Being a freelance writer is a little bit like juggling five frogs at the same time, while each of those frogs juggles tiny chainsaws. There’s a lot going on – different publications, different styles, different stories and more. And that’s where experienced freelancers Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait are always happy to help.
As part of their weekly So you want to be a writer podcast, they’ve dispensed plenty of advice over the years and answered questions to help make being a freelance writer a little easier. They firmly believe that the following top tips should be burned into your brain – the foundation upon which you build all of your stories…
1. Think angle, not subject
A subject might be “working mothers who are going back to work after having a baby”. But this is a subject that an editor is likely to have seen many, many times (Allison literally wrote the book on it!). So as a freelance writer, you need to bring them something fresh. What’s the new angle?
It’s about knowing your audience. The angle on the above subject for something like Women’s Agenda might be about the strategies you can use as a mother returning to work after having children. However, the angle for a business publication would probably be geared towards the employer and their strategies, as well as the policies and legislations about encouraging mothers to return to work. The angle for a website like Essential Baby may be about child care when returning to work. Meanwhile, finding an angle for something like Cosmopolitan may seem unlikely at first, but could be “Can I have a baby now and then still get back into the workplace?”
Another place to find a new angle is in current events – a news story may come out about returning mothers spending 60c for every dollar on child care. Or you may overhear conversations and extrapolate from there. It really is about finding the niche topic within a larger subject. If everyone has written about the Titanic sinking, interview from the iceberg’s perspective…
2. Lock in the tricky sources
A common question is whether a freelance writer should secure all sources before pitching a story to an editor. It comes down to the level of difficulty.
If it’s a general expert in something, there will always be someone you can contact to talk about the subject you’re writing about. These are professionals who understand how the media works and can generally be found quickly. It’s not necessary to arrange these in advance of pitching.
However, case studies or niche experts are a different story. As Allison says, “If it’s going to be a difficult subject, I try to organise my case studies in advance. There’s nothing worse than trying to pull three incredibly difficult case studies out within a two-week deadline or something ridiculous like that.” If an editor loves a pitch and you’ve promised specific case studies, you need to be able to deliver these – so line them up in advance. (This will also give you an idea on how much trouble the story is likely to be, and whether it’s worth doing at all!)
Valerie sums it up: “You’ll always find a child psychiatrist, you’ll always find a nutritionist, and you’ll always find a motor mechanic or an accountant. And you’ll easily get a case study like a mother who has taken their children to Montessori. However, if you need to find a mother who has a child in a Montessori, who’s also a fire breathing unicyclist, you really should find and secure that person before you pitch and promise that person to the editor!”
3. Be a clever interviewer
Interviewing people for stories is one of the cornerstones of a freelance writer’s life. (By the way, if this scares you, then you need to ask yourself “what’s the worst that could happen?”. You’re a person asking another person questions – that’s it.) And while everyone may have different techniques about how they conduct an interview, there are a few fundamentals that should be followed.
First up is location. For Allison, the best place for her to do an interview is over the phone, in her office. It’s quiet and she can type the answers at the same time, because she really hates transcribing interviews. This approach is fine if the person is not the main focus of the article – perhaps an expert or case study that is adding “their two cents’ worth” to the story’s angle. But if it’s for a profile, then it’s a good idea to meet face to face – and there’s one thing that you should never do.
Valerie tells all. “It’s the biggest rookie mistake out there. People think they’ll meet in a café and it’s the single worst place for an interview because that cappuccino machine is the only thing that you’re going to hear in your recordings.” And naturally, Allison agrees wholeheartedly with this one. “I try to go to an office, a quiet hotel, foyer, somewhere like that. I’d never do it in a cafe. I know some people think ‘Oh, it’s going to be so cool… we’ll have coffee and we’ll chat’. If you’ve ever tried to transcribe a tape with café background noise in it, you’d never do it again!”
And when you’re on the phone or in that quiet place, be sure to let them do the talking – only interrupt if they’ve clearly gone way off topic for way too long. Give them space to fill in that awkward pause after they stop talking to add anything else. Often this “filling of the silence” is where the most candid quotes can come from.