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Canadian Writer Profile – Rachel Levy Sarfin

Rachel Levy Sarfin got her start freelancing when she was still quite young. Even as a child, she loved to write, so when she was 16, her mother suggested that she try working as a freelance writer and helped her to get in touch with her local paper. She began writing some stories for the newspaper in the summer of 1998 and then again in the summer of 2001. Her freelancing career, she says, “kind of went from there.”

Since she was still in school, Rachel didn’t have time for a job and found freelance writing to be an excellent way to earn a little extra money doing something that she loved. Even as she grew older, she found freelancing a good way to supplement her income or to keep herself busy while looking for full-time work. To her, the best part of freelancing is that she gets the opportunity to write and get paid for it. “Because I love writing and it’s really great to be able to be recognized for what you do.” Finding steady work can prove a challenge, however, and it can be hard sometimes to find a new project once she’s finished with an ongoing one.

She’s worked on everything from feature stories, to blog posts, to chapters for an economics textbook. Her favourite type of work is writing features for newspapers, such as the Jewish Tribune in Toronto. “I really enjoy getting the chance to tell people’s stories — and communicate them in such a way that they’re coherent and interesting and compelling, and get other people interested in them.”

Rachel prefers to conduct her interviews with a notepad and pen instead of a tape recorder. When she was getting started in the ’90s, she didn’t have a portable cassette recorder and had to instead write everything down. She found that taking notes by hand helped to fix the interview in her memory. “Even though it’s slightly awkward, because people are still talking and I’m still writing, but it’s just so much easier for me because I guess it helps me cement what’s going on in my mind. The act of writing helps me remember what’s going on.”

When writing features, she finds that it’s best to start writing right after completing an interview. “Even if you get stuck, the sooner you start writing, the fresher it is, so it’s still fresh in your head and you still remember what happened in the interview.” By sitting down at the computer within a few hours of finishing an interview, she also finds it easier to recall facial expressions that help give emotion to the responses.

Rachel considers herself to still be learning the profession. One of the lessons she’s learned so far is the importance of patience, a lesson she passes on to others starting out. Even when you apply for a job and never hear back, you have to keep looking and not give up, she says. “And it can be very difficult, and it can be very discouraging. But you have to stay in the game.”

You can learn more about Rachel on her LinkedIn profile.

Canadian Writer Profile – Bryan Mcwilliam

Bryan Mcwilliam worked in shipping and receiving for ten years, but found that this didn’t give him much opportunity to indulge his creative side. Then one day, a Facebook post that he made about the Toronto Blue Jays got such a great response that it went viral, and his wife suggested that he should try exploring his creativity through writing and journalism. So he enrolled in journalism school and has now been freelancing since April 2011.

Bryan’s writing focuses primarily on sports and music, and he covers many different types of athletics. A baseball fanatic and player himself — and a member of the Canadian Baseball Network — the sport is his passion, but he also enjoys writing about football and even covering more obscure sports like roller derby and pro wrestling. “It’s not something that a lot of people do, so it’s kind of neat to get into that field and really learn a lot about something that isn’t as popular as other sports.”

Along with the ability to be creative, Bryan also appreciates the freedom of scheduling that freelancing provides, since it allows him to be flexible in other areas of his life. Since he also coaches sports, which takes up a lot of his time, Bryan finds that freelancing allows him to work in both areas. “It’s sort of like I have an alter ego or an alternate life. I do journalism, and then when I’m not doing that, I do coaching, and the flexibility of freelancing allows me to do both.”

For Bryan, the best part of freelance writing is getting to meet so many different people. “And one of the greatest things about meeting new people is, you really meet people you never thought you could meet in your life. There’s some really interesting characters. Especially working with sports and music frequently, there’s some people you meet that you would never have met if you hadn’t been a writer.” On the other hand, one of the hardest parts about freelancing is finding consistent work. You can network, search online, send out resumes and do internships, and still end up going a month without work, he notes. “When you do find work, usually it’s really well paying, but it’s just sporadic, so it’s really tough.”

