibition on the subject of my PhD. I was encouraged by my examiners in my viva to try and get my PhD published and I suppose ultimately that I would like to do that but I am not absolutely convinced doing it with an academic press and selling a thousand copies would be the most worthwhile thing to do. In that respect I think rewriting it for a popular audience would serve the purpose better because basically the architect I wrote about is not very well known now although he was in his day. I think he deserves to be better known and an academic publication is not going to do that, it is just more academics will know about him but I have higher aspirations than that. The problem is, although I had a publisher who is interested in taking it, when another publication came out on the same subject they said he is not well known enough to sustain two books whereas a contemporary like Ruskin, well you know, I've lost count of the number of books on him. But my architect isn't well known enough at the moment. I don't think I can get an academic publication until I've roused some popular interest and then a publisher can be assured that they can sell enough copies.

Are there pros and cons to the freelance life that we ought to explore a bit? 

There are definitely plenty of cons. The most significant thing, the most rewarding thing, about working freelance is the fact that you choose what work you do. You can go out and find work and you can put your ideas to people and when they say 'Yes' that is just fantastic. It is not about doing it for someone else, it is doing it for you. But at the same time that is very, very hard work and when it is very personal, when you put yourself out there and you get a no, that's horrible. The pay is not very good, you have to do lots of things at once. I certainly don't earn enough money to make a living at this point although I would hope that in the future I will have a better income because the more things I write then that generates more work. You just have to slog away at it, I think.

After I finished my undergraduate degree I went to the careers service and I told them what my interests were and the woman there actually suggested I should try writing freelance, which as it turned out was very apposite. But there was no way at that point that I was in any way prepared to do that kind of thing. You have to have some experience of writing, of work, of people in the field to be noticed. You have to know who to ask about things, where to look for work. I think going out and doing a job before hand makes you realise whether that is what you want to do or not. It gives you a network of people and contacts that can make a freelance career viable. You do have to have lots of things going on at the same time and so you need people out there who can sing your praises and put work your way. But I enjoy it. I am a perpetual list maker and that is how I work out my time. You have to be self-disciplined. But the fun thing is when you get a call asking you to do something. You can just say 'Yes!' It might mean getting on a train and going miles away and doing whatever; but you can do that because you don't have to arrange it with your boss. You know you are your own boss and that is really gratifying. That is the ultimate thing really and the fact that I enjoyed doing that kind of work when I was doing my PhD, that it is my character. I think the fact that I did do the PhD and enjoy it meant, that I was probably going to be heading down this kind of path ultimately.

It sounds as if it suits you very well 

It does. I am exploring other options. I am doing a cottage industry with my mum to sell things on the internet and so that's another little sideline. I am building up all these things. I am still doing voluntary work because that is all really useful and I suppose, in terms of cons, working on your own, you don't have anyone to discuss ideas with. You can get a bit out of the loop. That is why I continue doing voluntary work because it means I have got a reason to ring people up and discuss arrangements. Because I am organising academic events it means that I am still in the loop of those people and they don't forget that I am alive, which is a possibility when you go off and do freelance. To start with you have to stick your head above the parapet now and then I think.

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