The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #17 — Peter Alexander

In this regular feature, Story Board asks Canadian writers to share a few details about their work habits and their strategies for navigating the ups and downs of freelance life.



Toronto writer Peter Alexander has done a little bit of everything — he’s written for print, television and the web. Recently, he’s been working on digital advertising and marketing for clients such as Virgin Mobile and Unicef. He also writes a regular column for Toronto Life. 

Peter took some time to speak with Story Board this week about how to stand out as a writer and the importance of finding time for your own creative writing — even when you have a full freelance plate and a new baby.


What’s the most important thing you’ve done over the years for professional development?

I would say the non-paid writing that I’ve done over the years is what’s probably the most important thing. It’s allowed me to evolve as a writer, which has positive repercussions for the paid writing. It also, I think, keeps me from getting burned out. I find that a lot of people in this industry just can’t find the time anymore, or they get burned out, or they get a little bit jaded about writing and they stop doing their own writing.

Ironically I think it’s finding the time to do my own writing that keeps me interested enough to be able to do my own writing, if that makes sense. I don’t get that dislike of sitting in front of the computer and working that’s easy to get if you’re only working for “the man,” as it were.

At various times I’ve had blogs and that kind of thing. I’ve always tried to have a little something on the go on the side to kind of keep my writing fresh and keep interested. I did a little blog very briefly which very directly led to one of my clients now. I didn’t even promote it anywhere professionally but they kind of dug it up through my Twitter and they liked the style of it and the comedy of it and that very directly led to a pretty good client.


You call it non-paid writing, but it’s writing you do for yourself, right? Creative writing?

Right. I’m sure it’s easier to see a clearer path if you’re doing free writing for a publication, but ultimately the work that you’re doing for yourself is where you’re probably going to evolve as a writer and become better. And even if it takes a bit more time, it’s likely to lead to more interesting opportunities down the road.


Do you find it difficult to balance the writing you want to do with the writing you need to do?

I’ve been lucky the last while that all the writing that I’m doing right now is stuff that I genuinely enjoy doing. Besides all the work I do for money, I also have my own writing, which is screenwriting. I’ve been at it for a very long time with no success yet, but I’m trying to find the time to get good enough at it to actually be able to potentially use that as another revenue stream. So that’s kind of what I do for “fun,” quote-unquote, on the side, as well.


And how do you find time for that?

I started getting up at about 5:30 every morning and just having an hour or an hour and a half before baby wakes up and before work starts. I would just do a little bit in the morning every now and then and if there’s a little gap on the weekends, I would find a little more time. But essentially I just eke it out an hour at a time by getting up at an ungodly hour.

The honest truth is that we have an irritating cat who helps because he starts meowing every day at 5:30 in the morning. So a side effect of the cat is having to get up at that time anyway so that the baby doesn’t wake up and then being able to do some writing.


What do you think are the best opportunities for freelance writers these days?

I’m probably more knowledgable about the digital world than any other and it definitely seems like there is opportunity there. Right out of the gate you’re not going to get rich, but you’re making a little bit more money than entry level writing positions of other types. It’s definitely not a new medium anymore, but it’s still new enough that you don’t have to show a huge amount of experience before you can get into roles like that. There often is a little bit of luck or a contact involved but, still, there is opportunity there. Probably a little more so than in more established mediums.

If you can get a little bit lucky and get a good client that lets you exercise your creative chops, it’s pretty easy to then parlay that into other positions and other clients. I think it’s probably like this in any medium, but certainly in digital: to a very large extent it’s merit-based. So once you’re in somewhere and you’ve done some good work it’s not that difficult to parlay that into more work. People are always looking for quality.


And what are the biggest challenges for freelance writers?

Getting started is always going to be a difficult thing, but probably the fact that you have to have a pretty good diversity of skills. Most of the freelancers I talk to, no one’s doing just print or just digital or just advertising. People at any given time are working on projects in multiple mediums. When you’re a seasoned writer it’s pretty easy to transition from medium to medium but if you’re just getting started and you’re suddenly expected to be able to do a 250-word article or a 7-word headline or a 140-character tweet and have some mastery of all those things, that could be a big challenge, I’m sure.


What advice do you have for writers who are just starting out in the freelance world?

I would say to do your own writing and get some excellent work done. Excellence opens doors and it lets you stand out. Probably more so than ever before, people see so many resumes come across their desks and all these portfolios… they’re just looking for something that screams “this person is awesome” or “this person gets it” and that could be whatever form of writing that you want.

So whether you create that in your own blog or you’re writing an amazing graphic novel or you’re working on a short script for a film with some buddies or anything… if you can have some piece of excellent work that you can show to people — even if it’s not directly related to the type of work that you’re looking for — that is what people want to see in a writer. It just impresses people and makes them more inclined to pay a little more attention to you as a potential hire.


You can read some of Peter Alexander’s work on his portfolio website. He wouldn’t tell us which column he writes for Toronto Life, but the writing style of anonymous advice columnist The Urban Diplomat seems to bear some resemblance to Peter’s. Or does it? You decide.


Posted on August 29, 2014 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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