by Rachel Smith
23 February 2018
You may have crossed paths with journalist and copywriter Darren Baguley before, either in our FB Gold community or on our blog, where he’s written about how to sidestep tech disasters – and pimping your LinkedIn profile to get more work (both worth a read if you’ve missed them). We’re stoked to interview him for our Freelancer Q&A series because he’s got what we think is a really interesting life, living off the grid and juggling writing commissions with all the demands that come with running a busy farm. Read on for Darren’s story about how he started freelancing, the challenges of living and working remotely, his growth areas, favourite tools – and advice for other freelancers starting out.
1. Why did you become a freelancer?
I always wanted to freelance. Many of my writing heroes had worked as freelancers to support themselves as they worked on their novels and from the outside it seemed so cool and glamorous that it was always in my long-term plan. The thing with me was that I always thought I needed more experience, I was never ready. But then a few days before the end of financial year 2002, I was called in to the boss’s office. It wasn’t unexpected. Penton had already let a few people go and rumours were rife that more layoffs were on the way and one of the ones to go turned out to be me.
For about a month I didn’t do much at all and to be honest I even thought about going back to working in the IT industry. But then my old editor, Byron Connolly, called me and asked if I could do a piece on enterprise storage, 2,500 words at $0.50 a word. It didn’t take me long to get it done and 30 something days later I got paid more for a couple of days work than I used to make in a week and I was hooked.
It was such a different environment then. I had a good reputation as someone who knew enterprise IT well and I had the editors of formerly competing publications coming up to me at events and asking if I had the bandwidth to write for them. Others I pitched, but most were immediately receptive. While I had some cashflow issues in those early days, looking back on it, I was incredibly fortunate; it only took a few months to build a viable freelancing business.
2. What do you write about?
Anything I can persuade an editor to commission and hold my interest long enough to get the story done. Not as easy as it sounds as I have the attention span of a gnat with ADHD and am very easily distracted by bright, shiny objects.
A more serious answer is that my mainstays are enterprise technology, business, management and the intersection of all those three. In just the last few years I have also been regularly writing about mining and energy, agribusiness and rural affairs. I have tried to venture into other areas such as the environment, politics, history, science and the arts with limited success but I’m not done yet.
3. Where do you live, and does it help / hinder your freelance work?
I live on a 120-acre (50 hectare) farm on the NSW Central Tablelands. We’re planting a commercial hazelnut orchard which takes somewhere between seven years and a decade to get to full production. Because we can’t afford to build a house as well, we live in a section of our shed that I lined out and put in a kitchen, bathroom etc. We’re off-grid with a 6.5 kW solar system and as sheds go, it’s spacious and very comfortable. Not only does it have Cat 5 cabling throughout, it’s also bigger than any of the apartments I’ve lived in previously.
If having a day job and planting an orchard wasn’t enough work, we also try to be as self-sufficient as we can. That means we grow or raise as much of our food as possible. To this end we have cattle, sheep, chickens and ducks – also alpacas but they’re sort of pets – a big vegie garden and 30 or so fruit trees. We also try to build, or repair rather than just go out and buy things.
Living like this both helps and hinders my freelance work. We live in the middle of Nullo Mountain State Forest which is surrounded by the Wollemi National Park, so we live in a national park basically. Most of the time, it’s like living in paradise. Want to go bushwalking? Just walk down to the bottom of the orchard, open the gate and walk along the fire trail.
I’m not a hardcore twitcher but I love the birdlife up here – yes, our cats stay inside unless supervised. Not only is there the permanent resident species, but there’s a constant flow of different birds as the season changes. There’s the wallaroos, redneck wallabies and wombats that we see most mornings and evenings and if I’m feeling stressed, visiting our cows, sheep or poultry usually makes me feel a lot better. It’s also incredibly satisfying to sit down to eat a meal where everything on the plate came off the farm; forget about food miles, we’re talking food metres.
Most of the time the good outweighs the bad but there are things about living here that do hinder my freelancing.
Communications of all sorts are pretty ordinary. The road to our property is boneshakingly terrible. If it rains – please, we really need some – it can get slippery and boggy as well. We’re half an hour from the nearest bread and milk and about five hours out of Sydney so a trip to town is a major logistical exercise. We sometimes do a down and back in one day but it’s pretty exhausting.
