Articles - 6th September 2019

Dealing with a Confidence Crisis as a Freelance Journalist

Words by Marisa Bate
Illustration by Jon McCormack

When I worked in a full-time job, I knew exactly what I should be doing. I trusted my gut on what stories to cover and who to interview. I worked with speed and competency. I managed others. I stood by my opinions. I’ve never been one to go hard on self-promotion, but there was a quiet engine inside me, pushing me forward, steered by a steady sense of self-belief. I knew where I wanted to go, and I was confident that with a lot of hard work, I could get there. 

Yet since going freelance in October 2017, my confidence has slowly but surely collapsed. That engine of purpose began to sputter and break down. The self-belief drifted, splintering, evaporating. My sense of competency capsized. Months would pass with pitches sat in my draft folder, frozen in time and fear. Afternoons would disappear as I looked for jobs I didn’t want, preparing for the inevitable demise of my journalism career. Any commissions that came to me were surely made out of sympathy or the editor’s lack of alternative. Maybe I’d run out of ideas? Maybe I should be a vet? I could find a thousand maybes as to why I couldn’t really do this, and should just fold in on myself, like Pingu and slide off into an iglu. And as my self-doubt grew, so did the time I spent looking at others’ success. Even people who have success in fields I am not interested in, like cookery writers, for example. I can’t cook. I don’t want to cook. I have little interest in cooking. So why had I just read every single tweet of a food writer from the last seven months? This paragraph is written in the past tense, but that is not entirely accurate because I still presently feel a lot of these things. (Although, I would be a terrible vet). 

Yet, in my defence, freelance life, albeit rewarding and often liberating, is not easy. The traditional structures that might help bolster confidence levels, such as appraisals, or encouraging words for managers, aren’t there. The office friend who tells you you’ve had a great idea or moans along with you about the fraudulent nature of social media, isn’t there. In fact, even your identity begins to fade. Your affiliation with a job title, brand or institution, can often become a reinforcing sense of who you are, not just in the office but in totality. I say this to a friend who is a psychologist. “You sound like the new mums I talk to, the ones who have been out of the workplace for a few years and are struggling to know who they are.” 

Laura Barton worked as a staff writer at the Guardian for a decade before she went freelance, and said the “transition is huge”. Even though she was ready to leave, and had felt creatively suffocated churning out so much everyday, when she did, she realised “how empowering and status-giving” telling someone she worked at the Guardian had been. To make that transition, she says, it’s about “knowing who you are, your own self-worth, believing you have a platform in your own right”. Of course, she says, this is something you have to practise. Last year, Barton made a three-part documentary about confidence for BBC Radio 4 called The Confidence Trick. “While we were making it, I’d practise not giving way to a stranger on the street or on the tube, not letting them pass first or move out the way for them as I normally would. I had to practise not being the one to flinch first. And this is how you should be as a freelancer with editors – don’t be the one to flinch. Ask for more time or more money”. Isn’t that high stakes, I ask. Barton doesn’t think so. “It’s going to take them more time and effort to find someone else to do it, than just to agree to an extra hour or a bit more of a fee.” Demanding more for yourself, Barton argues, reinforces your sense of self-worth, and therefore your confidence. 

When I first became freelance, I was writing twice a week for a feminst website and then it folded. A few months later, I ran into a contact at an industry event. “Where can I find you now, he said. “I miss reading you”. I was devastated. I felt that I had lost my voice, but mostly, my purpose. 

This sense of purpose is key to Vicky Spratt’s confidence as a successful freelancer. Spratt writes about the housing crisis for the The i Paper and has a book on the subject coming out next year. “Going freelance gave me a big confidence boost because I was able to lean into my skill set in a way I couldn’t when I was an editor in an office,” she tells me. “I was managing people and being involved in the commercial aspects, but what I really love is the reporting, and now I’m only doing the stuff that I think is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel more confident because I’m not trying to force myself into a role that I feel I’m not particularly good at”. 

Interestingly, both Barton and Spratt, journalists I hugely admire, said they believe they found self-worth, purpose and confidence from not writing about themselves. Barton said she was extremely grateful for the training she’d had at the Guardian which taught her to tell a story without her in it. Similarly, Spratt says “I didn’t want my self-worth as a human being, and how people received stories about my life, to be so closely tied to my work”. This is something women journalists are expected to do more, and admittedly, I pitched this story as a first person, about my own personal experience. One of the big themes Barton took away from her research on confidence was the issue of space, and confidence being the belief that you deserve to inhabit a space. With women, she says, there’s an element of not only space, but what type of space. “In the media, women are rarely allowed to be experts”, she says. “Instead it features, drive-timey, more personal stuff”. It’s interesting, therefore, that potentially women are kept in a sphere of journalism that is the most toxic for their sense of self-worth, (thanks, in no small part to misogyny), which of course has a knock-on effect on confidence to then see themselves as the experts they potentially are. 

There is another culprit: social media. While there are encouraging freelance communities, “twitter has ruined the minds of a generation of journalists,” laughs Spratt. “You’ve got to remember who you’re writing for and why. What your readers appreciate won’t necessarily be the same thing that other writers on twitter appreciate”. Spratt also believes, as a freelancer, she’s out and about more, spending more time with “non-media” people, and less time “in offices, with other journalists, talking about other journalists work. That has been an incredible thing for me, my mental health, my perception of what this job is and what it is meant to be”.  Comparison culture is less crushing if you simply take away the comparisons. But back to Barton’s point, this might take some practise. 

What I found most heartening from talking to Barton and Spratt was that they took confidence from worthwhile places, not instagram platitudes or, before there was instagram platitudes, a power blazer. They both seemed to find confidence by doing work they believed in, and working in a way they believed to be fair, and beneficial – the opposite of “fake it till you make it”, another long standing lie we’ve been sold. If you pursue work that has authentic meaning and purpose, not only is it about the work, and not you, but your belief in yourself will be connected to that, not to how many likes a tweet got.

On Barton’s documentary, BBC journalist Katty Kay describes confidence as building blocks. Everytime she does something well or for the first time, that gives her confidence, and then they build up and up, like an energy reserve, a charging battery. And therefore, a process. So this is how I restart that little engine inside me, powered off self-belief. After all, you’ve just read a story that I pitched, and an editor accepted. Block number one.

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