Marta Bausells is a writer, freelance journalist, and editor currently living in London by way of Barcelona. She's a European Editor-at-Large at Literary Hub, she enjoys talking to strangers on the tube, and very soon, she'll be joining ELLE UK as Literary Editor. Her work has appeared online and in print in The Guardian, The Observer, VICE, Literary Review, Little White Lies, Electric Literature and more.
Thank you Marta for sharing your experience and wisdom.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance writer.
I started out as a reporter for a newspaper back in my hometown of Barcelona. I was still in college and the newspaper was new (in fact, it launched shortly after I joined), so the whole experience was a true baptism by fire. Like any start-up, it was a small-ish team and everyone did everything. I learned a lot there – not just journalism skills but also to develop the first layers of the thick skin that, I immediately learned, was necessary to work in the media today. A couple of years later, I got a job at the Guardian as community moderator. Moderating comments is a tough job – you see the uglier side of the internet, all day every day, and have to actively deal with it. It was technically a step down from what I was doing before, but I knew it was where I wanted to be. It was at the Guardian, and in London, and for a long time I practically had to pinch myself every time I walked into the building.
After a year I got a role on the Cities desk, and from there moved to the Arts and Culture and Books desks. Many ups and downs later, I found myself a bit stuck in a role I’d been doing for two years and from which there were little chances to move on or upwards for complicated, structural reasons. I had learned an unimaginable amount and worked with incredible editors, and was terrified of leaving – if you’re in one of the top companies in your field, surely leaving can only be a step down? But that’s also one of the fear-based vicious circles that can get you stuck for years.
The bottomline is: do what is right for you. While I wasn’t the most confident person at times, I had always known I wanted to write so I always freelanced a bit on the side on evenings and weekends. So when the moment came and the right conditions materialized for me to be able to make the leap, I did it – it’s now been a year, and it has all been a rollercoaster, but I couldn’t be happier!
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
My first clients were editors and media I had worked or collaborated with during my different jobs over the years. I have found that people tend to be quite open to strangers sending them ideas (if often too busy to pay attention to your emails). It is good to have been published and be able to show it, but what really matters is whether your pitch is good. In that sense, I did benefit from already knowing how to pitch to editors. I also got good work out of sending out-of-the-blue emails to people I didn’t know at all, but equally had many good ideas ignored or rejected (which, by the way, still happens all the time – it is part of the writer’s job!)
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
For me, the key has been to be honest with myself, prioritize and give myself deadlines. In the past, I constantly set myself up for failure through unrealistic expectations. Days only have 24 hours and you should spend some of them sleeping (really!) and ideally some having some kind of “a life,” so having a ridiculous to-do list with 50 items, however important they all are, won’t help you. And you’ll lose money in the process.
I make a lot of lists and stay on top of my (now digital) calendar. I decide what I absolutely must (or really care about) getting done and plan around that, starting on it first. I give myself realistic deadlines (every two hours or so) followed by short breaks (take deep breaths, drink some water, go for a walk – they are miraculous). That way I am more focused (because I know a break is coming, and that I have to finish the task because something else comes after). It is a good system to free yourself from getting overwhelmed and to avoid stretching time (the more time you feel you have, the longer any given task will take).
I set specific times of the day to check my inbox to avoid spending my entire life only doing emails (I feel like I’d be capable of that?). Also, I put my phone well far from me and I have recently started disconnecting the Internet – or Facebook and Twitter, with apps like Self Control.
There really are hundreds of tips out there, but you have to find what works for you. Ironically, there is the pretty big danger of falling into an internet rabbit hole of productivity tips, morning routine recommendations, etc. Avoid it at all costs! It will only make you feel worse about your hard work and push you to compare yourself to other people – will it really help you to know that some super-humans have meditated, gone for a run and made a smoothie by the time you’re hitting snooze for the third time?
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelance writer so far?
Learning to say no. I have been known to suffer from “FOMO,” and work isn’t an exception. I am slowly learning to turn down opportunities that don’t make sense for me – because of the rate, or because they will stop me from doing work I really care about or that will get me closer to my long-term goals, or a combination of the two. Without wanting to go into the debate around working for free and the cases in which one might be okay with it, I have to pay rent and live in an expensive city, and equally importantly, my work and my time are worth more than air and a pat on the back.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
The freedom of being able to work from where I want, make my own schedule and be in control of my time. At this particular moment in my life, that is priceless.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
You have to put your work out there. My website, Twitter and even Instagram have helped me a lot – from getting commissions out of the blue from editors who’d stumbled upon my website, to meeting someone I admired on Twitter or Instagram DMs and ending up collaborating. There are some brilliant people who get hired on name or talent alone, without curating their own online presence, but you can count them on one hand.
What do you do to keep your creative juices flowing?
Read, read, read. And take myself out of my comfort zone as often as possible.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
I once heard from someone who spent her birthday day every month doing invoices and life admin, as a “get my shit together” day (shoutout to the Call Your Girlfriend podcast). I am going to try that approach, as it sounds as good as any! I try to invoice for my work almost immediately as I file it (or at least that same week) so that there is never a big backlog. As for bookkeeping and taxes, I am still figuring out the best formula for me, which means I am almost certainly going to hire an accountant!
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
Even if your line of work is your passion, you need to turn the work mode “off” from time to time – that is when a lot of the best ideas happen, by the way. Do whatever it takes to set boundaries, physical and mental, however out-there they seem. I even have two different background wallpapers in my laptop. Although of course, you really want to be as far from screens as possible when you’re not working. Get outside and see your friends and loved ones – schedule it in if you need to.
Regard exercise, sleep and healthy eating as essential, like you do breathing. I find that if I maintain this triad, my energy levels, motivation and focus are generally in good shape and my work benefits greatly. It’s so easy to fall into a stress spiral and put work before everything else – but I make an effort to be strict with boundaries. I also mix up the places where I work – I have a desk at home with plants and books that inspire me, but I also work in coffee shops I like and the British Library. Otherwise it can feel like I spent my whole life staring at the same four walls, and like work and life are one same continuum of different screens and pages.
Finally, respect days off and holidays! And, in general: give yourself a break.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Passion, work ethic, resilience.