Three top tips for would-be freelance writers

Posted on November 18, 2010

3 top tips for new freelance writersValerie Khoo and I shared cupboard office space together at CLEO and I’ve watched in awe as she’s gone on to broaden her career from editor to entrepreneur, writing five books and countless articles along the way, and now as director of the Australian Writers’ Centre. I shouldn’t be surprised. She’s the poster girl for career change, having been an accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers before finally giving in to her passion for writing – and finding a way to make it work.

I asked her for her top tips for becoming a professional writer.

What do you think are the key attributes of a professional writer across any genre?
Valerie Khoo: “Discipline, discipline, and a little bit more discipline. If you want to make a living from writing, you need to… write! And you need commitment to hone your craft, improve your work and learn from your mistakes. It’s not about waiting for inspiration to hit. It’s about making yourself put your fingers to the keyboard or pen to paper. Which is not to say that creativity is not important. But I believe that we are all inherently creative beings – but not all of us have the discipline needed to channel that creative energy into a full-time income-producing career.”

Why did you set up the Australian Writers’ Centre?
VK: “Basically, I created the kind of writers’ centre I wished had existed when I was first dipping my toes into the world of writing. When I was transitioning careers from accounting to writing, I was desperate for resources and guidance to help me make it happen. AWC is the dynamic, inspiring place I would have loved to attend.

“We have a huge range of courses, but our most popular courses are creative writing and magazine writing. We offer both of those online so that students can learn from anywhere in the world – as well as in our Harbourside training rooms here at the Centre.”

How do you choose your course presenters?
VK: “Our presenters need to talk the talk and walk the walk, so to speak. They have to be currently working in the industry and they need to be dealing with the subject they teach day to day. We’re committed to offering courses that are very practical so that students leave with new skills that they can use immediately. Our presenters share their inside knowledge and give students a realistic insight into what they need to do to get published or write with confidence.”

Do you think writing for blogs differs from writing for other publications? How?
VK: “I think blogs are wonderful. They offer a creative outlet and an opportunity for your writing to be read by an interested audience. Blogs are similar to other publications in that they need to attract and sustain an audience. But they’re different in that you receive instant feedback. That can be very satisfying.”

What are your three top tips for would-be freelance writers?
VK: “1. Know your market. You can be the best writer in the whole world but that’s a moot point if you don’t know how to write for a specific market. You need the ability to analyse a magazine and, from there, be able to work out the tone and style of writing that you need to employ, the angles the magazine would be interested in, and the case studies or interviews you’d need to use. We teach that in our course ‘Feature Writing for Magazines and Newspapers’, and students constantly tells us how valuable it is. Without it, you can’t build a viable career as a freelance writer.”

“2. Get over the fear of pitching to editors. This can be debilitating when you are starting out. I always think it’s a shame when I see someone who’s just too scared to pick up the phone and pitch their story idea to an editor. The reality is that if you’ve done step 1 (above) and analysed the magazine to ensure that your idea is a good ‘fit’, then you significantly increase your chances of your article being accepted. I know it can seem daunting, but you have to get over it. The good news is that it gets easier every time you do it!

“3. You can make very good money as a freelance writer. “Some people think that, as a writer, you need to live like an artist starving in a garrett. I don’t agree with that. There’s nothing romantic about that in my books – not with Sydney property prices the way they are! I think that you can make a very healthy income from your freelance writing if you treat it like a business and make sure you’re professional in everything that you do. It can be useful to try to get a mix of higher-paying corporate projects and the editorial projects that feed your soul (but which may not make you rich).”

For more tips on freelance writing, you can hear Valerie and I talk all things writing EVERY WEEK on our podcast.


  1. Louisa

    I feel inspired, thank you. I can do this, I can do this, I CAN do this!
    Need to work on the discipline bit, since having a baby I find less and less time to write. I respond to commissioned work but I am one of those writers who is afraid to pitch although I know I have some great ideas. However, as I say, I am inspired and determined to be braver!

  2. Cate

    Great interview, and as someone who’s also done / is going through career change – is very pertinent.

    Will be having a look at the Centre online.

  3. Cate

    Great interview, and as someone who’s also done / is going through career change – is very pertinent.

    Will be having a look at the Centre online.

  4. Bronnie and family

    As someone who has worked as a freelance writer and editor for about 20 years, I agree with all this advice. Freelancing can be fun and lucrative, but it’s not for everyone. You do have to be disciplined, know your market, and give your editors what they want. Good luck! x

  5. Rachel

    Great interview…. and I sure will check out there site … and as I see they are open to overseas even better

  6. Wanderlust

    What an excellent interview! I’m glad to know their courses are open to overseas students. I’ll check out the website. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  7. MultipleMum

    You know all the cool people Al! I have checked out the centre before (because you have recommended it so highly). Will go back again – maybe there is something that will enhance my blog? Thanks Valerie for sharing your words of wisdom with us. Great stuff!

  8. HooliDooli

    I’ve been following the Sydney Writer’s Centre and Valerie for ages as I have university writing qualifications but nothing practical, i.e. it lacked that day to day ‘how to make money from it’ aspect. I am keen to do the online courses as live 1000s of kms away! It will be part of my 2011 resolutions to get into it.
    Thanks for choosing such a go-getting interviewee, Ali, and thanks Valerie for taking the time.
    Such great advice to take on board.

  9. Kerry

    Allison and Valerie…that was fantastic. I’ve been immersed in the website for ages since I read this, and thinking Bali in June sounds good!!

  10. Lisa Heidke

    Great Q & A!
    Thanks for sharing Al and Valerie. Will pop over (online) to The Sydney Writer’s Centre and have a snoop.

  11. misssy m

    Great interview and great advice.

  12. Maxabella

    Valerie is someone that I have long admired as an astute go-getting business woman. Typical that you know her. I should always ask you that question whenever someone catches my attention!! Thanks for the interview, Al and Val (sorry, couldn’t resist). x

  13. Our Park Life

    A very helpful post – I just signed up for the Sydney Writer’s Centre Newsletter last week and am considering doing one of the online courses…

    Perhaps this post is the extra little piece of motivation I needed….

    Are Valerie’s books fiction or writing/career books?

    Gill xo

  14. Katie

    I’m currently working on getting over that fear of pitching articles. Hopefully soon, that will be second nature. Thank you both for the helpful post!

  15. Leanne Anderson

    I recently completed the feature writing course with Valerie, and it was awesome. So practical and such good tips and feedback. I’m refining my pitch on an article on Aussies making overseas sea-changes and your Q&A with Valerie gave me some extra motivation to finish and PITCH it.



  16. livinglifeasme

    Your timing is impeccable Ms Tait. I shall have a look at the Sydney Writer’s Centre website. Thank you … for everything. xx

  17. Posie Patchwork

    That was fascinating & very relevant to many a small business model. Valerie sounds ace, while kind & encouraging, she is straight to the point.
    Love that she transitioned from accounting, a crucial business tool no doubt to her method of writing. Love Posie

  18. Valerie Khoo

    It sure was a cupboard Al. No windows. I swear that the fact you say next to me was the only reason I stayed sane 🙂

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