Interview: Sue White
1. How did you discover you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always loved to write and realised early on that non-fiction was my forte. Early plans to become a journalist were put on hold when numerous work experience placements left me thinking journalism was dominated by smoking, drinking, swearing older men, which didn’t appeal to my 17-year-old self – it all seemed a bit overwhelming.
2. In which other fields have you worked? How did you transition into becoming a freelancer?
I spent many years working in the not-for-profit world, using my writing skills to help with fundraising and marketing for charities. I also did the same for health research. Every job I’ve held since university (going on 15 years) has involved my writing skills. Eventually, I got tired of being in an office and realised freedom was more enticing than security so moved into freelancing.
3. What were your first goals as a writer? For which publications did you aim to write?
My initial goals were to build up my writing income slowly. After early explorations with a couple of low-end publications that took months to pay the pittance they promised, I realised it was a waste of time to aim low. Since then I only write for established, well-recognised publications, usually the big names most people know. I figure this is not only better for my portfolio, but for my chances of being paid promptly, after all, as a freelancer you are the only one who is responsible for your bank balance.
As a Sydney local I always wanted to write for the Sydney Morning Herald (I’m now a regular contributor), and my goal now is to keep writing for a mix of publications so that if another GFC strikes I am covered. I try to write regularly for about 5-8 publications at a time, which seems about right for a fulltime load.
4. What was your first paid (or breakthrough) article? How did it come about?
Actually, way back at university in my communications degree we were set an assignment to write a feature article. I was always a bit of a multi-tasker, so thought, ‘Well, if I have to do this anyway I may as well write something I think will get published.” So I wrote a piece on an up-and-coming local designer for The Canberra Times, where I worked and studied. I got lucky with an editor who was willing to give me feedback (a rarity that all writers should treasure), saying “I like this but we could only use it for the business section, so you’d need to go back and get some more business facts”. I took it on the chin, went back and did the second interview, got it published and then wrote consistently for his section for the next couple of years.
5. What is the most enjoyable article you have written?
Some articles are joyous in their sheer simplicity (a bonus as freelancers get paid by the word, so simple equals an easier salary); but I tend to enjoy the environment writing I do, because I get access to people at the top of their fields doing amazing work. These are probably the most research-intensive stories I do, but also are the ones where I feel I have the most chance to write on something I believe in.
However, last year’s trip to Belize (a tiny country tucked next to Mexico on the Carribean coast) was clearly a dream job. I spent a week researching a piece for Vogue Entertaining+Travel about how chocolate is made, hiking through the jungle to talk to farmers working in fairtrade organic chocolate. (The eating of chocolate and swim in crystal clear waters on an afternoon off was a definite bonus.)
6. Travel writing is a dream job for many people. How would you recommend breaking into this field?
If you’re an adventurous traveler, choose your next trip based on what you think might make an interesting story. Go on your own dime, make some notes on the way, and on your return write it up and send it ‘on spec’ (ie: without a commission from an editor). Once you’re established you don’t need to write the story before you sell it, but to start, this is attractive.
Be certain it’s the best possible effort you can make for the publication you’re targeting; think about photos (if you’re a good photographer this is a bonus); and be prepared to not hear back. Travel editors receive volumes of submissions a DAY so this is probably the hardest area of freelancing to crack. Just keep at it if you are really convinced this is what you want to do.
7. What's your best tip for beginner freelance writers?
Here’s my top 4!
1. Be prepared to invest time into it. I committed 3 days a week to simply pitching ideas when I first started. Most people want to write but aren’t willing to put the time into selling their stories. It’s my least favourite part but the good news is once people know you the selling part is quicker, easier, and minimises dramatically.
2. Don’t let rejection get to you. Like selling stories, freelancing is far easier once people know you and you have runs on the board. If you’re a good writer, can write to a brief and are willing to persevere it’s ultimately a numbers game, so just keep plugging away till you get there.
3. Do your research, never blow a deadline, and don’t try to sell a story that’s 2000 words to someone only publishing 800-word pieces. Your editor-to-be will just think you’re an amateur and that’ll be the last time they work with you.
4. If an editor offers feedback on a story you’ve submitted, ie: “This doesn’t work as you’ve written it but if you’re willing to change it to be more detailed/international/personal/whatever I’d be willing to take another look,” DON’T FREAK OUT.
Editors are ridiculously busy and the fact they’ve even taken the time to read and comment is great (actually, amazing). So swallow your pride and thank them for the feedback, tell them you will definitely make the changes they have suggested, and that you will get a new version back to them by a certain date. And then do it. If you do all this, you’re on your way. If you fail to do this (especially if you say you’ll get a new version back and then don’t by the deadline), forget it. Apparently most freelancers don’t take on the feedback so this is a great way to stand out from the crowd.
That’s it, freelancing is fantastic for the right type of person, so best of luck!
Labels: Interviews with Feature Writers