For our latest interview, we spoke with Shoko Wanger, a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who has written for such journals as Freunde von Freunden, The New Yorker, and Condé Nast Traveler, among other notable publications. Today she shares with us her development as a freelance writer and advice for getting started in the media industry.
1. So, I’ve wanted to get into freelance writing for some time, which is one of the reasons I thought to interview you for this series. I want to build an audience of females who look to us for insightful discussion on entrepreneurial careers, and I knew if this was something I’m curious about it is most likely something a lot of our readers are curious about, as well. And for me at least, I tend to come up short by way of a lack of resourcefulness, I think. That’s something I’m trying to work on, as I imagine resourcefulness is very valuable for freelance work. When I visited New York City a few summers ago I actually sat near a freelance writer and her husband talking to their neighbor on the subway about her work. I remember the husband relaying the night they hosted a dinner party so his wife could write an article on dinner parties, and I found that very fascinating. That was the first time I thought, “Yes, I definitely want to be a freelance writer one day,” among my hundreds of other aspirations. What’s your story? How did you get into freelancing?
My freelancing journey has been a long one. I majored in writing in college but had no idea what I wanted to do once I graduated. So I experimented for a number of years doing a lot of other things. I dabbled in fashion for a very short time, for instance. I toyed with the idea of working in food. I even left the country for a few weeks to learn about organic farming. But I always found myself coming back to writing. To make a living while I pursued assignments, I took odd jobs and worked as a nanny for a couple of years—then, slowly, I replaced those hours with freelance work. It took quite a long time to reach the point where I was able to write and edit full-time, but I learned so much in the process. I also became very well-acquainted with the practice of being patient.
As things moved along, I started a blog, which helped me meet other creatives in New York, kept me writing daily, and served as a something I could easily share with people who were interested in seeing my work. I also made it a point to always refer to myself a writer, even when I wasn’t making a living off of writing just yet. The more people who knew, the better chance I had to be remembered when potential jobs arose.
2. My follow-up question is—how does it work? I’ve heard of a lot of writers struggling with this part: generating ideas that will grab an editor’s attention. What are some of your suggestions for getting started? for finding valuable stories?
This sounds cheesy, but my best advice is to write about what interests you. A large portion of my work—and my favorite kind of story—involves interviewing artists in their homes and workspaces. I started by reaching out to sites and publications that feature that sort of work and presenting ideas. I didn’t always hear back and I did do some projects for free, but because I was personally invested, it felt worth the time. Plus, I eventually amassed enough material that I had somewhat of a substantial portfolio. Now, I’m often thinking when I’m out visiting new places or meeting new people: How could I tell this person’s story? Or, where could I place this amazing space? Once I knew what I was most interested in covering, it made it easier to find material just by paying a bit more attention in my day-to-day life.
3. What does your routine usually look like? Do you have a strict schedule for yourself or is it mandated by the flow of work? That’s one thing I’ve always wondered: if you’re a freelancer of anything it seems necessary to keep the workflow steady. I’ve also read that’s how you build up relationships with editors. If you do good work for them once they’ll want to work with you again.
I wish I could say I kept a strict schedule, but I don’t. For what it’s worth, this is something all of my freelance friends struggle with—so if you do, too, you’re certainly not alone. What I think is more important than having a cut-and-dry routine, though, is knowing when and where you’re most productive. For me, that’s in the morning or late at night, and it’s typically anywhere that isn’t my apartment. I try to do most of my writing in those periods, and I reserve afternoons for tasks that require less focus—emails or shorter assignments, for example. Sticking to those loose guidelines has helped me stay productive, even without an office to report to.
I do try to keep a regular workflow, but freelancing has its ups and downs. Steadiness isn’t always a reality. I try to keep momentum going by using slower periods to pursue other creative projects and activities. These are good times to work on personal writing, collaborate with others, read. It’s nice to have a little quiet sometimes, if only to dream about whatever is next.
4. Do you work mostly for online clients or do you write for print, as well? How does the freelance landscaping differ between the mediums, or is it generally the same, in terms of the style of writing and procuring work?
The vast majority of my work is published online, so I can’t really speak at length about differences between the two. I have written one or two print articles, as well as the text for a coffee table book, and I can honestly say that the most memorable difference was timeline-related. The blog world moves fast. Stories are submitted often in a matter of days—or less. The print work I’ve done was given much more time, and as a result, required much more revision. I can’t say I prefer one or the other, but there is something nice about seeing your work on a printed page.
5. In your experience, what does it take to succeed as a freelancer? What are some sources of inspiration for you? And lastly, are there any ways you’ve thought of expanding your repertoire?
That’s a very big question. I think it takes patience, resilience, and an open mind. Curiosity, too. And a sense of humor helps. Also, in regards to your last two questions here: I think the answers are similar. I stay inspired by trying new things. I like to experiment, whether it’s in areas explicitly related to work—like Photoshop classes or exploring different genres of writing—or not. Trying new foods, reading new writers, seeing films, overhearing conversations—all of those things help expand my creative abilities and make me better at what I do. You can’t be a good writer if you’re not out living in the world.