Building a Career as a Freelance Content Writer with Surena Chande

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SEO and content were always intertwined, but as algorithms have continued to become more sophisticated and more in line with Google’s goals, they’ve almost all but merged. That’s created a lot of opportunities for freelance content writers, once treated almost like the “red-headed step-children” of the digital marketing industry.

The career is full of so much opportunity that many former journalists are flocking to our industry.

One such journalist is Surena Chande, who has taken her  journalism expertise and applied it to her work in the digital marketing field. She’s got tons of insights on the differences between the careers, on building a content writing career, and on making connections within the industry. If you’re a content creator who wants some insights into how to uplevel your career or are thinking about making the shift, this is the episode for you.

The highlights:

  • [1:19] Surena’s backstory.
  • [4:40] How journalism has changed over the years.
  • [8:18] Moving to digital PR.
  • [10:46] Advice for writers who are tackling new topics.
  • [12:04] Choosing new clients.
  • [13:27] Dealing with impostor syndrome. 
  • [19:44] Surena’s causes.

The insights:

Surena's Backstory

Surena decided to be a journalist at 14, after a positive experience with a 2-week internship at Ahlan Live, Dubai’s premier lifestyle publication.

ahlan live

“From Day 1, they had me sitting down and writing stories. I remember the first story I wrote was about Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton. I think they had some feud. I had no idea what I was doing.”

The editor at that publication gave her a reference letter for her school, noting that she’d make an excellent journalist or writer in the future. She grabbed onto that direction with both hands. 

From there she went on to work for a variety of incredible publications, including Cosmopolitan Middle East, BBC Good Food Middle East, and OK Magazine. She did go to University for journalism but found her hands-on experience at these publications taught her just as much as any classroom time ever did.

How Journalism Has Changed Over the Years

It is of course not news that journalism has undergone seismic shifts over the years.

It was quite heartbreaking, to be honest. Whilst I was in journalism I had a few dream publications I wanted to write for. I remember saying when I was about 22 or 23 that I wanted to be the editor of Glamour magazine one day.

By the time I got to 27, Glamour had shut down. They have a biannual issue now and it’s a beauty issue. All the features and stuff I love is all online now.”

She watched magazine after magazine shut down or contract.

“A news desk that once had 15 people now had four. That obviously meant the pressure was immense. When I was working for OK Magazine we had to write a minimum of 8 stories a day. And that was in a 7-hour shift.”

And the writing wasn’t all there was to the job.

“It included sourcing the images, whether that’s from Instagram or wherever, writing the social media copy, Tweeting all that out, and making sure it got views. We had a minimum view target. Mine was 1.2 million, initially, and for someone who’s new to it, that’s quite daunting.

There were exclusives and stuff you had to get as well. Those really juicy celeb stories. You’ve got these numbers hanging over your head.”

The environment was tough, too.

“The thing in journalism I’ve encountered a fair bit is you aren’t always working with lovely people who have patience. Everyone’s stressed out. There are all these deadlines, all this pressure, and you don’t get treated the best, really. And it was really wearing me down.

My confidence was massively knocked multiple times. It’s not rare to be told if you write one bad story, you’re a shit writer.”

The hours were tough as well.

“When I was working on magazines I would often be finishing at midnight, 1 AM. I didn’t mind, I was young and I loved the craft and seeing your name in print, but it really did start wearing me down, along with pressure from editors and the way you’re spoken to.

From my online news shift, I was working one week of earlies from 7 AM to 3 PM, and the next week I was on lates from 3 PM to 11 PM. Sometimes it was weekends. You just couldn’t have a routine. That was getting really tough as well.”

Moving to Digital PR

Surena didn’t move into freelance content writing right away. She moved into digital PR first.

“I did that for 3 years. I had a great time. [But] once I was in it and I’d been doing it for a while, there was always this niggling voice in the back of my head.

I miss writing. I really want to go back to writing, should I go back to journalism?”

Surena stresses that PR, too, is a totally different type of creative space.

“I took a lot of great things out of it, but one of the best things I took was my confidence was built up again. I was lucky enough to work at really supportive agencies. I worked for Verve Search in the UK and they were just so supportive.

I was slowly starting to believe, okay, you know, you’re a writer, you’re a smart cookie, you can do all this. It really built me back up again, which is amazing.”

