Writer and journalist, Sanjana Varghese, on standing out and finding structure as a freelancer

Updated: a day ago


Photography by Linda Sou. On Location in Blue Nine, Woolwich

For the second instalment of the series, we got chatting to London-based, multi-hyphenate wordsmith and editorial powerhouse, Sanjana Varghese.

Sanjana’s interest in writing and journalism was initially kindled by her fascination with the way the world works and what underlies the human condition. Specialising in technology, culture and the environment – particularly where they intersect – she has honed her editorial voice over time and when she writes, she does so with a certain fluidity and astute perceptivity. Ultimately, though, it’s her care for other people and the amplification of their experiences that drives her editorial output, as she seeks to illuminate issues that deserve to be heard and give a voice to the underreported and the overlooked.


Fast forward to today, and Sanjana’s garnered bylines in a whole host of publications - gal-dem, WIRED, New Statesman, VICE, i-D, The Outline, The Observer, Al Jazeera, Garage, Elephant, and Clash to name a few – as well as curating an interactive online exhibition and amassing a couple of camera and radio appearances too.


But, enough from us - scroll down to read Sanjana’s musings on pitching strategies, keeping productive, and her vision for the future of journalism.


FKA Twigs, Creature of Desire - Clash Magazine

Previous employment:


-   WIRED UK, Editorial Intern (September 2018 - March 2019)

-   Access Intern at the Guardian (August 2018)

-   Wellcome Trust Intern, New Statesman (August 2017 - March 2018)


Education:

-   BA Liberal Arts, King's College London (2015-2018)


Website:

sanjanavarghese.com

Social media:

@smvar_ (Instagram)

@sanjanamv (Twitter)


Still frame from the institute of Codings Video - How Do We Address Bias in AI?

Introduce yourself!

Hi! I'm Sanj - I'm an Indian/Canadian/British journalist and writer, based in London, and I've currently been in lockdown since the 18th/19th March. Very much considering just burrowing into a hole. 

When and how did you start working as a freelancer?

I graduated uni and started an internship at WIRED UK, in September of the same year, which ran until March 2019 (which was a great experience and one I'd recommend to anyone looking to get into tech journalism). I then worked part-time as a freelancer until the end of January 2020. During those months (nine? I think?), I also did loads of other jobs – I worked at a cafe, I worked at a bar, I did research for academics and other writers, I even worked as a session musician (I play the harmonica) a couple of times, I tutored and worked with kids, I did commercial and client writing, and I also worked as a journalist. I would say up until January 2020, with one or two months as the exception, I was not working primarily as a journalist. Then I started working on a podcast and taking on more editorial work, and was able to leave some of the other casual employment I was in by the end of January 2020. 

What’s your average day like normally?

Big question! I'm essentially a massive, distractible child. So, I've set up a system where I basically bribe myself into doing things. I generally wake up pretty early – I am not good at sleeping, or sleeping for a long time – and try to do some yoga, or meditate. I have ADHD, so I've developed a habit of writing down things to do on a post-it and putting them on my desk so I can see all the things I'm thinking about, or putting those thoughts into Asana (which is this project management software that's free and a lifesaver). So, I check that and figure out how the rest of my day is going to go. 

I usually spend like 40 minutes in the morning just reading social media or emails or articles or replying to texts or whatever, and I wish I could say that I'm good at managing distractions but I'm not. Two days a week, I work on the podcast, Exponential View, and the other three days, I do a combination of news shifts and my own research/pitching/writing, depending on the week. I try and do admin in the mornings - like responding to emails, or going through my pitch tracking sheet. If it's a day where I'm doing my own thing, then I spend the rest of the day working on two or three things - like an article, a pitch and reading articles (which imo counts as research). I try to go out for a walk (I used to go to the gym) before 6 pm because I like seeing my friends after. That said, I'm really bad at the work/life balance thing and I always work into the night, and on the weekends. 

How do you go about pitching an idea and do you have any general tips or advice?

I'm still very much figuring this out, and I would say pitching is not my strong suit - I tie myself in knots and then end up waiting and then someone else writes things (I just need to be faster). But, with that in mind, I think the best thing for pitching is really to read widely and as much as possible. Even if your beat is science, reading arts or reading business is helpful because you can see how different stories feed into each other, or take a novel approach on something that everyone's writing about. That's hard at the moment - everyone is hyper focused on the same thing. 

The main thing with pitching is telling yourself, “okay, I'm going to pitch one idea every week for a month, and see how it goes.” Just sitting down, doing the research, looking around, coming up with ideas, is a really good habit to get into (I'm guilty of not doing this consciously and instead just writing things like "Will.i.am – is he too powerful?" into an iPhone note and pretending that counts) and gets easier the more you do it. Setting goals about sending out X amount of pitches a week, or publishing Y articles a month is good because you kind of have to create your own structures when you're a freelancer. Also, I get loads of rejections and I just try and make sure that I read through and don't make the same mistakes again - e.g. Was my pitch too long? Too unfocused? Was it pitching a topic rather than a story etc.?

The other thing I've found helpful is finding a community of people. I'm a member of Study Hall which is a freelancers' network (and they're great) – they have loads of pitch guides, advice etc. that has been super helpful in terms of refining my approach and making me work really hard to develop my work and my abilities. I also have a WhatsApp group with a handful of other freelancers – who are also my friends – and that's been really good for morale at the moment too. 



