Do What You Love interview – Gemma Church


Today we’re delighted to bring you this interview with Gemma Church, specialist journalist, blogger and copywriter for the science and technology sectors. Gemma runs her own successful freelance business and is a mum to two young boys so she knows a thing or two about the reality of juggling home and work life. She also has a pretty cool claim to fame: she appeared on the legendary Channel 4 game show ‘Countdown’ and managed to win one of the show’s elusive teapots!

We caught up with Gemma to find out about what life is really like as a freelance writer…

Gemma Church

1. How are you doing what you love?

During my career, I have worked between two of my greatest loves: writing and technology. Now that I work as “the freelance writer who gets tech”, I get to work on both.

2. Tell us about your background… 

I’ve enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember. When I was a child I used to produce strange little comics and books for my friends – whether they wanted to read them or not! My love of science came a little later in life, during my teens, when I started to take an interest in amateur astronomy and computing.

I went on to York University to complete a degree in Physics and Astrophysics – this is really where my interest in science and tech exploded. I started developing websites for student societies and playing around with code. This was during a time where the internet was a relatively new concept and computing was seen as a niche specialism, not a mainstream phenomenon.

Things really came together when I went on to do a Research Masters at Cambridge University – I got involved with the university’s science magazine Bluesci and managed to get a month’s work experience at the BBC for their flagship science show Horizon. Suddenly the penny dropped and I realized I could work both as a writer and use my tech skills – I was sold!

I worked as a technology and science journalist for a few years in London and then Cambridge before being pulled into software development – another passion of mine. Living in Cambridge, I am surrounded by cutting-edge companies and am lucky to have worked with some brilliant people on some incredibly innovative technology. While I worked as a developer, I continued to do a little freelance writing to keep my skills sharp in this area and to bring in some extra money so I could afford another great love of mine – shoes.

3. When did you decide to make a career from freelancing and how did you go about it?

I didn’t have a grand plan to move into freelancing, instead it happened rather by chance. It all began with a house move and a credit card bill – I decided to ramp up my freelance writing to help pay off some expenditure on my beloved shoes (and so my husband didn’t realize quite how much money goes on said shoes!)

I tidied up my LinkedIn profile and CV before contacting old colleagues and connections to ask for work and see what was out there. I was overwhelmed by the response.

Twitter and LinkedIn also boosted my online presence and helped me to find work outside of my immediate circle during these early days. It’s a strategy that continues to work today.

At the time, I was working for a fantastic software house down in Cambridge. I have two small boys and the company was so understanding when it came to childcare issues, as well as providing great career development and a lovely boss. I honestly had no plans to leave what was a great job and move to freelancing.

But the freelance writing work soon snowballed. It became apparent that I couldn’t commit fully to my job and my freelance writing. It also became apparent that freelancing offered a way of working that would fit with my family – and allow me to do something I love. Something had to give. And, after a lot of agonizing, it had to be my job.

This is when things started to get serious – but I have never had a clear business plan. I developed plans on a more ad hoc basis, focusing on the next week, then the next month and so on. These timescales have continued to increase and I’ve developed a business plan to futureproof my work and keep it going in the years ahead.

Marketing-wise, I am no expert, but I have worked in and with marketing departments. One of the greatest weapons in my freelance arsenal has to be my tagline “the freelance writer who gets tech”– and this is what gets me noticed ahead of other writers. I’ve worked in the science and technology fields that I write about, giving me a unique range of experience and insights many writers cannot offer.

A clear USP is a must for any freelancer. Go through your skills and experience to identify yours.

4. Talk us through a day in your life…

I work three days a week, so I’ll talk you through a typical work day…

I usually get up around 5am (or am woken up, depending on the children!), shower, get ready and answer a few emails that have come in overnight from overseas clients. My husband and I then get up the children and battle through the “breakfast bedlam” before my husband takes the children to nursery at 8am.

I then like to sit down with a cup of tea for five minutes and revel in the silence!

Then it’s time to work – I plan my day and write an overly-optimistic to-do list. A typical day will involve a lot of emails, pitching to editors, phone interviews, writing up those interviews, a lot of internet research and, of course, writing my articles. I often have lunch at my desk, which I know is a terrible habit, before repeating the same work pattern until about 4pm when I pick up the children. If it’s a quieter day work-wise then I may get the chance to do a spot of cooking ready, maybe go for a swim or do some DIY.

After the “bedtime bedlam”, it’s usually about 7pm. I either collapse on the sofa – or have to do more work. The freelance existence can be a bit famine or feast – it depends how busy I am at that point in time.

workstationA few of the publications I’ve written for recently

5. What are the best, and worst bits about being a self-employed writer?

I will never, ever miss the daily commute. The flexibility to work when I want to and fit work around my family (instead of fitting my family around work) is one of the main reasons I love freelancing.

