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Quick chat with Nigel Bartlett

You’ve been a writer for many years. What do you love about what you do?

I’m a person who loves to know about things. I’m always asking “how do they do that?”, “why is that so?”, “what is that person thinking?” To be able to satisfy that curiosity through my work has been an endless source of satisfaction.

As a teenager my career dreams turned at various times to becoming a social worker, an interior designer, architect, artist and briefly (when Fame came out at the movies) an actor, musician or dancer.

Finally, I landed on journalism and was able to write about those roles and enjoy them vicariously.

One of my earliest jobs was on a magazine for the social services. I later spent several years working on entertainment mags and even longer on interiors and architecture titles. 

These days, working in government, I love collaborating in teams and creating order out of chaos. Taking a mass of impenetrable information and turning it into a clear, simple website, app or digital tool helps me feel I’m improving people’s lives.

What have been the highlights of your career so far?

I dine out on the time I had a one-on-one interview with Yoko Ono, especially when she tried to pull aside the heavy table between us so we could sit closer together. 

Admittedly, I had only 11 minutes with her, and her stony-faced PR yelled out “1 minute left!” from his seat in the corner. But I’m sure Yoko remembers it just as fondly as I do. 

I dine out on the time I had a one-on-one interview with Yoko Ono, especially when she tried to pull aside the heavy table between us so we could sit closer together.

More importantly, I remember being in a community centre in Sydney one evening and seeing an old copy of Family Circle that I recognised on the coffee table. 

I grabbed it and showed my friends a four-page feature in the middle. “I wrote that!” I said. 

It was a piece for parents on how to help their possibly gay teenager come to terms with their sexuality. Back in the mid-2000s, it felt enormously significant to write a piece like that for a mass-market magazine.

You have freelanced many times over the years, moving between inhouse roles and freelancing – what do you enjoy about each?

When I’m freelancing, I love the sense of anticipation and excitement of not quite knowing what I’ll be working on next. The variety can be as rich as I want to make it. 

I love the buzz I get from an editor saying yes to a pitch. I’ve stood in my kitchen punching the air after hearing that a story I truly wanted to write would be published. 

Just as exciting is when I’m having a hum-drum day at my computer and suddenly an email pops into my inbox with the subject line: “Are you free to write this piece?” 

As for in-house roles, I’ve made lifelong friends at places I’ve worked at (including from when I first arrived in Sydney in 1995). I enjoy teamwork, office (and tearoom) chat and the feeling that we’re all working on something valuable together. 

When I’m freelancing, I love the sense of anticipation and excitement of not quite knowing what I’ll be working on next. The variety can be as rich as I want to make it. 

Naturally, I also relish the fortnightly pay, paid leave and superannuation. Being freelance brings a certain amount of freedom, but in some ways it requires more discipline for me to feel safe and secure.

What skills do you think are the most important for freelancers to acquire?

Well, the answer to this would be different for everyone, but for me the most valuable skill I learnt was to be as gracious as possible. 

This doesn’t come naturally to a grump like me, but I quickly learnt to respond to requests for more information, more detail or more interviews for a piece, in as friendly and polite a manner as possible, even when my first thought was, “FFS. Really??” 

The request may sometimes be unreasonable, but I find it’s better to do what the person asks and then, after I’ve filed the story, that’s when I can assess whether I want to work for that person/organisation again and if, in fact, what they’ve asked has made the piece better overall. 

In the moment, when both they and I may be stressed and under pressure, I’m not in the best place to make that decision.

Alongside that, I loved improving my financial literacy. Early on, I was terrible at setting aside money for tax. After a while I paid 20 to 30 per cent of every invoice to the ATO within 24 hours of receiving a payment. 

I hated feeling out of control around money, so I did the best I could to create stability in that area. And it meant I always had a nice refund when I did my tax return.

Also: I wish I’d paid more attention to my super during my freelancing years. I’m making up for it now through my contracting work, but I wish I’d had more foresight when I was younger. It’s never too early to start.

Why do you think the Summit is important for freelancers?

Anything that helps people feel connected with each other is brilliant. Freelancing can be isolating. 

The things that are wonderful about freelancing (being our own bosses, working from home, or even working in offices for short-term contracts) can also be the worst things. Being able to meet and talk with others is vital, for me at least.

