A full-time freelance writer and editor, an author and one of The Age's Top 100 inspiring and influential Melburnians, Greg Foyster knows how to get things done.
He shares some of his freelancing knowledge ahead of his Winter School Crash Course in Freelance Journalism.
You’ve written for a very long list of publications – are there any specific skills you’ve had to master that can be applied to writing for any publication? How do you generate story ideas? Is it whatever comes to mind, or is it a more deliberate process for you?
At university I studied ‘creative advertising’. The course was designed to teach us clever ways to sell sneakers, toothpaste and chocolate bars, but the lateral thinking techniques we learned can be useful for brainstorming story ideas.
One theory comes from adman James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas, first published in 1965. The book breaks down the creative process into five steps. First, you gather relevant information, mingled with your own life experience. Second, you mull over the facts until they’re all jumbled up in your mind. Third, you incubate the material by doing something completely unrelated. Fourth, you wait for an idea to pop into your head. And fifth, you refine the idea to make it a reality.
Another technique I learned at university was ‘write hot, edit cold’. The theory is that you should keep your spontaneous creative work completely separate from your detached, analytical work.
It makes sense, too. Writing that first draft is an exciting, passionate process. Every paragraph seems to flow, every sentence to sing. You feel positive about what you’ve just produced.
In contrast, editing is cooler, more calculated. You adopt the scowl of the professional pedant, slashing entire sections with red ink and exterminating errant commas, all the while squinting disdainfully at the amateurish attempt in front of you. Nothing is ever quite good enough. Hopefully, the result of this drafting process is writing that is exuberant, but economical. Peter Carey, a former ad man himself, is a master of this sort of controlled creativity.
Finally, mind mapping is a great way to survey a broad issue. William E. Blundell’s book The Art and Craft of Feature Writing recommends cause and effect diagrams for thinking of new journalistic angles on a stale topic.
What’s the biggest misconception or mistake that people have or make when it comes to freelance writing?
People forget that freelancing involves running a small business. You need to consider your business model. Who is your bread-and-butter client that pays for your more creative work? What’s your financial buffer so you can take risks? What’s your brand? What will you be known for? You can figure these things out as you go, but it’s best to consider them at the beginning. That’s why my Crash Course in Freelancing includes a session on building your business model.
What advice would you give to a writer who is thinking of freelance writing?
Freelancing is a chance to work on your unique voice, rather than just following the ‘house style’ of a magazine, newspaper or website. If you think of some of the most idiosyncratic and recognisable voices in Australian narrative non-fiction writing – people like John Birmingham, Anna Krien, Mark Dapin and Benjamin Law – many of them made their names through freelancing. Yet some freelancers consider it solely a business and settle for drudgery. It has to be a business with a purpose: to give you the time and space to write some truly great work. Write to get paid, but put passion first.
In between your freelance writing you’ve also written a book, ‘Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race’. Did your freelance work help in memoir-writing?
Freelancing helped me find my voice. If you work for a single website, newspaper or magazine you might only learn to write in a few tones or styles. But as a freelancer I’ve written everything from complex investigative feature articles, to poignant personal essays, to humour columns and light lifestyle pieces. I’m not proud of all of them, but I’ve learned to write in many different voices, and that experimentation has helped me realise which style I prefer.
Freelancing also teaches you to tailor your writing to an audience. A story requires a different angle depending on whether it’s for a high-brow monthly or a lifestyle magazine. Writing to an audience is an important skill if you’re going to pitch a non-fiction book to a publisher, because publishers are very concerned about marketing and sales.
You’ve also been featured in The Age Top 100 list of inspiring and influential Melburnians. In your opinion, what’s the most inspirational thing you’ve ever done?
I was featured in The Age’s Top 100 for a project in which my partner and I cycled up the east coast of Australia, from Hobart to Cairns, meeting people who had chosen to live more sustainably. The most impressive thing about that was not getting run over!
Actually, getting in the Top 100 highlights another important skill of freelancing: how to pitch a story. If you can successfully pitch stories to editors, you can be your own PR agent and get media attention for all sorts of things – very useful if you have a cause or charity to promote. The truth is I only made it into the Top 100 because I pitched an intriguing yarn to a journalist at The Age...but that’s how anyone gets publicity. The pitch is everything.
Pitching is probably the most important skill in freelancing, and there’s scant information out there about how to do it well, which is why I’ll be covering it during the workshop.
About Greg Foyster
Greg Foyster is a full-time freelance journalist and editor. His feature articles, news stories and opinion pieces have appeared in The Age, The Big Issue, Crikey, ABC and Smith Journal. He is the author of the book ‘Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race’, and has been featured in The Age Top 100 list of inspiring and influential Melburnians.
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