He really enjoyed a gig covering the Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto last year for the AV Club. The first event of its kind, Bryan found it very entertaining. “It was three or four days of just non-stop roller derby playing, and thousands of people there, and it was at a really unique venue.” And covering the event gave Bryan the opportunity to meet lots of interesting people.

To help make sure his work is as error-free as possible, Bryan finds that it helps to read his writing aloud to himself, in order to catch spelling and punctuation errors, misquotes and other mistakes. He also likes to use his digital recorder when on site to cover an event, since it helps him to ensure his quotes and details are accurate, while also allowing him to relive the emotion of interviews.

To those just starting out, Bryan says, “Don’t give up right away.” You’ll have to spend a lot of time doing pitch letters and queries, and trying to find work. You’ll be disappointed a lot of the time, especially when you get rejected or don’t hear back at all about an idea you thought was great. “So having that really strong will, and that determination to keep writing, is what will separate you from other writers who give up really early.”

You can learn more about Bryan on his website. He also wishes to express his thanks to his wife Ana, Miz Rebel Records, the Canadian Baseball Network and Toronto Roller Derby.

Canadian Writer Profile – Ryan Murphy

While still in university, Ryan Murphy began seeking out ways to express himself creatively, which included hosting two radio shows a week, writing for campus newspapers and a humour newspaper, hosting a television show and a late-night show, and even performing stand-up comedy. “I tried just to express myself in every way I could, in every platform I could, and by the time I was able to graduate in ’99, I found that I had the experience that I needed to start doing that professionally as well.” This allowed him to build up quite a portfolio, which he was then able to shop around to radio stations, theatres and newspapers, showing them that he had the necessary experience and could handle the challenges.

Ryan has now been working as a freelancer for about 12 years and specializes in three niches: humour, sports and entertainment — the three areas he’s most passionate about. One of his favourite jobs was working for Fox Sports, where he ran his own popular question-and-answer column called Ask Ryan for a couple of years. “Because Fox Sports had such a great readership, and a built-in readership, it was amazing to be able to reach out to so many people, to interact with them, and to get all these crazy and wild questions that would really inspire me to do more research and find out more interesting facts.”

To him, the best part of being a freelance writer is the freedom. He enjoys being able to pursue the stories that interest him the most, while also setting his own hours. He also appreciates having a nice balance between work and play. The lack of security, however, can be hard sometimes. “You’re constantly hustling. You’re always looking for your next gig and for your next assignment.” If you can handle that insecurity, he says, the career can be wonderful. “But if you’re lacking in ambition and lacking in a lot of energy, freelancing can be a tough lifestyle.”

Whenever he gets stuck while writing, Ryan finds it best to just step away from the keys for a little while, and perhaps go for a walk, to help get his ideas flowing again. “Try not to think about it too much. I find when you’re stressing over things — or you’re really looking at those deadlines, or you’re really stuck on a word, a sentence, an idea — then it just becomes a bit of a downward spiral. You can really get stuck in that, and it really inhibits your creativity, so the more you can do to step away from that, to clear your head a little bit, and to get inspired by the world around you, that’s usually what helps for me.”

For those starting out in the profession, he recommends “just to keep on writing,” such as starting a blog where you can post frequently, so that you can discover your voice. “Be okay with the fact that you’re going to make mistakes. Know that you’re going to get better as time goes on. And just practice your craft.” Doing your research is also important, especially when it comes to knowing publications that are in line with your own interests, and then “take your time with your pitches and make sure they’re the best that they can possibly be before you start approaching people.”

You can learn more about Ryan through his LinkedIn profile.

Canadian Writer Profile – Lori Henry

Lori Henry got her start as a travel writer by chance. Originally a film actor with a background in acting, she began picking up the odd freelancing gig to help cover the rent between auditions. The writing began to take off, while the acting wasn’t moving as fast, and within three years, she’d transitioned to writing part-time, and then finally to writing full-time, eventually leaving her acting agency to focus on her freelancing career. She’s now been writing for almost ten years, and finds that sometimes “you just have to go with the flow.”

