Interview: Valerie Khoo

Successful freelance writer and director of the Sydney Writers' Centre,  Valerie Khoo, kindly agreed to an interview to offer insights into feature writing for magazines.

Valerie Khoo is an award-winning feature writer whose articles appear regularly in The Sydney Morning Herald. Before becoming a freelance writer eight years ago, she was features director of CLEO. Valerie is also the journalist behind the popular Enterprise blog of and

She has worked at the three publishing giants - ACP Magazine, Pacific Magazines and EMAP - and currently works as a freelance editor for several consumer and corporate publications. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Vogue, SHE, Australian Financial Review and The Age.

Valerie is author of five books. She is a former accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers but switched careers many years ago when she finally gave in to her passion for writing. She hasn't looked back. Many of Valerie's students end up successfully publishing their work and carving out careers as successful writers.

1. How did you discover you wanted to be a writer instead of an accountant?

I was always interested in writing. Even at school I enjoyed writing. However, despite winning the English competition in five out of the six years I was in high school, I never really considered writing a "real" career. I have no idea why - I just never thought of it as a real job. I guess I didn't believe, at the time, that you could get paid well to do something so enjoyable! Thankfully, I now know that's not true at all. And when you actually do what you love, you excel at it - and people are willing to pay you very well.

It wasn't until I had worked in accounting for about a year that I realised I really needed to follow my passion for writing. So I started studying, reading and writing - but it still took another couple of years before I convinced myself it could be a "real" career. Once I figured that out, I never looked back.

2. Did you quit accounting instantly or convert to part-time writing first?

Once I made a decision that I really wanted to pursue writing/media, I quit accounting instantly and took on a series of part-time jobs while I studied journalism and public relations. I started freelance writing shortly after and fitted that around my part-time jobs.

3. What were your first goals as a writer? For which publications did you aim to write?

My first goals were to get published in magazines. I've always loved magazines. My part-time job throughout high school was in a newsagency so I was surrounded by magazines and newspapers all the time. I used to devour magazines and I thought it would be so wonderful to be able to meet and interview interesting people, write about their stories and then see those stories published in my favourite magazine.

4. What was your first paid (or breakthrough) article? How did it come about?

My first paid or breakthrough article was for Dolly magazine! I remember it clearly. It was about how to get a good job after school. I remember when I finally saw it on the news-stands I was so excited. These days, I see my name in print all over the place - but I still won't forget the day I saw it for the first time. I was at the newsagency at Town Hall station and I picked up the mag - and there it was!

5. What is the most enjoyable article you have written?

I've enjoyed writing so many of my articles I really couldn't pick one. I don't think I could even narrow it down to a handful. I guess that's because I find people endlessly fascinating - whether they are the local butcher or an international celebrity. People are inherently very interesting. And one of the great pleasures of my job is being able to peek into their lives and then represent their story through my words. Also, I love learning - so it's a great privilege to be a career where you can be inquisitive, you have a licence to ask questions all the time.

6. The Sydney Writers' Centre has many exciting writing courses. What are some of the memorable student success stories?

There are so many incredible student successes. I'm thrilled that almost every single day we will get an email from a former student who has been published or achieved a major milestone in their writing journey. I'm constantly amazed at how successful our students are - and so proud of them too. They are truly talented.

Mitch Lewis is a great success story. He has a four-book deal with Omnibus Press. Kylie Williams won a coveted place in a James Patterson chain thriller. And countless students are published in magazines and newspapers. One of my favourite pastimes on the weekend is opening up the weekend newspapers while I'm having coffee and spotting all the names of our former students in there. There are just too many for me to list here!

7. What's your best tip for beginner freelance writers?

Don't give up. But, even more importantly, understand your audience. You might be the best writer in the world, but if you don't understand and write for the audience of the publication you are pitching to, then it doesn't matter. You always have to serve the audience while telling the best story you can.

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