The Noise of Time - The New Statesman

Have you altered your services in response to the current climate? If so, how so?

I kind of have and I kind of haven't. I think I've definitely not been doing as much of my own writing because a lot of publications have shuttered or frozen their freelance budgets – which is out of my control – so I've been focusing on other stuff. I'm doing a lot more news shifts and I've taken on a bit more responsibility at the podcast, so it's nice to have some stability and routine among all of this. I have also definitely been pitching much less often because I know that places aren't commissioning as much or from people they don't know. So, I've focused on the anchor gigs and am doing some other pieces when I can, but not working myself up about not having commissions coming in.

How can you make yourself stand out amongst the many other freelance writers and journalists in the market?

If I'm being completely honest, I don't think there's any way I consciously do so. I try and emphasise the fact that I've reported on specific things – e.g. that I like speaking to people, or that I can handle a difficult topic sensitively – when I'm pitching. I also do think that the reason I got into journalism and writing was that I am interested in how the world works and I care about other people – fundamentally – so if I can write stories that bring some attention to an issue that's being underreported or that kind of illuminate something about the way the world works, then that's more than enough for me. I also think there are some basic things – like being polite, sticking to deadlines etc. But, I also think the whole game is rigged – for white, Oxbridge educated men and women – so there's only so much that you can do to stand out as an individual. That's why publications like gal-dem are doing incredible work on a shoestring budget.

Do you have any platforms you would recommend to find work?

I really think Twitter is useful – I spend too much time on it and that's a huge problem – but I find it useful in terms of looking at what people are talking about, which magazines and websites are commissioning, and whether or not there are people who are writing interesting things that I can learn from. I would also say other people I know have had success with The Dots and Creative Access. 


Social media – Twitter in particular - is super important for UK-based journalists. How do you optimise your social media presence to get work and nurture connections?

I am really conscious of the fact that social media is super useful for journalists but I find that it's actually made me worse at writing and better at getting angry about things. I've definitely become friends with people as a result of following each other and reading each other's work, and it's helpful to follow editors and people you want to work with too. But, I definitely think that posting articles, endlessly self-promoting etc. is pretty much the most useful thing to get out of it. I had a tweet commissioned into a full-blown article once, which was nice (and I liked being able to work with that editor). But, other than that, I think it's just the same as treating it like a version of yourself which is semi-professional/semi-personal. I'm definitely trying to cut down on my Twitter usage in general though! 

In terms of getting work right now, as a journalist, would you advise narrowing down the kind of topics you write about and keeping it more specialised, or being very broad in scope?

I'm really lucky – I'm currently doing a lot of news focused work, and so it's been mostly focused on the pandemic. It's been a good opportunity to brush up on some skills - like going out and finding interesting stories, fact-checking, reporting – but, it's also been frustrating in terms of the fact that everyone is talking about the same thing. I'm doing a bit more culture-related writing than I would normally, just because so much is happening in the world of culture, in a weird way, but that wasn't what I anticipated at all. I'm also trying not to ignore the fact that this pandemic is underway, but also making sure that I don't just write about it because I'm not a scientist or an epidemiologist – all I understand is what I'm reading. So, I'm trying to make sure that everything I'm writing is well sourced and accurate, that I'm not passing on misinformation and also that I'm being responsible about what I'm writing and reporting about. 

How have you been keeping yourself grounded and planning for the future?

I'm not going to lie, I think I've been doing neither of those things. Planning for the future feels impossible, so I'm trying to do very little of it. I got accepted onto a Master's course that I've wanted to do pretty much since I started my undergrad, which is happening in September, so I've been coming up with ways I can make that work (visa and money wise). A lot of what I've been doing to calm myself down has been having a loose routine – there are three or four things I try to do every day and I know I feel a lot better when I do them. I draw in the evenings – really silly still lives for my friends - I do yoga or meditate, I go for a walk and I call a couple of friends every week on the phone. That's been really good – just sitting and talking, especially talking with people through how we're feeling. Sometimes it gives you a completely different set of perspectives, and sometimes it's just nice to feel like you're with someone you haven't seen in a while. 

What are the big changes you've noticed within the journalism sector in response to Covid-19? And how do you think it will look in the future?

There are so many changes underway, and I think we won't fully understand a lot of them or really wrap our heads around them until a couple of years into the future. When it comes to journalism, so many media outlets and organisations have shuttered their freelance budgets, furloughed their workers and have laid more off, which I think is a huge shame at the moment. It really sucks that more people than ever are reading the news and reading articles and that because of the way that the media industry works, the fact that ad revenue has gone down, means that this isn't reflected in the capacity of most organisations. I think that a lot of places will stop taking – or take less – risks on new hires and exciting voices, particularly those that don't always get a voice in the industry because so often these groups of people are already on the precipice of being phased out or ignored. 

I really want to be proven wrong on this. But, I think that the lack of job security and the way that media already works could potentially lead to some communities being underserved and other communities not being able to have their stories told as a result of these layoffs and furloughs. I hope what it does do is create a greater desire for worker power and collective bargaining strategies at newsrooms and media organisations around the world, involving not just journalists, but people who work on the backend of websites, designers, copy editors, and everyone who gets to work in media at all.




Interviewed by Linda Sou

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