Valerie 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.