Board member blog post: Making it work

By Sarah Shemkus, JAWS Board Member

sarah_shemkusAt the end of September 2011, I left my job as a staff business reporter at a daily newspaper to go freelance (and to move to a different part of the state with my new husband). I approached the new endeavor with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed enthusiasm for all the new paths before me, for all the doors I could attempt to pry open.

The road was not easy — there have been plenty of days when my tail was decidedly unbushy — but today I am a content, independent journalist with plenty of freelance bylines to my name and little desire to return to the pressure and politics of a daily newsroom.

And I know I am not alone. The tumult in the industry has nudged (or shoved) a lot of us from the nest of regular bylines and salaries and benefits into the uncertain sphere of pitch letters and constant hustle. So how can we make it work? This is what I have learned these past four years:

  • You need a room of your own. Or a nook. Or a desk. Parking yourself on the couch makes it far too easy to slip into couch-based habits like web surfing and flipping on the TV “for just a second.” Trust me on this one. Reporting to your own desk every day makes it clear to the less -responsible parts of your subconscious (or household) that you are at work, not at home.
  • Put on some pants. The ability to work in your pajamas is one of the most-vaunted benefits of working from home and also one of the most dangerous. Who feels professional and task-oriented while wearing flannel pants and a ratty sweatshirt?
  • Make a list. Freelancing takes multitasking to a new level, as the demands of pitching, reporting, writing and invoicing all fall on your plate. Lists are indispensable tools for keeping your mind wrapped around what you have to do. I keep both daily task lists, updated each night for the following day, and a master spreadsheet that tracks assignments, deadlines and invoices.
  • And almost last, but not least (you probably saw this coming): JAWS. No matter how happy I am to be free of the burdens of newsroom life, I regularly miss the easy access to advice, camaraderie and snacks. That’s where JAWS comes in. Via the listserv, I have given advice, asked for advice, learned about reporting opportunities and received support for stories I am proud of and want to share. Even when I am just lurking, the listserv sends me an all-day stream of thoughtful commentary by smart women on subjects that matter. This chatter makes my writer’s garret feel a little less solitary.
  • Last: Get out of the house. There are only so many conversations you can have with your cat before human contact becomes a must. Become a regular at a local coffee shop, invest in a membership in some co-working space, book interviews with sources in person even if you don’t really need to, attend conferences and meet-ups, and most definitely make sure you are going to JAWS regional gatherings if you live in an area with a regional group (and if you don’t, consider starting one up).

Freelancing may be something you do alone, but it needn’t be lonely. We are an army, greater than the sum of our parts. And JAWS is the glue to hold many of us together.