Tue 5 March 2024
Life after Graduation
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Studying Writing
Life after Graduation
A Risky Business
Scott Anthony
Scott Anthony charts his career as a journalist and writer since graduating from Warwick University with a Creative Writing MA in 2003.

Over the past five years the course of my career as a journalist and writer has altered considerably. The journey from Barnett Freedman's Jubilee stamp to Liverpool's European City of Culture Celebrations via Palestinian sitcoms has definitely been an interesting one, although I'm not always sure what kind of journalist and writer I've become.

Perhaps this is because much of my professional career since graduating from Warwick has been about adapting to changes. Much of my income comes from journalism and, though it is almost A Day Today cliché to state it, the rapid development of the internet has tweaked the nose of the trade forever. At The Guardian, where I've freelanced off and on for five years now, a printed media organization has become something more akin to a broadcasting media organization. Multimedia production skills are essential and straight out writers a little rarer.

My own response, and one that still has some validity for graduates who want to build a career to journalism, was to develop a series of specialisms. For reasons that are too long-winded to go into here, Greece, Turkey and the wider Near East have become my most reliable calling cards. However, whereas it used to be that, for example, commercial websites worked as a kind of electronic supplement to traditional media, they've now become multimedia rolling news feeds. From a personal point of view, the consequence is that I no longer get to use my specialisms so regularly. Space constrictions have returned with a Google optimised vengeance and specialist journalists now have to play more of a waiting game. If a story really does take light, it becomes an event (my sense is that we're well into the age of 'event' journalism) and will be exhaustively covered. If and when your story erupts, you can make several months' money, or even your name, a la Robert Peston, in a short period of time.

When I began in journalism I naively resented, and felt guilty about, the amount of time I spent writing beyond the absolute limit of what I knew. There have been advantages of focusing my writing on a few specialist areas, because I really do know what I'm talking about, but there are downsides. Something students should keep in mind is that there's a tricky balance to be struck between finding a niche and being typecast.

Since I worked in Strategic Communications at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), public relations has become another professional interest. I probably flatter myself in thinking there's no relation to what I've done and the kind of things Michael Frayn satirises, but at the time, the fork in my professional life absolutely took me by surprise. Especially as the unexpected and deeply unfashionable consequence of working in government was to make me see British politicians in a positive new light. I've since been able to apply what I learnt as a consultant to organizations such as the British Film Institute and on practically-orientated research projects such as the Reuters Institute's Public Trust in the News, but most substantially it prompted to me to spend several years writing a book (as well as an Oxford PhD thesis) on Sir Stephen Tallents, the pioneer of public relations in Britain. My BFI monograph on the 1936 documentary Night Mail, perhaps Tallents' best known commission, was generously reviewed when it was published in September 2007.

I've been attached to the University of Manchester for the past two years, first as a part-time teaching fellow, and now as a research fellow. In addition to giving me time to finish the Tallents book, I've also become involved with a range of public-facing research projects - for better or worse, academia is changing too. Night Mail led me to become interested in the GPO Film Unit and the extraordinary group of musicians, artists, poets, journalists, scientists, intellectuals and film-makers that gravitated towards it. The relative success of Night Mail led to me contributing the lead essay to a three volume DVD boxset (We Live in Two Worlds, the second volume, was named DVD boxset of the year at the 2009 Il Cinema Ritovata Awards in Bologna) and scripting an interactive educational documentary presented by Sir Derek Jacobi (which was an Honoree at the 2009 Webby awards). I'm currently putting together a new book of essays about the GPO Film Unit for the BFI that I hope will entice a range of talents as diverse as those responsible for films like Coal Face, N or NW and Spare Time.

When I left Warwick, I wondered whether I might one day be able to make a living as a professional novelist. One of the two novels I have been steadily working on in the interim will be sent out to publishers in 2010, but until I get my Costa nomination I am sceptical about the scale of impact (presuming there's any) that it will have on my day-to-day life. In fact, I'm not wholly sure if I'd even want to make a living solely as a novelist anymore - I think the lives of people like Miroslav Holub, Joseph O'Neill and Vikas Swarup are instructive.

More to the point, working as a freelance professional writer is, as Al Alvarez said, a risky business. Since I left ODPM, my earnings have been modest, albeit nicely enlivened by some left-field assignments abroad. For the past year, financial cut backs and less adventurous commissioning policies have reduced pretty much all the freelance writers I know to month-by-month if not week-by-week living. One of my peers is an enviously successful playwright and yet he now holds down a civil service job two days a week.

When it comes to offering 'advice' then, as well as emphasizing to students that bouts of rent anxiety are tedious rather than romantic, over the long-term a professional writer will probably need to balance (or integrate) their own projects with either journalism, work in a cultural or governmental institution, or work at a university.

It's also worth preparing students for the amount of rejections and negative feedback they will receive. Whether they're pitching ideas for articles, regulars, blogs, features or books, they should not expect to get more than one yes in five, probably far far less to begin with. The rewards, of course, are enormous. But you need to be resilient.

Career ladder

Production Editor/Deputy Editor/Editor-at-Large, Future Publishing 2000-2004
Information Officer, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 2004-2005
Freelance journalist, The Guardian 2005-Present
Part-time Teaching Fellow, Research Fellow, University of Manchester 2008-Present

Scott Anthony was born in Dorset in 1977. He completed a PhD on Sir Stephen Tallents at the University of Oxford in 2008. He lives in London.


Barnett Freedman

City of Culture

Palestinian sit com

Public Trust in the News

Sir Stephen Tallents

Night Mail book

Derek Jacobi film

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