My wife also works from home and trying to run two businesses on the piddling data allowances our initially unreliable wireless broadband plans gave us was very frustrating. Things got a lot better last year when Optus upgraded its tower to 4G and we could get on a 75 GB (now 140 GB) a month plan. Once we upgraded the antenna, internet is reasonably fast, much more reliable and we don’t have to worry about blowing the data allowance by watching something on iView.
One of the biggest hindrances I have found, however, is the isolation. When we first did our tree change, I found it really difficult because we were so isolated. I’m totally an introvert so that really surprised me. Eventually I figured out that when we lived in Sydney I could control my levels of interaction with people. If I was having one of those weeks where I just wanted to be left alone, I just stayed home and didn’t go out unless I had to. If I craved company, then I just went to one of the innumerable press events I was invited to or caught up with a friend for coffee.
Now, the nearest fellow freelancer I care to spend time with is in Springwood which is a three-hour drive away. Bunking off for the afternoon to catch a movie or an exhibition to “refill the well” just doesn’t happen anymore. I do go to writing-related events in Katoomba or Bathurst but as it’s a four to five-hour round trip, I do it very occasionally.
4. How much of your work is ‘bread-and-butter’ and how much is stuff that you’re really passionate about? And how do you juggle freelancing along being a farmer / nut grower?
It varies from month to month but overall, it’s about 80 percent ‘bread-and-butter’ and 20 percent stuff I’m really passionate about. I’m trying to get that more along the lines of 70:30 by pitching some aspirational magazines and newspapers but that’s where it is now.
It’s really tough juggling farming and freelancing at times. There is just a huge amount of work that needs to be done day in day out, even on just a small farm like ours and livestock are like children – there are times when they need attention right now, no matter what else you’ve got on.
To juggle all the competing priorities, I do things like start jobs as soon as I get them and aim to deliver them at least two or three days early. That way if things go pear shaped I have a couple of days up my sleeve.
I also tell everyone I work with what my situation is, so they know there may be the occasional time when I need to ask for a deadline extension. I don’t know if my editors build a couple of days of flex around my deadlines but none of the ones I work with regularly say no. But then again, it could be the occasional carton of free range eggs, jar of preserves or bottle of elderflower champagne they get.
Another big thing is to let the editor know as soon as the smelly stuff hits the rotating element. I may still manage to get the piece in on time – most of the time I do – but they’re much more likely to look kindly upon an extension if I’ve told them days ago I spent the whole day rebuilding a pump that had seized.
5. Biggest challenge you face being a freelancer?
Consistency. I’ve had months where I’ve invoiced $20k plus and months when I’ve invoice $0. Some of this is what I do or don’t do such as still pitching for work even if I’m flat out or getting on the phone or hitting the email when I’m in a slump. To some extent, I’m getting on top of this with process, i.e. I send out a pitch, make a phone call, follow up on a LinkedIn connection, basically do some sort of business generating activity, every single day no matter what.
The other part of it is harder. Like many freelancers, I suffer from impostor syndrome. I hit a slow patch and before long I’ve convinced myself that I’m fucking useless, can’t write to save myself and all those editors and clients I’ve been fooling for nearly 20 years have finally worked it out and I’m never going to get another writing gig again.
Kicking myself out of one of these patches can be a real challenge. Reaching out to fellow freelancers I’m close to helps a lot but it also helps to sometimes just take a couple of days off; read a novel, play computer games, binge on a good TV series or just get out and work on the farm full time.
6. Three top tools you can’t live without?
7. What would you be doing if you weren’t freelancing?
I would never not write. I get grumpy if I spend too many days away from the page. Doesn’t matter what I work on, I need to bang those keys every day preferably.
I’ve been writing fiction for a couple of decades now, at first sporadically, but in the last couple of years, seriously. So, the absolute dream job would be prizewinning, bestselling author swanning around the world at literary festivals, writing residencies etc.
More realistically, being full time on the farm is a real possibility. The hazelnuts are my wife’s passion, I just do the grunt work, but I love my livestock. So, buying a bigger farm close by and running cattle, sheep and pastured poultry on it is something I’d love to do.
Ever since the GFC I’ve been seeking to diversify and one of the strands of that diversification is that I’m a certified Savory Institute Holistic Management field professional. It’s early days yet but running courses and consulting on Holistic Management is something I plan to do more of in the future.
8. Any career highlights?
I shirtfronted then Telecommunications Minister, Richard Alston, at a conference in 2001 or 2002 and got a story out of it that briefly made Stuart Kennedy happy. Can’t remember what it was about now but I scooped all the other publications.