Lori thinks that it was probably her curiosity that made freelance writing such an attractive career choice. “If I would hear of a story or something going on in the city, or I had a question about life, I found that being a freelancer, it was our job to go in and investigate and research and come up with some sort of an answer.” She likes being the one to come up with the questions, and finds that she always has new questions to ask. “That never gets boring; it never gets old. We can ask questions forever. So it’s that curiosity to always find out the answer, which keeps me doing the freelance work.” She also enjoys the greater flexibility that freelancing affords her, which allows her more freedom in lifestyle. On the other hand, the uncertainty of not knowing when the next paycheque might be coming in can sometimes prove a challenge.

Her main focus is on travel writing, but she also covers lifestyle events, like hockey, dance and dining, in her hometown of Vancouver. One of her favourite jobs was working as the Vancouver City Specialist for WestJet’s Up! magazine, which gave her a chance to stay home and explore the city.

She says that it’s essential, especially for a travel writer, to maintain balance in her life, and she finds that local articles can help balance out the more exotic ones, allowing her to remain connected to the people at home. “If you’re travelling a lot as a writer, and there’s life on the road and life at home, it’s really easy to get used to going away and having all these different trips or different ways of travelling. But the balance is really important because it’s really easy to get burnt out.”

To those just starting out, she advises, “know what you’re getting into.” Pitching story ideas is a vital part of freelance writing. She recommends spending some time learning to draft query letters and researching publications, because it’s important to make sure each pitch idea perfectly suits the magazine that you’re approaching. She also finds it important to have a good organizational system for tracking pitches, so that she can easily note the status that each pitch is in, and what responses she’s received from various publications.

She recommends finding tools of the trade that fit the situation and the specific type of writing being done. For instance, she used to carry around a big DSLR camera but discovered that, travelling so much, a smaller point-and-shoot camera was much more practical, and has in fact, become a lifeline for her. She uses it not only for taking photographs, but also to record videos and photographs as reminders to herself, as part of her note-taking system.

You can learn more about Lori on her website. She has also recently published a new book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada, which is available in both traditional and eBook format.

Canadian Writer Profile – Beth Mulkins

As a child, Beth Mulkins drew inspiration from Farley Mowat, Rachel Carson and David Suzuki. Moved by accounts of resistance fighters in World War II, the Holocaust and a Time magazine piece on Children of War, she decided that she wanted to be an overseas war correspondent. Following that dream, she enrolled in Ryerson University’s journalism program, intending to specialize in magazine journalism. When she learned how the program was structured, however, and how newspaper and broadcast journalism took up the first two years, she decided she “did not want to wait until the third year of the program to get to the meat and potatoes of my interest.”

Instead, she transferred to the University of Toronto for their undergraduate program in English and Anthropology, so that she could jump right into studying other cultures. “My interest in writing about First Nations and other cultures intensified while at U of T,” she explains.

From there, she went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropological Analysis at the University of Cambridge, and afterwards decided to focus her writing on international development, women’s and children’s health, HIV/AIDS, international conflict and human rights issues around the world, finding that “the perspective of a social sciences background opens up more avenues for making connections between people and facets of culture through writing.”

She got her start as a freelance writer in 2007, writing a piece about special needs children for Helium. Having always been drawn to writing in one form or another, she’s worked on everything from “short stories, children’s stories, essays on world issues, applied anthropological analyses [and] archaeology,” and has continued freelancing part-time for about four years now.

She enjoys the flexibility that freelancing brings to her schedule, as well as the variety of assignments. She does, however, sometimes find the lack of consistent work to be a challenge at times, as can balancing deadlines. “I also miss coffee breaks socializing with colleagues,” she admits.

One of her favourite jobs so far took her to South Korea to teach English. While there, she was also able to pick up some freelance writing and editing work for educational and corporate institutions in Asia. These days, she’s currently doing freelance editing for Cambridge Language Consultants and offering her services as a social researcher. She’d also like to focus more on human rights and food security issues, and write and illustrate more children’s stories.

For those just getting started in the freelance writing business, she suggests that “it is better to suss out a decent contract at a good living wage than to sign something that pays too little, in return for a huge amount of effort that is not appreciated.”

You can learn more about Beth and read about her family’s time spent in South Korea on her blog. She also maintains another blog, The First World War Diaries and Correspondence of Reginald Mulkins, which contains scans of her grandfather’s war diaries, letters and sketches.