She just couldn’t shake the feeling that she wanted to return to writing.

“They tried accommodating me. You can write content for the campaigns and stuff. It wasn’t enough. I wasn’t loving what I was doing every day.”

Advice for Writers Tackling New Topics

One challenge for nonprofits is that SEO is almost never on their radar. 

“In journalism, I worked on a range of sectors in all the publications I worked on.

So, while I started with lifestyle content, fashion, beauty, I then was asked to take on the interior section. And then on the other magazine I worked on I was asked to write about luxury fashion and luxury lifestyle. Then I worked on BBC Good Food. That’s food lifestyle content.

From there I ended up on a hospitality business publication. A B2B publication. So I had to pick up that sector, learn it completely, and adapt.”

Surena points out you’re not just gathering information about an industry here. You’re learning to adapt your tone of voice from publication to publication.

“You’re going to have to get into another mindset. Put that hat on where you’re talking about business, and you’re writing about finance. One week I’m writing about finance in my current life, now, the next week I’m writing about how to make your home look nice.

The variety keeps things fresh but do your research. Immerse yourself in the content as much as possible.”

Surena says there are specific things to look for when you get a new client.

“Go and read through all of their content as much as you can. Obviously don’t sit there and read every blog post. Read the different sections.

Try and understand: are they informal? Are they jokey to the point where they use exclamation marks? Do they say things like ‘friend,’ or ‘pal?

‘Try and understand and grasp the tone of voice. Obviously, ask the client for that. Just try and do as much research as possible. You’ve got to really use your own initiative and be ready to adapt.

If you want to go into content writing you have to have the ability to have more than one voice you can write in.”

Choosing New Clients

Try to align your client base with your own interests.

“I’ve learned this the hard way. I have to write about topics I’m passionate about, things I care about. As soon as I’m not interested in the topic, an article that can take a day will end up taking several days and I will drag it out. I’ll be miserable the whole time I’m writing it.

I’m lucky enough to have the luxury that people are coming to me. I’m not having to really freak out about where my next client is going to come from.”

Sometimes, freelance content writers have to learn to say no.

“If I don’t want to write about a topic, I’m going to turn it down. Money does need to come in, but at the end of the day, you’re going to drive yourself into a miserable hole where you’re potentially not even completing projects because you’re so fed up.

Definitely think about what you’re passionate about. Writing requires passion, basically.”

Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

This is probably not news to anyone who is a writer, but most of us deal with impostor syndrome. Surena is no exception.

“Every time something good happens to me I literally will run downstairs to my Mom or my brother. You won’t believe it, but these people said they really wanted to work with me!

I’ve been writing since 2012, and it surprises me every time.”

She said she wasn’t even intentional about her social presence, just live-tweeting webinars she was interested in or saying whatever came on her mind.

“Somehow that’s ended up with some really lovely people following me. They put me forward for things like this podcast. They’re coming to me with: we’d love to work with you, do you have availability?

Surena doesn’t try to hide her impostor syndrome.

“I remember after I did my first talk in 2019. I was absolutely terrified. I did the talk, I felt horrific after. Some people were like: oh, it’s amazing you did this talk, oh, it looks so great.

I was nearly in tears afterward, I was so stressed. I share these things. Oh, this is my first talk, please be nice, here you go, I hope it helps.”

Here’s Surena at Cardiff SEO.

She says that you have to realize that most people are genuine and kind. She also recommends forgetting about your audience on social media.
“Try to think of it as talking to yourself, not, okay there are 3,000 people who are going to see this. That’s going to freak you right out. I know it’s easier said than done.”
Fortunately, this is a very supportive industry, especially on social media!
“There are really lovely people out there. Just carry on being you. The people who aren’t nice, that’s fine. You’re not everyone’s cup of tea, the same way you don’t like everyone you scroll past on your timeline. So, yeah.”

What's your right now cause?

Surena wants to call people’s attention to Mind Charity. Mind is a mental health charity that is dedicated to helping everyone with mental health issues get the support they need.

mind

She especially wants to call attention to it due to the mental health crisis spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Connect with Surena Chande

Want to learn more about Surena? Surena’s all over the Internet! Here’s how to find her. 

Enjoy this podcast?

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⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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