The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #28 — Jane Auster

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. 



Jane Auster is a freelance writer, editor and communications specialist based in Toronto.

She has written for such publications as Toronto Life, Maclean’s, Canadian Business, and The Toronto Star. She also does corporate and government writing. She won PWAC’s Editor of the Year award in 2015.

Later this month, Jane is holding a pitching workshop at the our day-long Freelancer’s Toolbox seminar in Toronto.

She took the time to speak with Story Board this week about pitching, people skills and keeping an open mind when it comes to the kind of work a freelance writer can do.


How long have you been working as a freelancer?

I started fairly young so I’ve been working as a freelancer for about 40 years. After becoming a freelancer, I fell in love with the way of life. And I know other people talk about the freedom — really having yourself, ultimately, as your boss. So I fell in love with all of those aspects, too, and I figure now I’d be unemployable.

I think you develop a “my way or the highway” way of working. And that’s me. And I also work faster than most other people so whenever I’ve had employment contracts, especially with the government, I find that I finish the work in half the time and then I’m wondering what’s next.

How have things changed in the world of freelance writing since you’ve been doing it?

The changes now are tectonic. And I think ultimately they’re very positive. Right now we’re in a transition where the people who don’t adapt, who are still in denial and anger are going to suffer and possibly drop out. But those who embrace what I would call a wider definition of journalism are going to thrive and be really excited by the opportunities.

What do you mean by “a wider definition of journalism”?

In the past you would go to j-school — which I didn’t do, my background was English literature — but you would go to j-school and you would learn how to structure a story, as a news story or a feature or an opinion piece. So you were learning technique, but you were learning a very regimented, fairly structured approach to print journalism.

Now a journalist is so much more than that. A journalist is crafting a story but crafting a story is pulling in all sorts of different media. So you need to know more, you need to learn more, you need to open your mind completely and park your former biases.

And you think these changes are mostly positive?

Ultimately, I do. But you have to embrace them. If you fight them, if you say “oh woe is me, my market is shrinking” then you’re going to suffer and you will die. So I think the message is you always have to be learning and you always have to be open minded.

I would say start observing younger workers. I think that we older ones need to look at how the younger ones are approaching business and take lessons from them.

And what about those younger workers, what advice do you have for them?

My advice to them would be learn how to deal with people. At the end of the day, what we’re doing is still a relationship business. It’s still about understanding people and understanding working with people. And I think as technology increases it’s replacing human relationships to a point where people no longer understand how to interact with one another.

So I would say to younger people: form relationships, get outside your boxes — your technology boxes — and start interacting.

And also, always be reading. I’m not sure there’s enough reading going on now.

Where do you see the best opportunities for freelance writers these days?

That’s the million dollar question. I would say the opportunities are there but you may have to dig more deeply. So if you’re interested in print journalism, sure, there are still markets out there. There’s still work in that area. But I don’t think that you should consider that to be your only option.

I think that writers need to be more well-rounded. They need to start considering corporate work and say, well, corporate work is not dirty work. It’s work that’s going to help me improve my craft. Anything that can help you improve your craft, certainly when you’re starting out it can be volunteer work. Find something for which you have a passion. Because you can often turn that into paid work.

And I’m not recommending unpaid internships. I just want to add that. Because I’m very morally opposed to unpaid internships. We abolished slavery years ago. Why are we bringing it back?

But find a non-profit that really interests you. Start digging into it. I almost guarantee that if you become involved with a non-profit it will lead to work. Because you will be enhancing your expertise in a particular area.

Have you had to diversify the types of work that you do over the years?

Oh for sure. Because when I started out I was a real purist. I was doing all newspaper and magazine. And from there I got into corporate and I added government, I’ve added digital. I’ve added different types of writing like case studies and white papers. Even helping people write their resumes and cover letters.

So I started thinking of writing as the skill and then where can I take the skill. What are the different markets that require that skill versus I’m interested in the market.

And your advice for breaking into those different markets… does that again go back to people skills? 

Absolutely. It forces a lot of people out of their comfort zone to actually have to go and meet people and interact with them. But I absolutely recommend it.

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

Continuing education. And continuing education in areas that you don’t know a lot about. Keeping an open mind.

What’s your number one piece of advice for writing queries?

One pitch does not fit all. A pitch is not just a pitch. It’s never going to be the same pitch for every market. It’s always going to have to be tailored to the different markets.

There are some markets that want a really long pitch. They practically want you to write the piece upfront. But as an editor, I don’t want that. Don’t dare take my time with that. So it really depends on the person or the market you’re pitching.


Jane Auster is currently working as the editor of a couple of online magazines including Pharmacy Business. You can find out more about the work she does on her website.


*This interview was edited for length.

Posted on April 15, 2016 at 9:52 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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