The freedom to choose what projects to work on – and which ones to reject – is also great as I can work on topics I find interesting. I’m also blessed with some fantastic clients from all over the world. I never feel lonely as I’m always interacting with them – and pitching to new potential clients.

On the other hand, the lack of definition between work and home can be difficult to manage. There are incredibly busy times when I’ve had to work into the night to make a deadline. The lack of understanding about the freelance lifestyle and the sheer amount of work you have to put in to keep your head above water can be difficult too. For example, I’ve had to make it clear to friends and family that, although I am at home, I am working. If you call me a “lady of leisure” you may see steam coming out of my ears!

I’m also a terrible worrier – I worry when I have too much work (how am I going to get it all done?) and I worry when I have too little (is my business going to fail?) and I worry that I worry too much! That is probably one of the most difficult aspects about freelance writing – the buck stops with me. I have no editor or manager to rely on – that’s why it can help to join freelancer societies (the IPSE and The Freelancer Club are both great examples here) and build a strong support network of fellow freelancers.

6. What are the big challenges you face in balancing life as a mum with holding down a successful freelance career?

So far, it hasn’t been too bad – but my oldest son is due to start school in September. I am a bit concerned about fitting in my work around the school schedule. The school day seems too short and the holidays too long to fit around work, but I’m sure I’ll find a new rhythm and fully appreciate that freelancing gives me the flexibility to do that.

Only working three days a week can also be difficult to manage. Sometimes a client is only available for an interview on a day I’m meant to be with the children, for example. I can usually rearrange or find a friend to help out – but it can be tricky. In general, I’m incredibly lucky – freelancing fits perfectly with motherhood.

gchurch1-2Freelancing gives me the flexibility and freedom to work anywhere 

7. What kind of jobs/chores do you ‘outsource’ to make life easier for you?

We’re still going through a house renovation but, once the house is in a fit state and not covered in brick dust, I’m hoping to get someone to help with the cleaning. I also outsource my ironing, and home deliveries from the local supermarket are a life saver!

For the business, I have an accountant, who is just brilliant. Outsourcing all of the financial aspects of my business has relieved a lot of the stress and freed up my time to focus on my writing. I use Nixon Williams as my accountancy firm as they offer a great online portal to manage my money – and I get a dedicated, personal accountant who understands my business and is on hand to answer all of my questions. They’re less of an accountancy service and more like an all-round business advisory panel!

8. What have been your biggest highlights over the last few years? What are you most proud of?

Seeing my work in print always feels like such a great achievement. To consistently be asked back by publications because they rate my work and it’s brought a tangible benefit to their business is fantastic. My biggest highlight has to be the range of work I get and from such a diverse and fascinating set of clients.

What am I most proud of? Surviving! The freelance market can be tough to break into – to still be here and not just surviving, but thriving, feels like a great accomplishment. I’m very grateful for everything.

9. What technologies are exciting you at the moment?

There’s so much incredible work going on in so many sectors that it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular technology.

I write a lot about simulation software in the engineering world – which is just fascinating. This involves testing out ideas and designs in the virtual world before anything physical is made. For example, I just wrote an article about how such technology is used to improve passenger comfort in airplanes – I’ll never step onto a plane again without appreciating the innovative work going on behind the scenes.

This is one of the reasons I love to write about science and technology – even the most everyday items have a wealth of research and innovation behind them. Finding out about that world is wonderful.

The lines between science fiction and science fact are also blurring with new innovations and technologies pushing the boundaries. Smartphones and smart watches are now an integral part of most people’s lives. What will be next? There are some weird and wonderful suggestions out there and I can’t wait to write about them.

10. What projects are you working on at the moment?

Far too many to list! I’ve got a handful of specialist science feature articles to complete (on topics including lasers, electronics and fuel cells), some blog posts for various freelancer societies and software companies, a load of copy for a technical PR firm’s new website and I’m ghostwriting some pieces for a fascinating apps company – but due to the non-disclosure agreement, I can’t say much more!

11. What is next for you? What is your big dream?

At the moment, I’m happy with the level of work and freelancer life I have. Once the children are a little older, I do have plans to expand the business – but I’ll have to see if and when that happens.

12. What is your advice for any mum who isn’t doing what she loves and aspires to go it alone?

Go for it. There will never be a completely right time. I agonized over my decision to leave “proper” work and begin freelancing but the benefits far outweigh any risks.

That said, it does help to mitigate those risks. Don’t burn your bridges with your previous employer, make sure your business is commercially viable and, if possible, try to balance work and freelancing for a while to test if there is a demand for your business.

I know freelancing is for me as I’m so much happier with this way of working than I ever was in permanent employment. It works for my career and, most importantly, it works for my family. And I can afford some pretty fabulous shoes now!

For more information about Gemma, visit her website.