An Interview With SJ Yee – Freelance Journalist

Today we have an interview with SJ Yee from Singapore, offering a good look into freelance journalism. I’m sure you’ll learn some interesting things about freelance journalism! ;)


Jon: Hey SJ, thanks for accepting the invitation! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself? What got you started in freelance journalism?

SJ: Sure, Jon. Hey Guys, how are you doing? This is SJ here from the sunny island of Singapore! I run Personal Development for the Book Smart, an empowering site focused on helping people lead richer lives.

Now, a lot of people do not know this but I actually left my full-time job as a corporate communications executive in a huge Multi-National Corporation, to pursue my vision of touching as many lives as I can, through my natural gift of writing. Quitting my job was perhaps one of the hardest decisions I had to make throughout my 26 years of existence. However, I have no regrets, because I know I finally followed my heart.

You would begin to appreciate what I mean as I share with you a little more about my background. I knew early on, at the ripe old age of 7, that I could express myself much better than most of my peers through my written words. That was the time I wrote my very first love letter!

Ah… the things we do when we were young.

Yes, I always knew I would be a writer when I grow up, but so many things happened along the way. People told me that writers earn peanuts and that I should have greater ambitions. So, I began to drift further and further away from my dreams.

It was in 2003, when I was pursuing my computing degree that opportunities for realignment began to emerge. At that time, I was very active in my faculty club and was one of the first to know about a recruitment drive for freelance journalists for the computing club publications committee. Guess what I did? I jumped at the chance! After an intense interview, which consisted of a few IQ and creativity tests, I was made Editor.

I was overjoyed!

Being Editor meant that I could choose to cover the events and topics I was interested in. It also opened up a lot of doors for me. In 2004, during my summer vacation, I responded to an ad in the local papers for a “real” freelance journalism job. I had to compete with mass communication graduates and break the stereotype that a “computing guy” can’t write. It was tough but that was when my portfolio (which consisted mainly of articles for my faculty club) came to the rescue.

I began to write on a paid basis, covering entertainment news. I cold-called marketing and PR managers from popular Clubs and Pubs for interviews and to find out the latest happenings. It was an interesting time as I got to meet and network with DJs, celebrities and other people involved in Singapore’s booming night scene.

That was also when I rediscovered my passion for writing and essentially how I got started in freelance journalism.

Jon: Working as a freelance journalist you surely had to deal with competition, how was it? What kept you motivated?

SJ: There are 2 ways you can look at competition.

  1. Competition keeps you on your feet. It forces you to give the best of yourself.
  2. There is no such thing as competition, because we are living in a world of abundance. Competition is only a useful perception.

For me, I believe in the law of abundance so I don’t see other freelance journalists/professionals as competition. There will always be people who admire your work, your style of writing, you. They would not mind engaging your services even if you charge a premium over others, because they like what you deliver.

On the other hand, I do make use of perceived competition (1) to drive myself, to be the very best. I am always competing… not with others, but with myself. I love to win, just because I know I can.

Jon: That is great, it’s true, the best way to improve is to compete with ourselves. What would you say would be the most important qualities/strengths one would need to become a great freelance journalist? Do you need to have majored in journalism, or you can “learn as you go“?

SJ: Passion is perhaps the most important factor in determining how good you would be in any field. I have never studied journalism nor do I have any formal training in it. In fact, I can remember my very first official interview very clearly.

It was with the marketing director and public relations executive of a club called Rouge. I can safely say I must have broken all the rules in the book. I didn’t have any name cards to exchange, I spoke too fast, I didn’t have a recorder and I spent most of the time scribbling instead of maintaining eye contact. That was one of the worst interviews I ever did. But it also taught me a lot about professionalism.

If you ask me, practical experience beats theory any time.

Of course, mass communication graduates may have that slight advantage, but the edge you can have comes from your eagerness to learn and genuine interest in your subject. It all boils down to attitude. When you are enthusiastic about what you do, it shows. And that will make all the difference.

Jon: Can you tell us a little about the difference between working as a freelance journalist as opposed to working full-time for a newspaper or magazine?

SJ: Well, the differences are pretty obvious. As a freelance journalist, you have more flexibility. You get to choose what you want to cover and spend your time on. Of course, that also means you need to have a lot of discipline.

There are no fixed paychecks and you don’t usually get to enjoy the perks of a full-timer such as health benefits and insurance. However, you also don’t have stressed-out editors breathing down your neck!

Jon: What is it you found difficult working as a freelance journalist? Usually when you work for a company, you already have a structure in place, but as a freelancer you kinda have to come up with your “own ways“, how was it like?

SJ: Actually, I enjoy the freedom of a “lack of structure” that comes with being a freelance journalist. Many companies are weighed down by bureaucracy, inefficient systems and excessive rules. I would prefer to work with those that give plenty of room for creativity.

Jon: How do you think the internet, online publications and blogs have changed freelance journalism?

SJ: Oh, I love the internet, love online publications and love blogs. In fact, feel free to check out my honours year thesis on weblogs (pdf).

The internet allows freelance journalists to write from anywhere in the world. A Singaporean like me is no longer restricted by the size of the local market. The Web 2.0 Era promises great opportunities for unknown writers to be discovered.

With the content-driven, self-publishing nature of blogs, ordinary people are gradually becoming citizen journalists. If you were to do a search on any random topic in technorati.com, you would most likely find at least one blog covering the topic in great depth.

Traditional media is terrified of the new media. News that used to take days to travel can now move from one country to the next in seconds. Journalists, freelance or otherwise, are always racing to be the first to break a major news story. We are living in very exciting times!

Of course, there is also an inevitable downside to this phenomenon: information overload.

Jon: You live in Singapore, how is the market there, what are the resources available to help new freelance journalists?

SJ: Honestly, the Singapore market for freelance journalists is very small. That’s why I tend to adopt a more global outlook when it comes to paid writing.

Google is the best resource!

Jon: SJ, what would you recommend to people considering a career as a freelance journalist?

SJ:

  1. Get a website.
  2. Start Writing. For free.
  3. Develop your portfolio.
  4. Be Happy.
  5. Set your Goals properly.
  6. Focus on Opportunities.
  7. Network, network, network.
  8. Get Noticed.
  9. Fasten your seatbelt.
  10. Don’t do it for the money. Do it because you love it. The money will follow.

Jon: SJ, thanks a lot for your time, it was a pleasure! ;)

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SJ is the proud founder of RichGrad, a personal development website for the book smart. When he’s not busy writing articles on motivation and success, SJ spends his time crafting effective business plans and marketing plans for his clients. SJ enjoys working with entrepreneurs and start-ups. Feel free to contact SJ anytime regarding opportunities or just for a good old chat.

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*note: If you would like to be interviewed and featured on FreelanceFolder, drop Jon an e-mail!