Tell us (in a nutshell) about your wordsmith career path so far:
I’ll be 30 next month and it’s a little scary to realise I’ve been writing for publication in one form or another for 15 years! I started out in my home town, Adelaide, as a student reporter on a short-lived youth newspaper called Y; it was put out by News Limited’s South Australian community newspapers division. My work there helped me land a cadetship and I started as a general news reporter on The Advertiser newspaper just a couple of months after my 17th birthday. I’ll be eternally grateful for my three years as a cadet journo. After a six-week crash course in shorthand and the basics of crafting a news story, we were thrown into the newsroom and basically told, ‘Be journalists now’! It was a steep learning curve but I loved every minute of it. I covered everything from car crashes and murder trials to business and sports news, eventually becoming both Youth Affairs Reporter and Fashion Editor simultaneously (a weird combo I know!) I stayed at the ‘Tiser for nearly five years, during which time I was named both South Australian and Australian Young Journalist of the Year.
In 2002 I upped sticks and went to London for 12 months – and stayed nearly five years! I had a few jobs there, including production co-ordinator at Conde Nast magazines, which basically entailed chasing agencies for advertising copy. I was terrible at it and hated every second of it! Next I became Features Editor of a big London suburban paper, which was loads of fun – I interviewed some big names there, including Jack Nicholson, Halley Berry, Reese Witherspoon and a pre-crazy Lindsay Lohan.
I moved to Sydney with my husband in 2007. After a short stint as a book publicist, I became Deputy Editor and then Editor of ACP Magazines’ Slimming & Health. It sadly closed last year – a victim of the GFC – and I decided to pursue my long-held dream of becoming a full-time freelancer. It was a pretty big gamble – particularly as I signed the mortgage papers for my first home the day I was made redundant – but I haven’t looked back!
Sorry, that’s a pretty big nutshell! (Sarah: ‘Tis ok, shall refer to it as egg shell instead. Dinosaur eggshell.)
What are some of your current projects, and who are you writing for at the moment?
I’ve just finished a couple of features for Notebook magazine and my to-do list for the next few weeks includes stories for Madison, Dogs Life and Studio Brides, plus some in-house subbing work. There’s nothing like a bit of diversity! I’m also a part-time student – I’m studying screenwriting at film school – and as part of that I have a TV pilot and a feature film script to write. No pressure then…!
What made you get into freelance writing?
I think all journalists fantasise about being their own bosses! It was definitely something I’d wanted to try for a long time and when Slimming & Health closed it felt like the universe giving me a kick up the bum and telling me to give it a go. I’d been an editor and wasn’t necessarily professionally or creatively fulfilled, so I felt I owed it to myself to try freelancing.
You used to have a blog, but considering the weight of the material discussed (if you pardon the pun) you decided to shut it down. Do you ever regret this decision, or do you not find it essential for writers to have their own web space?
My blog was about weight loss and I wound it up basically because I was sick of getting nasty comments from people who had obviously missed the point of what I was trying to do with it. So no, I don’t regret giving up an avenue for people to judge me based on my thoughts on just one topic! But I do miss blogging and what is, for the most part, a really supportive online community, which is why my professional website (http://www.lauragreaves.com) now has a blog. At least, it has a blog page and said page will have words on it as soon as I get five minutes!
How useful do you find networking, and how would you recommend Wordsmith Lane readers network for their career potential, without coming across as pushy or annoying?
My mum always says, ‘It’s only the price of a postage stamp’. But that’s a bit 20th century, so these days it’s probably more accurate to say it’s only the amount of time it takes to fire off an email or Tweet. I definitely think it’s worthwhile electronically introducing yourself to editors and other writers you admire – you just never know what will come of it. I’d steer clear of follow-up phone calls though; from my own experience as an editor, I know that the incessant ring of the telephone is the bane of their lives!
I really think the most important thing when dealing with anyone at all, but especially someone who could potentially commission you, is politeness. It probably makes me sound like a right nanna, but there’s just not enough of it these days. I know I loathe receiving emails with just a press release attached and no message, or a message that starts just ‘Laura’. What’s wrong with ‘Hi Laura’?! Good manners are free, folks!
You seem to have a niche in the heath area? How important do you think having a niche is, and do you ever find it limiting?
I didn’t intentionally set out to become a health writer, but at the time I went freelance my most recent writing experience had been in that arena so it made sense to pursue it. And I must admit I find it fascinating – there is SO much information out there on health, nutrition, fitness, weight loss etc. I really like the challenge of wading through it all and distilling it into something that a reader may find useful. But yes, it can sometimes be limiting. In the years I’ve been a journalist, I’ve found that many media outlets will base their opinion of you solely on what you did last. For example, I suspect I would really struggle to get a job on a newspaper now, even though I spent the first 10 or so years of my career on papers! My goal for 2011 is to challenge myself to write about subjects and for publications that are outside of my usual area of ‘expertise’!
What were some of the difficulties you encountered when trying to establish yourself as a writer? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help?
