Written by Student Nannies
In the first of a new series, we ask an expert in their field to share their ten tips on rising to the top…
Claire Coleman, 39, freelance beauty editor and journalist
Tell us a bit about your job, what the average day looks like and what’s involved…
I’m freelance so I don’t work for just one publication, but several, writing a range of pieces including investigations into beauty stories, features on new beauty trends, and tried and tested stories.
I work from home but tend to keep regular office hours so I’ll get up around 8am, maybe do a bit of exercise, before showering, dressing and breakfast — contrary to popular belief we freelancers don’t all work from bed in our pyjamas watching TV!
I’m normally juggling several features at once so I’ll either be interviewing people, researching, or writing. I also come up with ideas that I pitch to editors, as well as being lucky enough to have them come to me with ideas that they want me to take on.
Sometimes I’ll go to launches for new products, but more often I’ll meet PRs one to one to discuss what they’ve got coming up in terms of product launches or exclusive angles they can let me have on stories.
I usually take a quick break for a soup, salad or sandwich lunch and then work through til 6pm or 7pm. If I’ve got a lot of deadlines, it might be later – on one memorable occasion, I stayed up til 2am to talk to a lab in New Zealand about how they harvested the sheep placenta that they used in Victoria Beckham’s facials!
How did you get your first job in this industry and what tips would you give to students for routes in?
I got two weeks’ work experience on a website, made myself indispensable and convinced them to pay me after that. I was there for a year and a half.
I’m not a fan of people working for free for extended periods of time — although it seems almost the norm these days — but I think if you can afford to do a week or a couple of weeks work experience every holiday, it’s really important. Not only does it look good on your CV but when you’re applying for jobs you don’t look like you’ve made a snap decision to be a journalist, it’s actually something you’ve been working towards. You learn what the job is really like, learn what they need in the office and crucially, you meet people. Make the effort to stay in touch with those people, pitch them ideas, make sure they know your holiday dates and when you’re available, really work the “who you know” angle.
What one piece of advice would you give to a student wishing to forge a career in journalism?
Unless you really, really, really want to do it, and can’t imagine doing anything else, don’t do it. It’s hard work, especially when you’re starting out and may have to intern for long periods of time without pay, so you need to support yourself with another job or savings. Even when you’re established, very few people get the sort of salaries that star columnists command. Right now, the industry is in a state of flux and nobody really knows what’s going to happen. But if you really can’t see yourself doing anything else, will kick yourself, and wonder “what if….?” forever more if you don’t at least try, and you’re prepared to work your arse off, it’s a brilliant job.
Who was the one person who had the most influence on your career to date?
The two women who gave me my “big breaks” – Jane Procter, former editor of Tatler who was the editorial director at the website that gave me work experience, and Sasha Slater, who is now at the Telegraph, but was my deputy editor in my first job and then, after I went freelance and she was at the Daily Mail gave me work there. Both of them helped lay the foundation stones of the career I have today.
Considering all the people you’ve met in your field, what personal attributes are essential for success?
* Writing ability — you have to be able to write in a comprehensible and engaging way that strikes a chord with your readers, and means someone wants to read the next line.
* Tenacity — both with a story and when hunting for a job – if you’re half-arsed it shows.
* Organisation — you’re usually juggling multiple stories so you need to be able to manage time and deadlines.
* People skills — journalism is about relationships – with PRs, with your editors, with your readers – if it doesn’t come naturally, learn it. You need to build a rapport with all of these people to be the best at the job.
What do you wish you’d known (but didn’t) when you first contemplated this career as a student?
I feel a bit disingenuous giving advice about breaking into journalism now because when I did it there was no social media, no blogs, no nothing – things I think are essential these days. But I guess one thing is the same. Back when I was a student, I knew I wanted to be a journalist but didn’t know how to get there. I wanted someone to show me the path: do this course, apply to this place, then you’ll end up here. There isn’t a path. There are many ways to get to where you want to be and you don’t always know what you’re going to end up doing. I never expected to end up writing about beauty, it was just what happened. A friend of mine who studied history at university started out working for a pharmaceutical trade magazine, then a property trade magazine and is now the economics correspondent for one of the broadsheets. Be open-minded, a contact/ interview/ work experience is rarely wasted.
What’s the best bit of career advice you ever received?
I think when you’re starting out, there’s very little better advice than that given by Joanna Lumley to pupils at an East London school: “Work bloody hard, dare everything, try everything, stick at stuff. Say ‘yes’, be on time, look gorgeous, show willing, be savagely polite.”
What is your career highlight to date?
So many — there are the obvious ones — amazing press trips to South Africa and Mauritius, interviewing icons like Twiggy and Barbara Windsor, going to the BAFTAs and the Brits. But also the thrill I still get from seeing my byline in a national newspaper, the fact that I can pay my bills (at the moment) doing a job I really love. I guess getting a special award at the Johnson & Johnson Beauty Journalism Awards (kind of like the Oscars of the beauty journalism world) for 10 years service to the industry was definitely a highlight.
What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best things are not — for me — the things you might expect — yes, as part of my job I do get sent a lot of beauty products to try, which is lovely. But what I really love is that being a journalist gives you license to get access to people and places that you wouldn’t otherwise get access to. To ask the questions that most people don’t have the opportunity to ask, and to hold big companies to account in a way that individuals often can’t. And I get to write, which is what I always wanted to do.
The worst things are mostly associated with being freelance — a certain amount of uncertainty about where your next pay cheque is coming from, feast or famine on the work front, having to juggle the demands of multiple bosses, having to be my own IT support, accountant, office manager and office junior. But more broadly than that, I think anyone who works in print media would be foolish not to have serious concerns about the future of the industry and whether we’re still going to be able to earn a living from it in the next 10, 20, 30 years.
What do you think the industry will look like in the next ten years and what skills do you think graduates will need to stay ahead of the game?
I GENUINELY have no idea. I worry that newspapers and magazines aren’t going to exist in paper format, certainly in the same numbers, as they do now, and I think that will be a real loss. Although their demise has been predicted several times in recent years, so one might hope for yet another stay of execution. I hope that if they do go, the way that online publications work will be rethought (currently online tends to pay a fraction of what papers and magazines do) and that there will still be a market for well-researched, in-depth, investigative features.
I hope that the fundamentals — good writing skills, good communication skills, good research skills — will still be required, but I think today’s graduates will also be called upon to work within a multimedia environment so being able to present content to camera, edit video and maintain an active presence across social media. While I hope this isn’t the case, I fear that in order to make it a viable career choice, journalism may have to become a part of a portfolio career, demanding a real flexibility from journalists and an ability to think laterally about how their skills can simultaneously be used in other fields.
1996-2000 – Degree in French & Italian at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge
2000-2002 – Work experience and subsequently staff writer at PeopleNews.com, a now defunct online magazine
2002-2003 – Temp at the Guardian & Observer, doing one day a week research at the Daily Mail
2003-current – Freelance journalist writing for a number of national newspapers and magazines including the Daily Mail, Metro, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times Style, Stylist, Financial Times, Grazia