Friday, 1 April 2011

Career: Ever wanted to know how to succeed as a journalist?

Freelance writer Bim Adewunmi, 28, who’s written in publications such as BlackHair magazine and The Guardian, gives us some tips…

Bim in the sun

How did you get into journalism?
I decided to be a journalist when I was 18. It sounds slightly immodest to say that I was always good at English, but I was it was my favourite subject through all my school years. I dallied with the idea of pharmacology before coming to my senses I can only assume I was drunk or high to think that was a good choice and so alongside my A-Levels in Chemistry, Biology and Psychology, I tacked on an AS-Level in Media. 

After a year out spent working and travelling in America, I went to Bournemouth University and did a degree in Multimedia Journalism. It was a great course and I’m really grateful I did it. I learned old-fashioned journalism skills teeline shorthand, newspaper reporting, the basic rules of writing copy and also benefited from a great teaching staff of working journalists. I loved it. 

Why freelance?
Being a freelancer was less of a choice and more a decision which was foisted on me. I was working as a reporter on a local newspaper in Kent and then my contract ended. So I went back to a career in book retail before returning to journalism. I came back into it at a bad time, as staff jobs were becoming increasingly rare. Freelancing isn’t easy; it can be an erratic way to make a living and freelance budgets are being cut everywhere. But I mostly enjoy being a freelancer. I love working for myself and the feeling of having a pitch commissioned.

Is it true interns work for free for years before they get a paid job? What has your experience been?
The cliché is a cliché for a reason you do work for free or for travel expenses if you’re lucky, all to get your foot in the door. I’ve worked in radio, newspapers, magazines, websites, television, all for little to no money, all in an attempt to gain experience and make my CV look more desirable. I learned a lot, made surprisingly few cups of tea and got to do really cool things, not least learn how to write for a number of platforms and different audiences.

You write a fair bit for The Guardian, how did that come about?
I did an internship at The Guardian a few years back, something called the Positive Action Scheme. It’s an annual internship for black and minority ethnic groups, and those selected have three weeks on various desks on the newspaper. I got my first few pieces published in the paper during those weeks and afterwards, stayed in touch with a few editors and carried on pitching ideas. Eventually one got commissioned and then another and so on.

Please tell us the process you go through to get your work published
I pitch. Basically, I send an idea for a feature to a commissioning editor and if they like it, I get told to write it up to their specification. Some are quick turnarounds, in which I have very little contact with the editor until I file my copy. Other longer pieces will see phone calls and emails exchanged until content is just right.

What has been your experience of networking?
My ‘networking’ has been mostly via the Positive Action Scheme from there, I got to meet so many journalists and editors. I’m also fairly active on Twitter, which is a great resource for writers, freelancers or not. Twitter’s led to some pretty amazing professional opportunities and plenty of fun too. 

Yoruba Girl Dancing is quite fun too. How did that come about?
My sister suggested I start the blog a couple of years back, purely as a way to keep writing during a fallow period in freelancing. I was mostly unemployed and living off my savings at the time, and so would post almost daily. Nowadays, that level of blogging has dropped significantly, but the blog’s brief which was never that clearly defined to begin with has become a lot wider. I love blogging.

And you’ve started a YGD book club, what’s its purpose?
The book club’s a way for me to connect with readers (who have all been so lovely and supportive as the blog has grown) as well as keep track of the books I read. Also, I thought it would be interesting to try new kinds of books. Plus, I love the fact that we can talk about the books as a group, via Facebook and emails. The first book club selection had people from all over the UK as well as someone in Houston I was really proud of the international element.

Does brand YGD plan world domination?
Oh God, no! The blog is a way to keep my writing skills supple. I get to pontificate on the things that interest me popular culture as well as women's rights and feminism being the top three and hopefully entertain people. That’s enough to expect from a blog, I think.

Who has been your favourite person to interview?
I once interviewed a woman whose daughter suffered from Epidermolysis Bullosa. She was the most composed, ‘get-on-with-it’ person I’ve ever met. I was in awe of her strength. A really fun interview was with Canon Andrew White, the ‘Bishop of Baghdad’, who was hilarious. 

And what are your hobbies?
Horrible cliché, but I love reading. I’m also a keen amateur baker and I’ve been told that my coconut cupcakes are things of wondrous splendour. I love television, too; I’ve been known to hug my telly...

Ha! What are your writing goals?
Ideally, I’d be doing a lot for nationals and magazines, writing about women and popular culture. I’d also love to write a novel one day, but I’m not entirely sure what it would be about at the moment. I’m really keen on writing essays and short stories, so perhaps if I can get a good manuscript together, I’ll go looking for an agent and publication. 

Which writers inspire you?
I really like Jhumpa Lahiri I think she has a really strong voice and constructs beautiful prose. I really admire Michael Chabon, Lorrie Moore, ZZ Packer and Curtis Sittenfeld.

What advice would you give to a budding writer or journalist?
Get the experience in wherever you can and don’t make the mistake of thinking that some tasks are beneath you. Read a lot, widen your knowledge and experiences. Pitch a lot. Don’t take things too personally and get a thick hide: pitch rejections don’t get easier. Also, really research the title you’re pitching to before you send anything in.

What beckons for the rest of the year?
A holiday, I hope I haven’t had one in almost two years and I can really tell I need one. I’d love to do more radio and hopefully, complete a manuscript for submission too.

Thanks Bim!
Bim has also appeared on BBC Radio 4 programmes Woman's Hour and Broadcasting House, and has been interviewed for The BBC World Service. Her blog is a blast, and check her tweets: @bimadew too…  

6 comments:

  1. Great interview! An insightful and honest account of the ups and downs of freelance journalism.

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  2. Yep, she had a lot of great things to say. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. Excellent article, and very helpful. Thanks!

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  4. I'm really pleased that Bim's insights seemed to have helped a fair few people, judging from the emails and comments I've received. Thanks for dropping by!

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  5. I like your blog. Great Article....Daniel

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