I did freelance briefly while living in the UK and found it really difficult there. It’s a much bigger marketplace and there’s loads more freelancers, so editors are generally reluctant to try an ‘untested’ writer. But since I’ve been freelancing here – touch wood – I’ve been in constant work. The only thing I sometimes find frustrating is approaching a publication I haven’t written for before and being told they have a full roster of freelancers and don’t want to see my ideas. I don’t understand that logic – where’s the harm in perusing a pitch? It might be the most fabulous idea you’ve ever read! Maybe some of your editor readers can shed some light on this?!
In terms of tools, I’m addicted to reading the blogs of fellow freelancers and I have freelance friends who are great to bounce ideas off (and have the occasional rant with over a glass of wine!)
Are there any other writing goals you’d like to pursue? Like creative writing, non-fiction books or even writer’s festival panels, for example?
Well, I have written a novel – haven’t all journos?! I did want it to be published but I don’t now – I know I can do better! Writing it was really just an exercise in proving to myself that I could finish something (and it took me four years!) Someday I’d like to write another one that perhaps is worthy of seeing the light of day. I’ve also got the two scripts on the go, and the further I get with them the more I’m feeling I’d really like to write for television as a ‘proper job’!
How do you brainstorm ideas and get your juices flowing?
I walk! Whenever I’m stuck for an angle or a lead, I take my dog out for a stroll and it seems to do the trick. Of course, sometimes I just feel thoroughly braindead and then I find the only thing that works is just sitting down and writing something – anything, even if it’s rubbish. (Who was it that said the art of writing is in re-writing?!) I do have a real problem with procrastinating, but I once I get going I invariably find myself thinking ‘why did I put this off?!’
What gets you inspired to write?
Honestly? Deadlines! I blame starting out in newspapers: if I don’t have a pressing deadline, I will do almost anything but sit at my desk and write. Being self-employed is pretty motivating, too: if I don’t generate ideas and write sparkling copy (!), I can’t pay my bills.
How do you keep up with it in the face of rejection?
Being an editor taught me that you can’t take rejection personally. A knock-back isn’t a reflection on your ideas or the quality of your work – it may simply be that the magazine published a similar feature not long ago, or they may have exhausted their freelance budget for that month. What I find a little harder to take is being ignored – no matter how busy I was as an editor, I always took the time to send a ‘thanks but no thanks’ email. Courtesy goes a long way! (Yes, I am the manners police!)
What is a typical day in the life of Laura Greaves, freelance writer?
When I first went freelance I tried very hard to stick to a 9 to 5-ish routine, but it didn’t take me long to work out that I am absolutely useless in the morning. So these days I tend to get up around 8am and spend a couple of hours checking emails, reading blogs and generally faffing about on the internet. Then I go for a run, do some errands, walk my dog, have lunch and, um, watch The View (hey, it’s research!) I usually start working (writing, interviewing, pitching etc) about 2pm and go through til 7pm (also known as wine o’clock!) Last week I met a friend for coffee on a Monday and it occurred to me that it was the first time I’d done that in over a year of freelancing – so I don’t know where people get the idea that all we do is have long lunches!
What are some of the perks associated with your job?
The freebies pretty much dried up the moment I left Magland, but really I think freelancing is a perk in itself! I work really hard, but I get to do it in my house with my dog at my feet. And I will never, ever cease to be grateful at not having to commute.
And what are your career aspirations?
Ooh, now there’s a question! It’s not very lofty, but really my chief ambition at this point is to continue to get enough work to allow me to keep doing this. I’m also pretty focused on pursuing a new/second career as a screenwriter. (Sarah: Well, stay tuned, we have an interview coming up with a screen writer soon to vary it up a little bit, plus an interview with astonishing first-time novelist)
What advice would you offer to aspiring freelancers and wordsmiths who want to follow a similar career path?
Work, work and then work some more. I think there’s a perception that freelance writers spend weeks or months on every article and only write one thing at a time, but for me I definitely prefer to have lots (and lots) of features on the go at once. It keeps things interesting and it’s better for the bank balance, too! Pitch to any and every title you can think of; don’t just go for the ‘glamourous’ mags. Think outside the square – those free mags you get in supermarkets and gyms and health food stores all have to get their content from somewhere!
And I’ll say it just once more: be nice to EVERYONE!
Ten in the Hot Seat:
- Describe yourself in one word: Frenetic
- Biggest accomplishment to date: Completing a full year as a freelancer without becoming homeless
- You wish you wrote: Jane Eyre. The brooding! The passion! The breeches!
- Can’t leave home without: At least one of my twelve thousand pairs of sunglasses
- One thing you are currently writing: A TV pilot about the daughter of the devil
- First thing you wrote: I literally cannot remember a time when I wasn’t writing. I was big on terribly clunky, rhyming poetry as a kid.
- Addicted to reading: Biographies. Just finished Jack Dee’s Thanks For Nothing.
- Top spot on your goals list: Go to New York for my 30th birthday, which I’ll be doing in four weeks’ time. Or 36 sleeps. Not that I’m counting.
- If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. I actually spent a large chunk of my childhood thinking I was her!
- The best thing about being a wordsmith: At the risk of sounding uber-corny, it defines me.