Learning how others do things is also hugely important for me. I’ve often felt like I’ve muddled along and somehow carved a path without knowing what the hell I’m doing. 

Listening to other people’s stories about how to do things better is both fascinating and at times life-changing. Being at a summit like this means I don’t have to pester people to meet for coffee and pick their brains. I can listen to their sessions and chat to people in between. 

The conference theme is all about futureproofing your career. What steps are you taking to futureproof your own?

I love the idea of maintaining as open a mindset as possible. When I find myself thinking, “I can’t possibly do that” or sink into a despondent or hopeless mood (as happens when I’m bored by a project), I realise I’m in a danger zone and I need to remind myself that there are actually endless possibilities out there so long as I stay open to them.

I’ve found it’s important to draw threads between what I’ve done in the past and see how that relates to what I might do in the future. 

I’ve learnt that lesson from past experience. I was shocked when I got my first job as a content designer. But actually a lot of what I do now (UX writing, user research, writing long-form content for government websites and so on) is not very different to the skills I developed as a magazine writer and sub-editor. 

I was shocked when I got my first job as a content designer. But actually a lot of what I do now (UX writing, user research, writing long-form content for government websites and so on) is not very different to the skills I developed as a magazine writer and sub-editor.

I’d never have dreamt I’d end up trying to find the clearest way to write, “Click this button, no not that button, THIS BUTTON!” 

It really came about by chance, and because I was willing to ignore the voice that told me I couldn’t do it and instead say, “Can I do that? Why not? I’ll give it a go.”

I try take a similar approach now. I can be terrified of learning new design tools or technologies, but experience has shown me that if I’m willing to just try something new, I can pick it up relatively quickly and follow whatever path it takes me down. 

I’ve been on lots of courses, listened to a tonne of podcasts, watched loads of YouTube tutorials. Not all of them have been helpful (except to show me I’m really not interested in what they’re teaching), but many have. I surprise even myself at how much I’ve learnt.

What are your thoughts on AI / ChatGPT?

I’m simultaneously head-in-the-sand and “this could be exciting” in my thoughts about AI. I hear writers on podcasts who are highly enthusiastic about it. Joanna Penn, who’s big in the world of self-publishing, is eternally bright and optimistic and gives many examples about how she uses it to come up with plot ideas and so on.

I do also feel that many fears have been expressed in the past that simply haven’t come to fruition: videos would kill cinemas, Kindles would kill books and so on. Overall I’m taking the ‘see how it pans out’ approach. I’m keen to understand more about AI.

On the other hand, I feel a lot of trepidation about the fact that we’re still early in AI’s development and ChatGPT is only the beginning. I feel our lives are going to change dramatically and we have no idea how this will play out. 

I do also feel that many fears have been expressed in the past that simply haven’t come to fruition: videos would kill cinemas, Kindles would kill books and so on. Overall I’m taking the “see how it pans out” approach. I’m keen to understand more about AI. 

I can’t picture it replacing the parts of my job that require soft skills: user research, understanding how a service works and looking at ways to make it better. 

And I’m not sure it can handle turning the highly complex and turgid content I often deal with into plain, simple language, but who knows? If it can do that part of my job for me, bring it on.

Do you think the future is exciting for freelancers, and if so, why?

The future is always exciting for freelancers. The ability to shape your working life in a way that suits you is always exciting, as is not knowing what’s around the corner.

Being able to keep an eye on how things are changing, how to shift focus if needed, and what opportunities might lie ahead is both daunting and thrilling – and that’s the very nature of excitement.

What are you most looking forward to about the Summit?

I’m really looking forward to seeing a number of people face to face for the first time in a gazillion years, including both Rachel and Lynne. 

And you know how I said I’ve made lifelong friends from working in magazines? One of them is on the same panel as me – Monique Butterworth, who I first worked with on NW when I arrived in Sydney in 1995. So that’s extremely fortuitous and it will be wonderful to chinwag with her. 

Aside from that, I’m keen to meet new friends and hear people talk about subject areas I need to catch up with – fast. I’m excited about the tea breaks. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I really, really love tea. 


Nigel is a panelist for ‘How to find work (with your finger in all the pies’ on Day 1 of the Summit.


Find out more about Nigel Bartlett on his profile page
or listen to this episode on The Content Byte.

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