Under the Radar with Sian Meades
The founder and co-editor of Domestic Sluttery talks the realities of freelancing, founding the UK's first lifestyle website and doing things for the pure joy of it.
Ellie Austin scored a job at Immediate Media as a Features Writer for Radio Times after graduating from the Magazine Journalism MA course at City University. Here she talks about working in the fast-paced world of a major weekly magazine and the power of a good coffee.
What made you want to become a writer?
I've always written, ever since I was tiny. I didn't entirely know what to do when I finished university so I ended up working in ad sales. I used to work on the British Airways magazines, because that's what you do when you have an English degree and you finish university; you end up working in media sales. I wasn't entirely sure where that would lead.
I then started writing for a website called Londonist and I just carried on writing, and then someone offered to pay me for my writing, which was great. After that, I jumped in headfirst into freelancing.
I had absolutely no idea how it worked. I had no idea that the website that I had left my well-paying job for was going to fold four months later. I didn't know how to pitch for work. This was when Twitter was incredibly new, so there was no sort of digital online network. I was scrappy and really irritating until people commissioned me, but I had no idea what I was doing. That was, I think, about 11 years ago.
Can you chart your journey from when you started out to your current position?
I guess I'm always wary of starting with Domestic Sluttery as when it was a website, because that's part of its history. It feels like it's such a long time ago now, so Domestic Sluttery essentially started in 2009. It was one of the first lifestyle blogs in the UK, which seems madness now. At the time, there were magazines that didn't even have websites. It was actually quite ground-breaking. That carried on until 2014. I realised, that although the site was profitable, and we were paying a small amount to our contributors, we had 12 writers at the time, it just wasn't sustainable.
It took over my life, so I closed the site, and I was freelancing for a lot of other companies at the time. I continue to work as a freelance writer. I went in-house for a couple of jobs, but I missed it [Domestic Sluttery]. I hated not having my own thing to do. I then launched a travel website, which was my last bad job, shall we say?
While I was doing it, I read a newsletter called Thread by Jean Edelstein. It's amazing newsletter, she's now just written a book off the back of the success of her newsletter, which is really cool. I discovered this brilliant world of women writing newsletters and having a space to talk about what they wanted to. It made me feel very much of how blogging used to be, so I started my own [newsletter].
It was literally that afternoon, I read the email at lunchtime and thanks to TinyLetter, I had setup my own newsletter by the end of that hour. It was called The Friday Wishlist, and it was based on a column that was on the original blog. It was literally just a quite funny, very pretty list of seven or eight nice things. That was it. That was all it was. It grew very quickly, and it was scalable, and it was profitable instantly. I used affiliate links, and it didn't take up a huge amount of time. There was a huge chunk of that that paid for me to go back to university. It paid a lot of my MA fees for the first year.
I mean, there's a late-night dinner and a bottle of Prosecco in the middle of that story... Laura's [Brown, Co-Editor of Domestic Sluttery] based in Dundee, and I had dinner with some old DS writers, although I was just chatting with Laura on Twitter after everyone had gone home.
It sparked something in me. I woke up at five in the morning adamant that DS should come back as a newsletter. I don't know where it had come from, and I couldn't shake it. I was going on holiday the next day. By the end of the day, we'd just planned it all and we were so excited. I had to force myself not to sit by a pool in Italy making a business plan. We were just having secret conversations with each other. Whenever my fiancé, Tom, went off to do something, I'd message Laura and just go, "What about this? What about this?" Absolutely not being on holiday at all. That was two years ago. I still freelance and love doing that.
I think how we consume media is changing. We don't necessarily have time to seek out the best content anymore. But there's more to read, more to discover. So we distill that into one daily email, rather like getting a magazine in your inbox. We cover everything from women's history to fashion and food, but we only share the best of those topics. We've built up a huge level of trust with our readers, they know we truly love what we're sharing each day. Despite it being seen as a largely professional space, there's still an intimacy in email. You're next to emails from someone's best friend, their boss, whoever they're flirting with so we need our content to nail it every single day. Our inboxes can be overwhelming, Domestic Sluttery is a lunchtime respite from that. It feels like a club of brilliant, like-minded women and we love the community that we've created.
