Sharon Aschaiek is a prolific and successful freelance writer living in Toronto. She freelances under her business name, Cocoa Media. She specializes in the education field, working on communications projects and other items for colleges, universities and private schools. She also works as a journalist for media publications and does corporate writing. We were lucky enough to get some time with her to find out about how she manages to keep her successful freelance business going strong.
How did you get your start in freelance writing?
When I started my career before full-time freelancing, I began as a special sections editor at the Toronto Sun. While it was a great experience in newspaper writing and editing, I wanted more independence and freedom to write what I wanted. I started freelancing while I was with the Sun, and within six months, recognized that I would be able to make more of an income freelancing than I was making at the paper; this was my cue to start my own business.
How long have you been freelancing?
I started freelancing in 2003, and began writing full time as an independent in 2004.
What drew you to freelancing?
The opportunity to choose projects I want to work on, the kind of clients I want to have, and the publications I want to work for. I know I can always make more money if I work longer hours for more clients, something you usually can’t do at a traditional full-time job. I also get to work independently, and have better work/life balance, which is important to me as a mother with a young child.
Your website says that you specialize in education writing. Do you do other types of writing as well?
Over the years I’ve written about business, employment, engineering, accounting, lifestyle, culture and travel. This made me a generalist for the first part of my career. In the last few years, I started focusing on education as my target niche, and the results have been very rewarding.
How did you get involved with education writing?
When I was working at the Sun, part of my role was as the education and employment editor.
I started building a network of contacts in the education field. I became really attracted to the sector, as there is always something interesting happening. New programs, research, ideas we all associate with self-improvement; the education sector offers many interesting projects and challenges.
What, to you, is the best part about being a freelance writer?
While there are so many good things about being a freelance writer, so much of it is that I love to write. As a freelancer, you can write for so many different types of projects. I just really enjoy the independence, and managing my career on my own terms. On one hand, I have several different “bosses” in my clients, but have a lot more control over who those clients are and which projects I choose.
What is the hardest part about freelancing?
The ebbs and flows that come with running your own business can be tricky to navigate, there’s always a risk that comes with independence. While I’ve enjoyed more steady, busy periods than dry, when it gets dry, it can cause a bit of anxiety about where your next project is coming from.
What was your favourite or most memorable job?
One I really liked was a piece I wrote about a doctor who provides services to elderly patients in their homes. He decided to start observing gaps in government home care. There are so many people who could benefit from getting health care in-home, but the services are so poor and underfunded. They have to go to the hospital to get care for stuff that could be done at home, which lowers their quality of life and increases their risk of getting infections.
He decided to photograph patients in their homes as a statement. I found it inspiring and wrote about him for a couple of publications. I was honoured to receive a nomination for the piece for the 2005 Kenneth R. Wilson awards in the category of Best Profile of a Person. When you meet those kinds of individuals, it makes the work so much more satisfying.
Do you have any writing tips that work for you?
There are a lot of different things you need to do to sustain your business. Business development and finding clients and work revolves around networking. Network a lot. Go to professional writing and communication events to meet other professionals. You will find that as an independent writer, you really need to get out. I network a few times a month to find out about new opportunities and meet other professionals.
I volunteer for the PWAC Toronto Chapter and edit its Networds blog. I also volunteer for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Toronto chapter.
Volunteering helps build your credibility, meet new people, find out about experts and generate new business.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the profession?
A lot of what I just said in regards to networking will help anyone starting out. So much of it is getting familiar with professional associations in the writing profession. They can help keep you up to date on industry trends, new markets, publications that are hiring, how to set rates, how to create contracts, all of that great stuff you need to know.
When I joined PWAC as a new writer, I found it really helpful.
What’s one “tool of the trade” you simply couldn’t live without?
I use Google’s suite of tools, including Gmail and Google Calendar.
I also recently created a spreadsheet to track business development activities. It includes tasks like updating my website, providing recommendations to contacts on LinkedIn, attending professional development events and so on. I have it open from the beginning of the day, and mark each time I do a task. It’s really motivating for me to use this approach. At the end of the month, I can see how much I’m doing in each area and it helps me keep on track.