NOTE: This was originally published on my old website in May 2018, after I first wrote for The Guardian. I have edited it slightly to make it, er, better.
It all began one lazy February morning. There I was, sat in my pyjamas with my seventeenth cup of coffee close to hand, refreshing my email, Facebook and Twitter over and over again. Probably. I can’t remember. It was February. After I’d refreshed my inbox for the one thousand and sixty-fifth time, there it was, just sitting there. An email titled: Article for the Guardian?
My eyes narrowed in suspicion. Probably. Again – February. My cursor twitched over and clicked on it without any instruction from my brain. And I started reading. It said this:
I edit commercial features for the Guardian and have just stumbled on your website while looking for a good freelancer in Edinburgh. It’s not your usual work, but would you be up for writing a vox pops piece for us?
The article is ‘Edinburgh residents pick the city’s hidden gems’ and it’s a classic people-on-the-street job. The style is very similar to the piece attached below that we did for the film ‘Downsizing’.
You’d need to stop and talk to 10 local residents about their favourite ‘hidden gem’ in the city: a secret place, great view, nearby walk or lesser known restaurant or museum, that not everyone in the city will know of. They’d write the name of the place down on a sign and be photographed with it, then give you a few more details about it and its personal significance to them.
The target audience is 55+, and the client – CrossCountry Trains – has specified that at least 8 of the interviewees would need to be over 50. Apart from that it’d be ideal to have a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, disability and gender.
We’d need 100 words from each person, so a total of 1000 words. I can offer a fee of £350. Copy in by February 16th if at all possible.
Let me know if it appeals? If so which day(s) would suit you to do it? We’d arrange for a photographer to meet you for the day to shoot it.
All the best,
I reined in my urge to instantly hit reply with an OMGZ HELL YES PLZZZZZ. Instead I played it cool. Well, I tried. First I checked the sender. And it really was from an @theguardian.com address. Someone from the actual frigging Guardian had actually frigging emailed me and asked me if I could actually frigging WRITE something for them.
So back to the playing it cool. Here’s what I replied.
I most certainly would be up for this, yes. It’ll be fun to bring out the old vox-popping skills.
I’m booked up for this week, but could do next Monday (12th). February 16th deadline is no problem.
The file you attached isn’t working for some reason. Could you try it again, or send me a link to it?
[2020 update: Oh my GOD that first line is cringey as hell, ahahaha.]
For some reason I didn’t send that email until an hour and a half later. I can only deduce that I spent a solid ninety minutes writing, rewriting, editing, and perfecting my response. Maybe eighty minutes, with a ten minute interval for flat-out screaming.
It’s a three-line email and it took me ninety minutes to write. Wow. I’m usually a faster writer than that, I swear. But there were STAKES here, people. I needed to look effortlessly professional, not at all like I was screaming in desperate excitement every three seconds. And I needed to convey that I COULD DO THIS, hence my off-the-cuff remark about ‘the old vox-popping skills’. [2020 cringe: These days I would leave that out, because if it’s a standard thing you can do, why would you draw attention to it? Why would it even occur to you to do that?]
A vox pop is where you get out on the streets and in the faces of random strangers, waving a microphone at them and asking what they think of something. I hadn’t done it for over ten years – not since I was a sprightly young journalism student. (Embarrassing sidenote: I sucked at print journalism at uni. It was my worst subject and I don’t think I ever got more than a C in any of my assignments. I purposely switched to radio journalism because I got better grades in that, even though I didn’t really have any interest in working in radio and I never even LISTENED to the radio. It was all part of my master plan to get a first-class degree, which I realised proooobably wasn’t going to happen if I specialised in writing. So anyway, I enjoy the irony that I now make my entire living from writing.)
I sent my response off and got a reply literally ten minutes later. That’s how you respond to emails in a timely fashion, guys. After some back and forthing, it was arranged that I would meet with a photographer who was flying up from London the following Monday. A few details of the assignment also changed along the way: instead of getting the interviewees to hold up a sign naming their chosen location, the photographer would head to each of the spots and photograph them, and instead of eight over-55s and two under-55s, we had to find six and four.
Let’s rewind for a second. Why had this editor emailed me out of the blue? How had he even found me? THE ANSWER IS OBVIOUS, MY FRIENDS. It’s because just a couple of weeks prior I’d managed to get my new standalone website, edinburghcopywriter.com, which I bought for SEO reasons, to rank number one for ‘Edinburgh copywriter’ and other such terms. And this was an article about Edinburgh. Tain’t rocket science. I’m guessing the exact term he googled was ‘freelance writer Edinburgh’. So anyway, that solves the mystery of how he found me.
But why did he decide to hire me? I didn’t ask, but I’m assuming it was a combination of my outrageous writing talent coupled with the fact that I happened to live in Edinburgh, so I would a) know my way around the city and b) be a lot cheaper to hire since there wouldn’t be any travel or accommodation expenses. Not the most gratifying reason I’ve ever been hired, but hey, I’ll take it. It is the Guardian, after all.
