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Landing a column - what it takes

Landing a column - what it takes

A lot of freelance writers say their dream is to be a columnist. I asked three of Australia’s best-known columnists to spill the beans on how they landed their regular gigs, how column writing differs from feature writing and what advice they would give to freelance writers who dream of having their very own regular space to rant, review or reflect.

NOTE: This is a bit of an epic post so if you don't have time to read it now you can download a PDF version HERE and read it later. 

Landing a column - what it takes

And how you can land a job as a freelance columnist

Sue White

Sue White headshot.jpg

Website: www.suewhite.com.au

Sue is one of those writers where you wonder if she has managed to find a secret portal to add more hours into each day. She is a freelance journalist, travel writer and copywriter. On top of that, she has a young son and manages two active Facebook group for parents who are keen travellers: Kids Who Travel. And  www.babieswhotravel.com. Oh, and she actively coaches new writers, so if you want to talk writing strategy, you can book a mentoring session with her. The details are at www.suewhite.com.au

Freelance journalism is Sue’s main job and she currently writes three columns, although she has a number of other regular writing gigs. “I have a weekly column (Meet the Boss), where I interview some of Australia's top executives (for My Career in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age),” Sue says. “I also have a monthly first person column for the same section. I am also the toddler travel columnist for Out & About With Kids magazine. Plus I have a couple of others in the pipeline I'll work on this year.” 

How it happened

Sue’s approach was the same for all cases. “I put in a fair bit of time with each section/publication as a regular freelancer,” she says. “Then, I became a 'trusted' freelancer - someone they knew would always deliver and who had plenty of ideas.”

After developing a strong relationship with the editor, where they saw Sue as a reliable freelancer who delivered great ideas and content on time, she started asking for a column. “For My Career, I lobbied my former editor for 18 months before he said yes, but when something came up, he offered it to me,” she says. “For the Toddler Travel column, I pitched an idea that I thought was within my expertise and met a need the magazine wasn't fully capturing.” 

Editors need to know that those blank spaces will be filled without fail, so a columnist needs to be able to deliver the goods, adds Sue. “ I also think being easy to work with makes a difference in getting ongoing work.”

Things that helped editors accept the proposal of a column

“The Toddler Travel column was a new concept, so it helped that I provided a half dozen column ideas, so the editor and publisher could see the potential of the idea,” says Sue. 

Showing editors that the column you are proposing is not just a ‘one hit wonder’ is imperative, says Sue. “With one of my current columns for My Career - a first person productivity piece - it helped that I offered a list of suggestions so my editor could see the kind of thinking I had on the topic.”

The process

Sue is pretty much given free rein about a topic and how it unfolds on the page. Generally, she says, there’s an agreed format that the writer works to (e.g. a word count or whether the piece is in first person), but other than that, it’s up to the writer.

“Sometimes I give my editor a heads up about what's coming, but only if it comes up - there's typically no obligation to do that,” Sue says.

The differences from feature writing

If it’s a first person column, it is very different from writing other features, says Sue. “Columnists are really being asked to give their opinion in a way that traditional feature writers aren't,” she says. “In features, I usually let my experts voice the opinions. In my columns, I'm being paid to have a strong perspective.”

The advice for freelancers dreaming of having their own column? 

“It's possible! But I have a lot of people come to me expecting they will get a column on day one or year one,” says Sue. “I think that's unrealistic. Maybe it's possible if you are a subject matter expert, or have a blog with millions of followers, but for most writers, I'd suggest buckling down and sending lots of one-off story ideas so that your editor starts to see you as a key contributor.” 

Then, Sue says, start to see where the gaps are. “What aren't they covering that they should be?” she says. “And how are you able to offer something unique and interesting - week in week out, or month in month out?” 

 

Benjamin Law

Twitter and Instagram handle - @mrbenjaminlaw

 Benjamin Law is one of Australia’s most loved columnists. He must be an editors’ dream – frank, funny and able to condense his frank-funnyness into 500 words each week. Ben has been writing a weekly column for Good Weekend for three years. “It started off as a short burst of “whatever” every week alongside my photo, but after my current editor – the brilliant Amelia Lester – started the job, we sat down over drinks and talked about both refining and expanding it,” he says.

“I realised a lot of my columns are about things I’ve learned that week – from life, art and sometimes skills (like baking sourdough bread) – so we came up with the idea of Adult Education.” Ben sees the column as a weekly reminder (both to himself and to Good Weekend readers) that you can always learn new things or skills.

How it happened

Ben had been writing a weekly column for Qweekend – the weekend magazine that comes out with News Limited’s Courier Mail. Good Weekend’s then-editor happily poached Ben for his magazine.

So many columns in Australia are written by white, male, middle-class men, and Ben offers a refreshingly different view. “Given the diversity of our community, I think being Asian-Australian, millennial (just) and a godless inner-city homosexual provided some contrast for readers,” he says.

The process

Ben tends to pitch column ideas a month or so in advance to Amelia and provides a few extra to see which she prefers. “Some of my editors will cut back on language or graphic imagery, but we’re pretty much 100% on the same page,” he says.

The differences from feature writing

Originally Ben’s columns were 350 words (they’re just under 500 now). “It was insanely challenging to fit a story in that number of words,” he says. “It’s not quite long enough to tell a story, but it’s longer than a tweet. But writers love parameters, and I think the word limit means it’s more like the art of conversation, or a debate with illustrations.”

The advice for freelance writers dreaming of having their own column?

“Oh, don’t dream of having a column,” Ben says. “The main goal is to write. Pitch often, pitch regularly. Read omnivorously. Make friend with other writers. Treat your work like … well, work.”

 

Kerri Sackville

 

When Kerri Sackville writes a column, it’s like she is writing from inside your best friend’s head. She’s funny, honest and never shies away from telling her truth. She writes columns for Fairfax’s Sunday Life, Daily Life, Essential Kids and www.news.com.au You can find her on Facebook - Facebook.com/Kerri.Sackville

How it happened

Kerri started blogging at Life and Other Crises (she hasn’t blogged in a while, due to focusing on writing work though) and was spotted by Mia Freedman, the co-founder of Mamamia Women’s Network, and started writing funny columns for her.

Kerri wrote a book and then another and began to be published in different magazines and websites. Kerri has undertaken a couple of interviews for articles she has written, but very rarely anything other than first person reflection or opinion pieces.

Kerri’s story gives hope to freelancers everywhere – she has never approached an editor to write a regular column. “I've written regular columns for a number of different publications and it always started with them approaching me, having seen my work elsewhere, or with me pitching to them a few times and becoming a regular,” she says.

The process

“The hardest part of my job is coming up with the ideas,” says Kerri. “Occasionally I am asked to write about a particular issue or topic and I love love LOVE that. Once I have the idea, and a strong thesis, the writing itself is easy.”

Kerri tends to think of ideas and run them past her editors. Sometimes she pitches a few ideas at once and they say which they like, but usually it's one at a time.

The advice for freelancers dreaming of having their own column? 

Kerri says to keep writing first person opinion/reflection pieces as numerous publications take those kinds of articles. “Remember that no-one is interested in vague, wishy-washy ideas,” she says. “No-one cares about 'on the one hand... but on the other hand'.  Editors and readers want strong opinions, which are well argued and presented. Make sure your work is tight.”

 

What about you? Are you dreaming of having a column one day? Was there anything that struck you about Sue, Ben or Kerri’s experiences or advice?

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