This week I’m pleased to feature this guest post by Janet Thomson a freelance writer from Charlottesville, Virginia who landed this exclusive interview with Mridu Khullar Relph.
by Janet Thomson
I discovered Mridu Khullar Relphs a year ago, and quickly became intrigued with her writing style. Mridu explains her world – India – to a world that doesn’t usually get it. She presents the East to the West without arrogance, lack of understanding, or even judgment. And, her body of work definitely exhibits this.
According to Mridua, she has lived with Tibetan nuns, interviewed coffin makers in Ghana, and trekked up and down the coast of India covering the tsunami. One of her most compelling articles is titled The Treasure of Trash (The Caravan) a story about Delhi’s trashpickers, which won two awards.
In addition to her successful writing career, and impressive 700+ bylines, she manages to help writers – seasoned and newbies – navigate the freelance writing world.
So, when I reached out to her for this interview, I was thrilled she agreed. Mridu candidly shares her mindset about rejection, her preferred social media platform for marketing, and her perspective about the future of freelance writing.
Janet: Tell us about yourself and your journalist writing business?
Mridu: I’m a freelance journalist and have written for The New York Times, TIME, ABC News, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Independent, as well as several magazines, including Elle, Vo gue, Glamour, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan. I run the website www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com, a guide and resource for freelance writers and journalists who want to work from anywhere in the world. I currently divide my time between London, UK, and New Delhi, India.
Janet: What were you doing before you became a freelance journalists? Did it influence your decision to become a writer?
Mridu: I was a college student in India, studying engineering, and I had just failed my first year. I was looking for things to do as I retook my exams and the words of my English teacher, who had always told me to explore writing, echoed in my head. I looked for resources online and pitched a story to a US-based magazine for college students on surviving failure in college. I earned a cool $100 and I was hooked!
Janet: What has been your most successful marketing strategy?
Mridu: One of the reasons I prefer freelancing over working full-time for a newspaper is that I get to choose my own stories and that I get to find gems that no one’s discovered and bring them to the world. For that reason, I really love querying. While it’s wonderful to get ready-made assignments from editors (and I do frequently), to me the thrill really is in the chase. I like finding stories in some undiscovered part of the world and I like bringing them to my editors, so querying is a natural fit for me. I’ve also seen a ton of success with Letters of Introduction and networking through LinkedIn.
Janet: Starting out with no clips or impressive portfolio – how did you get that first clip? How did you land that first gig?
Mridu: Not just no clips or impressive portfolio, but I was a college student in India! I sent lots of query letters, got very good at writing them, and impressed the hell out of my editors when they did give me work so that they’d continue to assign work to me repeatedly.
Janet: How did you leverage that first clip for better paying gigs?
I didn’t leverage the clip, I leveraged the relationship, that is, I pitched more ideas to that editor and she continued to give me more assignments.
Twelve years later, she is now a freelancer, and we’re still in touch! We all like to talk about marketing and pitching and social media, but the real lifeblood of this business is relationships. No matter how much marketing you do, you’re not going to succeed unless you learn to build relationships with the people who have already trusted you and worked with you.
Social media has made that so easy, so we really have no excuse for not staying in touch with old clients and editors.
Janet: When you don’t hear from editors or you’re slapped with a flat-out rejection, what advice can you give writers to handle rejection? How do you handle it?
I think writers, as a group, fail to see rejections the way they should be seen: A business decision that has nothing to do with you. This takes experience, of course, but I would recommend that all writers at some point in the first two years of freelancing, turn down an assignment.
When you “reject” an assignment, you start seeing it from a different angle. Were you rejecting the person? No, of course not. You were turning down an assignment that didn’t fit in with your goals.
A couple of years ago, I got offered a regular online column with The New York Times for one of their blogs. It paid $100 a pop, which was much too low for me and I had to turn it down because I was the sole breadwinner of my family at the time and I just couldn’t spend those hours working on something that would pay so low.
Did I “reject” the NYT? No, of course not, I love the NYT and my editors there. Did I “reject” that editor? Not at all, I adore her and she’s still a friend. I just made a decision that was right for my business and my life at the time. It was personal to nobody but me.
And that’s how you, the recipient of the rejection, should see it too. You offered something that didn’t fit into the business model of someone else and that’s perfectly fine. You’ll try again with something different or perhaps someone different. And that’s all it is.
Janet: You write very intimate and compelling human-interest pieces. What tips can you offer for getting sources t o open up? How do you get sources to open up?
I spend time with them.
You can’t interview over the phone for human-interest stories. You need to go to where the people are, work with them, eat with them, live with them, if necessary. When they start seeing you as a person who’s interested in them rather than a journalist with a story to write, they’ll open up to you.
Janet: How do you come up with story ideas?
I read everything, I’m genuinely interested in people’s lives and businesses, and I have a wonder and curiosity about the world.
I have three notebooks filled with ideas that I will never be able to do in my lifetime, so I guess it’s never really been a problem for me. My problem is usually picking ideas out of the stacks in my office.
Janet: You have a way of capturing your reader’s attention – pulling them into your story. How did you develop this artful craft?
Mridu: Thank you.
One, I read a lot, especially fiction and long-form journalism, with an eye to learning technique. I read all the Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, the Booker-shortlisted novels. I’m now actively trying to cut down on my blog reading and focus more on writing done by the greats.
Two, I practice. I write a lot. That’s who I am, what I love to do. I can easily do 7,000-word days when I’m in the zone. The more you write, the better you get and I’ve now been writing professionally for 12+ years.
Janet: Querying is a writer’s bread and butter. Your e-course, 30 Days 30 Queries is an ambitious goal. Explain why you decided to approach this so aggressively?