Another one was a famil with IBM to New York and Austin with Leila Henderson and (I think) Ian Grayson. I had the most amazing time and Leila and I ended up the greatest of mates.
9. Is there a piece of work you’re most proud of?
This piece on citizen science for Cosmos which was the second piece I’d written for the magazine. Anyone can fluke it into a dream publication once, but if you can get in a second time, it’s not a fluke and Cosmos was one of several magazines/newspaper sections that I had wanted to write for, for a long time.
10. What are currently your biggest growth areas as a freelancer?
Sadly copywriting. So many of the magazines I’ve written for over the years have shut down that my problem is not generating ideas, it’s finding an editor with a freelance budget. As a result, I’m doing more and more copywriting; blogs, case studies, white papers, by-lined articles, award submissions.
11. What’s really surprised you the most about freelancing since you started doing it?
How quickly the industry changed. I knew the internet would disrupt publishing – how could it not – but I never thought it would so totally and utterly destroy the business model the way that it has. Post-2008, the market changed completely. Freelancing had always been recession proof. If there was a bit of a slow-down in the market, publications froze hiring and made up the difference with freelancers. Now freelance budgets have been slashed to nothing and in-house people are worked like galley slaves.
12. How has your freelance work changed over the years? What have you done to adapt to changes in the industry?
When I first started freelancing, I was 100 percent journalism and my main concern was how to break out of what was still the IT ghetto and into more mainstream journalism; the sort of pieces that my grandparents would read when they bought the SMH every day. A few years in I started doing some copywriting because the money was so freaking good for what was in some ways less work. I say in some ways because while a case study or a white paper may only need one or two interviews, the writing can be more involved. Now it’s a case of I’m a copywriter and I do bits of journalism here and there.
Transitioning to copywriting being my primary business is the main way I’ve adapted and as part of that I’ve learned, or am in the midst of learning, skills such as web design and building, SEO, white paper writing etc.
13. Where do you mainly write from and what’s the view like?
In a corner of our bedroom which is on the mezzanine level of our shouse. My view is of a wall with three watercolour paintings – two of cats, one of boats – and whiteboard I don’t use as often as I should because I can’t get to it easily. If I look down and to the left, I can see out of my window into a somewhat overgrown garden bed which has four citrus trees surrounded by rampant kale and lavender. If I get down on my knees to look out the window, I can see our driveway Nullo Mountain state forest. Right now, there is a small mob of a dozen or so wallaroos sitting on the driveway wondering if Kya, our German Shepherd, will stay sleeping if they bounce across the road and raid the vegetable garden.
14. What would be your advice to other freelancers starting out?
Firstly, freelancing is a business. Most freelance writers come into the business with an artists mindset. Be as artistic as you want when you’re writing but never forget you’re running a business. So, right from the get go, cancel all your direct debits and set up a cashflow budget. Work out a target you need to hit each month and don’t forget pesky things like super and the tax man. Track what you’re bringing in against your target at least weekly. Never forget that you are an entrepreneur.
Have an idea of where you want to go. Do you want to be like Mark and Heather Jones (Filtered Media) or Michelle Hespe (PublishingByChelle) and build an empire? Or do you just want to be able to pay the mortgage, take overseas holidays occasionally and buy a new car when you need one? As Kate Toon points out in her great book Confessions of a Misfit Entrepreneur, both are equally valid but if you don’t want to build an empire then don’t.
While it depends a lot on the person you are – I know some people with unshakeable self-belief – freelancing can be tough on the mental health. Build up systems to help you get into the habit of doing the things you need to. Look after your physical health. Make sure you get enough sleep and exercise. Do meditation or yoga to help deal with the stress and do it before you’re a total wreck.
Don’t ever stop learning. Read books about writing, read books about the industries that you write about and read books that are totally off on a tangent. Always be on the look out for new skills you can learn that may be in demand. Invest in your own professional development – no one else will.
But also, and perhaps most importantly, remember this. I became a journalist because I love to write and it’s one a very few things that I do well without trying too hard. Working as a freelance writer has its challenges but trust me when I say this, I’m speaking from personal experience, a shitty day writing still beats a good day working in a call centre. So, if you’re fortunate enough to have the skills and ability to make a living writing, count that as a blessing once in a while.
Like to know more about Darren? Here’s his bio:
I’m a journalist and copywriter with heaps of experience. I write about all sorts of things but mainly business, technology and management. Whether it is smart, engaging journalism for newspapers, magazines and online or helping great brands and small businesses produce engaging, creative content. Find me on LinkedIn or via my blog.