I Absolutely love my clients and I have quite regular clients now, which is great. I don't have to pitch and go crazy, because I don't necessarily know that freelancing suits me. I also run a newsletter called Freelance Writing Jobs.
Tell me more about your Freelance Writing Jobs newsletter, how did that come about?
I started that because I had a really, really crappy year freelancing last year. I had to postpone the second year of my MA, just because I hadn't made enough money. It was horrible. It felt like I was failing at something I really, really wanted to do. I mean Domestic Sluttery is brilliant and I love it, but we've started from scratch again. It will take a while before that is making the money that I would love it to be able to make.
Freelance Writing Jobs was very much born out of love and wanting to help people. I'm so fond of it. It's really nice when you get an email from someone saying, "I got this job because of this newsletter." People send me the articles they've written. I now open it up and do a semi-regular advice surgery. If people are struggling with being freelance, they can get in touch and I will help as best I can. I just want freelancers to be happy and get work that they wouldn't otherwise know about. I think freelance writing, it can be quite insular; you don't talk to anyone. If you're getting your foot in the door, you don't know about those opportunities. You don't necessarily know someone who works at a newspaper who would give you freelance shifts. I hope that editors come to me and say, "Can you put this in the newsletter? I need people to pitch. I think our representation, as editors, needs to change. When we're busy, I think we commission people we know and writers we know. That tends to be the same pool all the time. Everyone finds freelancing tough, and no one talks about it.
Do you have a go-to work outfit?
If I've got a tough job to do, I will put lipstick on. I will absolutely put lipstick on before I make a scary phone call, but I put lipstick on before I do anything scary. I run in lipstick. I've just started ballet classes, and I'll put lipstick on before my class. It's a power thing for me. It makes me feel a little bit more together.
What do you turn to when you’re on deadline – tea/coffee/snacks?
I cannot start anything without a cup of tea, literally nothing. It bookends my to-do list basically. Once I finish the task, it's a cup of tea. Once I've started one, cup of tea. Yeah, nothing gets done around here without tea.
What’s the most unusual situation you’ve found yourself in because of your job?
I went to the Arctic Circle, it was a really, really strange thing. It was to talk about the technology behind wake-up lights, which was an unusual way to end up in one of the most incredible places I've ever been. It was pretty great. I didn't understand when the PR called me, because I live in Greenwich. There's a bar in Greenwich called the North Pole. When I was invited to the Arctic Circle, I was just like, "Oh cool. Whereabouts in London is that opening up?" I genuinely just thought it was another bar. It was a complete surprise when I realised that actually I was going to fly to the Arctic Circle. That was pretty cool!
What would people be surprised to know about your job?
I think people are surprised by how much research goes into what we do, especially with the newsletters. Some of the newsletters are quite in-depth, they are very heavily researched. I can sometimes spend a whole day on research.
The writing is the quick bit, I think that's the surprising thing, I spend more time doing stuff that people don't see.
Walk me through your typical day.
It depends. The newsletters bookmark my day a little bit. Each newsletter has a different theme and that helps us structure our week a little bit. My priority in the mornings is always the newsletter. It's something that we are done and dusted with by midday.
I'm not particularly creative first thing. I tend to leave most of my writing until late afternoon. So, newsletters first, everything else comes in the afternoon.
Tell me about giving a talk at PPA’s Magfest in Glasgow earlier this year?
I loved it. It was, without a doubt, the most friendly and inclusive conference I've ever been to. There were so many students there. I didn't know they were students, they were on the same level as all of the other professional journalists and editors there. It was really lovely. I've never seen so many students be so engaged with everything that was going on. We had a really nice feedback from our talk.
