Like many freelance journalists, I began my working life trapped in an office job I detested. The gray cubicle walls that surrounded me for eight hours a day Monday through Friday were not only claustrophobia-inducing but creativity-squelching.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but had no idea where to begin. My cubicle days became numbered when I came across a course in magazine writing offered by George Brown College in Toronto.
Images of myself sitting out on my balcony with my computer on my lap, cup of coffee beside me and my fingers happily typing out stories prompted me to register.
Every Tuesday evening, I joined other wannabe freelancers – some published, others not, some just out of school, others like me, searching for a second career. All were eager to hear advice from travel and lifestyle writer Steve Veale on how to make money doing what they love. Three weeks into the course, we were faced with our first writing assignment. I had been published before in a community newspaper during my university days, but had never been graded on my work. Thinking my prior publishing status automatically meant I was a great writer, I was crushed when I received a B+ and worried whether my writing skills were up to par to succeed as a journalist.
I breathed a sigh of relief in week five when Veale told us that in his experience, the best writers in the class were not the ones that experienced the most success as freelancers. Instead, it was the ones that wanted it the most, the ones with the most persistence. That did it for me. I was nothing if not persistent and I wanted to be a published writer more than anything in the world.
I pushed on, sending queries to various publications from the confines of my gray cube. In between meetings and phone calls, I researched publications and read as much as I could. During my lunch breaks, I ran to the bookstore across the street and scoured through their publications, collecting editor’s names and addresses and pounding out query letters once I returned to my desk.
I experienced my first publishing success six weeks into the class when my article query on surviving Canadian winter was accepted by Canadian Immigrant Magazine. The sold article put $125 in my pocket and added a priceless boost to my inner journalistic spirit. Six months have passed since the course ended. With over ten published pieces under my belt, I decided to follow up with my former classmates to see how they have fared in the freelance world.
Stephanie Deline was one of the most memorable members of our wannabe-journalists clan. A musician and aspiring writer, Deline spent her days writing music, performing and recording with her band and getting her start-up photography business off the ground. Like many artists, she was struggling to make ends meet, but balked at the idea of going back to school. It was only after picking up a copy of Rolling Stone that she realized her future was in music journalism.
“I knew I could write, but it never occurred to me that I could get published. Taking Steve’s class made it seem so very possible”, she says. In addition to learning valuable information about the business of journalism, the class gave her the confidence to pitch her ideas.
In one memorable class, Veale showed us a query letter that had been written by a former student. It was a beautifully crafted piece about the Galapagos Islands in which the author compared the animals’ mating rituals to the behaviors of her fellow shipmates. The idea was brilliant and the letter something we all, as wannabe journalists, aspired to write. When asked when the piece was published, Veale replied “It wasn’t. She never sent it in.” This was the start of his “a hundred percent of the articles you don’t pitch will never get published” lecture. That advice was enough to get us to throw away our nerves and self-doubt and pitch.
Since the course, Deline’s profile piece on Moe Berg, written as a class assignment, was later published in Professional Sound Magazine and her service article on how to write a love-gone-wrong song, also written for class, was accepted in the online publication FutuReale. Since completing the course, she has scored a staff position at Canadian Musician Magazine and is living her dream as a music journalist.
Veale’s advice also spurred fellow student Iris Leung to leave her restaurant job and become a research journalist for the popular trade publication, Investment Executive. A visit from guest speaker and former student, Olivia Glauberzon, now research editor at the same publication, inspired her to apply for an open position.
Veale opened the class on day one by stating that he wasn’t there to teach writing, but to teach how to sell. For me, Veale was as much a therapist as a teacher, urging us to get over our fears and insecurities and lock our fingers to the keyboard.
Freelance journalism can be a lonely industry full of writers working in isolation, largely from the comfort, and distraction, of their home offices. In such a solitary industry, sometimes what is needed is a little push. That, for the three of us, came from the simple act of registering for a course, proving that a small investment in education, or call it “psychotherapy for journalists”, can take someone from being an aspiring writer to a published one.
Lisa Evans’ work has previously been published in Canadian Immigrant, Fifty Five Plus, Our Canada and Scene Magazine. You can learn more at http://lisa-m-evans.weebly.com.