I honestly don’t think sending 30 queries a month is an aggressive approach at all, especially if you’re new and have no pending assignments.
What else are you going to do? When I was a new writer, I was sending five queries a day, 25 queries a week. I had nothing else on my plate and I wanted new work, so I was marketing constantly. Even now, with my workload full up, I can send a query at the end of the day, no problem, in 15 minutes flat.
There are two reasons for that: One, I have created systems to make this really simple and efficient (and I teach that system in my 30 Days, 30 Queries e-course) and two, I practiced so much during my early years that it comes very easily to me now.
Even students who come in with no ideas will often create systems that have them easily sending out 10-15 queries a month. And my students, many of whom were learning to query for the first time and are still doing this part-time, have landed assignments with The New York Times, Vice, Marie Claire, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, National Geographic Traveler, and tons more.
A writing career is all about practice. The more of it you do—whether that’s actual writing or marketing—the better you get at it. If you want to make this a career, if you want to make real money (not $50 a post, but proper $1-a-word money), then you need to learn how to market efficiently and effectively. And practice is an essential ingredient in making that happen.
Janet: Many veteran freelance writers advise new writers to focus on blogging or trade publications. Do you agree with this? What type of writing would be most suited for a new freelance writer?
I recommend the exact opposite.
I think you should focus on the big names and try to get some clips with major recognizable household publications right off the bat.
Doing so will set you up for success right away. I found in my own career that my income soared after I got published in places like The New York Times, TIME, CNN, etc., not because these publications paid incredibly well, but because having written for these places, I was taken a lot more seriously by new-to-me clients and never offered the piss-poor rates that are reserved for newbies.
And you don’t need to have dozens of years of experience to write for these publications. Almost all of them have online editions and blogs that are very open to newer voices and fresh experiences.
The only requirement is that you write well and propose story ideas their readers will love.
Janet: Did you ever write for content mills? If so, explain your experience. If not, how do you feel about mills?
Mridu: Nope. Never have, never will. I don’t actually have an opinion on mills because they’re just not on my radar, but I would encourage writers to think about why they stick with them and what the alternatives are. I was earning $0.20 a word in my second year as a freelancer writer and I was a college student in India. By year five, I was easily at $0.50 a word. This year, I’ve set my minimum to $1 a word or $100 an hour and just don’t accept anything less.
I keep hearing from writers that these rates don’t exist in the market any more, but when was the last time you looked? I searched for $1-a-word markets last week on Google and came up with more than fifty, many of them actually pay $2 a word or more. (I’ll be sharing the list with subscribers of The International Freelancer newsletter very soon.)
I think we each need to step back from our careers and ask ourselves four questions: (1) What does my career look like right this very minute? (2) Why does it look like this? As in, what choices have I made to bring myself to this point? (3) What do I want my career—eventually—to look like? (4) What choices do I need to be making to take myself to that point?
When you ask yourself those questions and answer honestly, you’ll very quickly be able to figure out whether content mills fit into your career path. If they do, great! If not, what more should you be doing?
Janet: For writers stuck in mills, what type of marketing would you suggest they focus on?
Mridu: I’d say the first step is to learn how to find your own clients.
People who’re looking for writers in the mill environment are never going to graduate to paying you well, no matter how much you want for that to be the case.
What you need to do is learn the fundamentals of marketing so that you can go out and find new clients whenever you need a boost in income or new work. The second step is to monitor which of your efforts gets the best results. If you’re getting a ton of work from LinkedIn but none at all from the queries you’re sending, then focus your efforts more on LinkedIn.
If you find that business editors are responding to you more than health editors because of your background or clips, then pitch more business editors.
So basically, learn the fundamentals of marketing and start applying them, and then figure out what’s working best for you and devote more time to doing that.
Janet: Most writers are introverts. How do you describe yourself? Do you have any networking tips for the introverted writer?
I don’t like labels. I’m a female Indian freelancer and society’s put enough labels on me already, so I try not to add to them. I think by deciding whether you’re one or the other, you potentially limit yourself in the choices you give yourself.
My suggestion, as with most things, is to try everything at least once and see which you enjoy the most. Most people think networking is going to boring events and handing out business cards. I don’t do business cards. Hate ‘em. So I do what works for me, which is to e-mail people I find interesting, set up Skype chats, join writing and Mastermind groups, and try and meet people for coffee one on one.
I also don’t really like the word networking, but I like building friendships with like-minded writers and entrepreneurs. So I don’t actually do things with a view to “I should get to know this person because they could really help me out” as much as “I think she’s really cool, I’d like to get to know her.”
Janet: Which social media platforms do you use to find writing assignments and sources?
I really like LinkedIn because it’s a platform that’s been built for the sole purpose of networking and building professional relationships.
I find it much easier to connect with an editor on LinkedIn and send them a Letter of Introduction than I do on Twitter mostly because that’s what’s expected. Twitter and Facebook are more social, in my opinion, and they’re great for building relationships with other writers (and even editors and clients), but I don’t pitch on those platforms. With LinkedIn, I freely do, and I find that it leads to results.
Janet: I know you’re not a fortune teller, but what do you foresee for the world of freelance writing?
Mridu: I see writers and freelancers taking more control over their work, experimenting with different forms of storytelling, and finding ways to build their own audience.
I’m really interested in models like Beacon and intend to experiment with them in the coming year.
BONUS QUESTIONS: Fill in the blanks.
Janet: I’m most passionate about ______________.
Janet: ___________________ bothers me about __________________.
Mridu: [The lack of information new freelancers have about their options] …… [the world of freelance writing today]
Janet: If I could give my younger self one piece of advice, I would tell her_____________.
Mridu: [to chill out, take a break, go meet some people]
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