Just the positivity around an industry that everybody keeps saying is dying was actually lovely. It's an industry that has a huge heart to it, I think, and really, really talented people. That was all packed into one day, The positivity was overwhelming, it was great!
If you didn’t have to sleep, how would you use the remaining hours in the day?
I'd sleep, even if I didn’t need too! I really enjoy sleep, it's lovely. I'd read more books, but don't take my sleep away. I would also read more books, it's part of my MA and it's my break, away from work. It's what I do when I'm sitting on a bus or something like that. Sitting on a bus is my reading time at the moment, because I'm writing my dissertation. Every spare minute that I'm not working is reading a book. I think there's a big difference between studying and reading for pleasure. I don't think I get to pick up a book for fun until February now.
What is the last photo you took on your phone (at time of interview)? Why?
Delightfully, it’s of my new skirt covered in monkeys, from Joy!
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I don't have any. I like what I like, I think the Domestic Sluttery tagline sums it up. The tagline is “Take your pleasure seriously”. If you enjoy something, don't feel guilty about it.
Whose phone number do you wish you had?
Fiona Bruce. I really, really want to be pals with Fiona Bruce. I think she's so smart and so switched on, and a bit sexy.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
There's been quite a lot of chat recently about women being more like men in the workplace. I was having a chat with the writer, Sarah Perry, about this on Twitter. There's a really weird thing that to get on with work, we have to be ball-busters and assertive and not apologetic and basically not kind. At some point in the whole conversation about women in the workplace, being more masculine has become the answer. I don't think it's the right approach.
I feel like being kind and polite and patient is just a really great way to approach your day. I'm uncomfortable with that approach. The idea that we shouldn't be tentative in an email, we should take out just and apologising. Women certainly shouldn't need to apologize in any space or apologise for doing their jobs. There is a nuance and the sensitivity and brashness aren’t always the answer. I say this as quite a brash person. I think just hiding who you are and being less of who you are is terrible advice.
What/where is your happy place?
I'm a real homebody. Angel in London is my happy place. My flat is my happy place. This is where I live and it's been my home for a few years now. I'm such a Londoner. I love to travel, absolutely love it, I would go around the world at a drop of a hat, but I've never felt more content than arriving home from a trip. There is something about it, especially if I get to Charing Cross Station and have to go over the bridge, getting a bus over the river is genuinely one of the nicest experiences that anyone coming into London can do. London is my happy place.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Everyone I've spoken to who knows me is surprised by the fact that I've just taken up ballet classes. Ballet is the one hour that I have each week where I totally switch off. I'm not thinking about anything else. It doesn't matter if I'm crap at it as long as I'm a little bit better than I was last week. That's it. It's totally for me. No one sees it. I get to go at my own pace. Everything else I do is pretty much judged and put online so it's really nice just to have something that isn't.
What would be in your Room 101?
Cinema fidgeters. I was absolutely, absolutely so furious at this really, really fidgety guy sitting next to me in the cinema last week. It was so infuriating. They did not sit still for two hours, I nearly moved to the front of the cinema, it was that bad!
Also, Waiters who top your water up when the jug is on the table or any drink actually. I don't really like total strangers topping up my wine. You stop talking when a waiter comes over and I don't need my water topped up, I'm a grown adult. I can do it myself.
Introvert or extrovert?
I'm both. I am a very outgoing introvert.
Optimist or pessimist?
Total optimist. I don't think you can be freelance and pessimistic.
Film or television? What are you binge-watching at the moment?
Television. We're re-watching all of ER as it's on TV at the moment. God, I love it. I love it so much.
Sweet or savoury?
Morning person or night owl?
Tea or coffee?
Emojis – cool or cringey? Which emoji do you use the most?
Okay. Every newsletter that DS sends out has two or three emojis at the end of it. It makes us stand out in inboxes. I love them. I really, really love them. I think it was Beyoncé that said they were the same in every language. That's something that I really took to heart, because if you're going to take anything to heart, it should be Beyoncé. Which do I use the most? All of the food ones, they get used a lot, and the little dancer woman.