I phoned the photographer to make plans and immediately pronounced her name wrong, resulting in a moment of hesitation followed by an, ‘Uh yeah, that’s me.’ GREAT START, MARSTON. I also messaged my old radio journalism tutor to ask if she had any advice. Was there some equipment I needed that would make me look more professional? Was it okay to just use my iPhone? Would people wonder what the hell I was doing if I didn’t have an actual microphone in my hand? Edinburgh is a windy city and I’d be interviewing people on the streets, so she recommended getting a windshield for my iPhone’s built-in microphone – both to reduce the wind noise and to make my iPhone look more like a mic. I forgot to use it, but the quality was still fine, especially since my recordings were just for transcription purposes.
iPhones’ microphones are pretty fucking great, turns out. I’ve since used mine to interview people in noisy coffee shops and at busy conferences, and it easily picked up the right voices and drowned out background noise even when it was just sat on a table between me and the person I was talking to. [2020 update: I still have this same phone – an iPhone 6 (no, I do not upgrade my tech until I absolutely have to) – and it’s still going strong and making decent quality recordings.]
What happened on the day
I went to the photographer’s hotel at 9.30am and we grabbed a coffee while we discussed the day ahead. I hoped to get all ten interviews done on the same day (though I didn’t divulge this because I wanted to see how a professional photographer for the Guardian did things). I only needed a couple of minutes with each person, after all, and I was only getting £350 for this, which wouldn’t work out to a particularly impressive hourly rate if I spent too long on it. Already I was getting paid less for this than my usual work, writing copy for brands, where it’s not uncommon for me to write £350’s worth of work in an hour or two.
It ended up being a three-day job – two interviewing and one writing – drastically reducing my hourly rate, because I took the photographer to all the places mentioned by our interviewees. I wasn’t getting paid for that, and the photographer didn’t ask me to do it, but she didn’t know the city and it was an article about hidden gems, so I figured she’d have a hard time finding them without me. Some of them were pretty obscure. We walked twelve miles on that first day, and got seven of the interviews done.
There was one particularly awkward moment where the photographer started talking to someone at a bus stop, which I had already decided I would not do because that’s CLEARLY A BAD IDEA. Isn’t it??? But I went with it, because fuck it, we’d already started. I hit record on my phone and hurriedly started trying to get enough information for the piece. The interview ended with me flagging down a bus with one hand and waving my phone in the woman’s face with the other. I swear to Christ, I almost got on the bus with her. And that’s why I had decided ahead of time not to interview people at bus stops.
The rest of the day went a lot smoother, and the photographer and I talked and laughed breezily. But the next day, the air crackled between us. I was tired. She seemed tired, too. Neither of us had had enough sleep. We both just wanted to get done this, and we only needed three more people.
When I got home that afternoon, I had an email from my editor waiting for me. Shit. He was only expecting this to take a couple of days. Should I have already sent the piece to him? I was ahead of deadline, but maybe I was supposed to at least check in? To explain my lack of contact, I told him I’d been accompanying the photographer around the city to all the locations. He replied with, ‘That’s fantastic, thanks for doing that. We’ll pay £450 instead of £350 to reflect the extra work as that wasn’t part of the original commission.’ WELL OKAY, THEN. And to think I wasn’t planning on telling him.
Writing the piece
I spent the third day transcribing my interviews and writing up the article. Ten interviewees plus an introduction meant around ninety words per person. Eaaaasy. It didn’t take long to write the piece, though editing it took some time. Mostly because I kept rearranging the order of the interviewees, trying to make it look as diverse as possible. I’d struggled to find any non-white people over 55, especially in the affluent area I’d taken us to. Edinburgh is a very white city. A couple of days later, when I was mooching around my part of town, I kicked myself every time I walked past an older black or Asian person, of which there were many. Oops. Oh well. Too late now.
I sent the piece off to my editor and he told me he’d be in touch with any questions the next day. Several days later, I still hadn’t heard from him. I was waiting on an email from another client, too, and my inbox had been suspiciously vacant for the past few days. I started panicking. Oh god, was my email broken? SHIT. What if my clients were trying to email me and thought I was ignoring them?
It turns out, everything was fine. I was just a loser and nobody was emailing me. I got in touch to ask if everything was okay with the article, and it was – no changes needed. When the article was published, there were a few changes made to it, but nothing major. Presumably it’s just quicker and easier for editors to make these minor changes themselves.
It’s all fine – sorry, I should have said.
FYI – we pay upon publication here. Our administrator will be in touch next week to get your details.
Thanks again for doing it
I never sent an invoice to the Guardian. Instead, I got an automated email asking for my details. I dutifully sent them, but a few days later got another email requesting the information. Huh. Didn’t they get them the first time? I emailed back to make sure. Turns out, there was just an issue with the automated system. I continued getting these emails for a few weeks, even after I’d been paid. I also ended up getting paid before publication, which was nice. There it was, a sweet £450 sitting in my business bank account from GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA.
As an added bonus, the article was published with my byline, which, based on my snooping around the commercial features section of the website, I hadn’t been expecting. It’s no longer online – commercial content is only left on the site for a certain period of time – but you can see a screenshot of the article here (and if you look at the Hendersons photo, you can see me sitting in the window, pissing around on my phone). It’s not the most fascinating thing I’ve ever written, nor the easiest work I’ve ever done, but, like the first time I ate a francesinha, it was worth it for the experience. And I’d do it again.