The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #32 — Jennifer Van Evra

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. 


Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver writer, broadcaster and university instructor. Her work has appeared in publications including the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, Vancouver magazine, the Georgia Straight, Mother Jones and more.

Since 2000, she has been a producer, reporter and broadcaster with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where she has covered everything from current affairs to music, and produced award-winning programs, series and documentaries.

She also teaches freelance article writing at the University of British Columbia’s Writing Centre. In 2013, she was awarded the John K. Friesen Excellence in Teaching Award.

She took the time to speak with Story Board last week about pitching, being brave, and going the extra mile.

What would you say is the single most important piece of advice that you give your writing students?

I guess the main point I try to make again and again is that this is completely doable. Early on in my career I had a lot of people that would say “Oh freelance writing is impossible, nobody makes a living doing that. You have to have another job, you have to do something else.”

And fortunately I knew some other freelance writers who were more experienced than I was who said “Just hang on. It’s about perseverance and hard work.” If you can make it through the rough part at the beginning where you’re sort of fumbling through and pitching stories and they’re getting rejected, things get much easier.

And a lot of it is just being brave. Taking the leap and not being too put off by rejection at first and persevering and just doing great work.

And the other piece of advice that I would give people is that in everything they do they have to be better. Freelance writing is not a place for people who are lazy or who like to cut corners. I think you really have to set yourself apart.

A lot of that is about coming up with stronger ideas, doing better research, finding just the right person to talk to and creating pitches that answer more questions than they ask.

What are the elements of a good pitch?

It needs to be really clear and very concise. People forget that not only are you pitching the story but it’s also your audition for the editor. Your pitch has to show the editors that you know how to write in a way that’s very clear and concise.

I think what a lot of people get wrong with pitches is that they promise to go get information and then come back with it. They say “I will find out x, y, and z.”

But it’s so much stronger if people go find things out and then they show the editor what they’ve found. Then they can come back and say “Here are the main points of this story. Here are the key people I’m going to talk to and here’s why it’s important.”

I always tell people not to ask questions but to answer them. You have to make clear what the story is and how you’re going to do it.

So you recommend doing a lot of pre-reporting?

That’s it. Some people shy away from doing a lot of the pre-reporting. They think “Well what if the publication doesn’t take my story, I’m not going to get paid for this.” But it’s like doing a resume for a job that you really want. If you go the extra mile and you really tailor the resume to the job, to the employer that you want, you have a much greater chance of success as opposed to having just a stock resume that you blanket to a bunch of people.

It’s lots of work. And sure sometimes people do say no, but in my experience with the pitches where I really go the extra mile… those are the ones that do tend to pay off much more consistently.

The other advice I would give is to never pitch to a publication without knowing the publication. I think the better the better you know the publication you’re pitching to and what they like and what they don’t like and what their style is also the better chance that you have.

A lot of times you hear stories from editors who say it’s remarkable how many pitches they get that aren’t even related to what they do. And that’s just a sure sign of an amateur pitch.

We all know what the challenges of freelancing are these days but where do you think the best opportunities for writers are these days?

I would say the best opportunities for freelancers are first and foremost in the areas where you have the most interest. The key is pursuing things that you’re really interested in. I think if you’re if you’re writing about things that you’re interested in it pays off in its own way.

Because I think the magazine world is still healthy. It’s changed a lot. It’s different. Magazines have folded but there’s still tons of work in the magazine world. Newspapers less so. There’s been a lot of budget cuts to newspapers. Even in the last couple of years they’ve been pretty significant.

And I think these days there’s so many more people who need good writing on their websites. So I think there’s a lot more opportunities to do corporate work or the sort of work that straddles the divide between corporate and journalistic.

But for me it’s still primarily magazines and newspapers. As much as the world has has sort of shifted and narrowed, there’s still plenty of opportunity available for people who make editors’ lives easier.

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

I take courses all the time. I buy books about writing and I still take writing classes. They might be short story writing courses or other courses that aren’t directly related to what I’m doing. And I take lots of photography courses. I’m learning more about doing video work.

So I am constantly learning. I never assume that I’m “there.” I’m constantly trying to learn new skills and broaden the skills that I have because it’s always fascinating and I always learn something and it always adds to the freelance toolkit that I have. It gets the wheels turning in a in a different way.

Any other advice for freelance writers who are just getting started?

It’s so important to develop relationships with editors, as well. The key to surviving in the freelance world, I think, is to have a few ongoing gigs that are consistent and that you can rely on. Even if they don’t pay immensely, it’s really just about having some consistent work. And then you can have other freelance gigs in amidst that regular work.

When you have a great relationship with an editor it makes everything so much easier. They’ll often assign you stories and they’ll also refer you to other editors. So it’s great when you’ve got kind of a network behind the scenes that’s working for you.

I’m not a schmoozy person. I’m not someone who is at the cocktail party and sidling up to all the right people. But when you like working with someone, remember to pitch another story to them and try to have a more ongoing relationship.

And the other thing that I tell people is to read so much. I am constantly reading, I’ll be listening to the radio. I’ll have a TV on. But mostly I’m reading articles and taking ideas in and watching the world around me for story ideas.

So many story ideas come from something that is happening in my world. I almost never include myself in any way in my stories but a lot of times they’re coming from something that I’ve heard about or something that I read about in the news but it feels like there are unanswered questions.

So much of it is about watching the world around you and recognizing story ideas within that world and then actually pursuing them. I think a lot of times people go “That would make a good story” but they don’t actually take it and run with it. So it’s really taking that one extra step that I think makes a big difference.

And then finally the one piece of advice I always give students is that the one way to guarantee that you will never get published is to never hit send. So be brave, take the leap. Take a deep breath and hit send. The worst they’re going to say is “no thanks.”

It really isn’t personal. When people say no, it’s not a reflection on you. Rejection just comes with the territory. And after a while you learn not to take it personally and you learn what you can from the rejection and you do it a little differently the next time and you move on.

It’s the people who persevere that that succeed, ultimately.


You can read some of Jennifer Van Evra’s work on her website and you can follow her on Twitter at @jvanevra.


Posted on September 23, 2016 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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