Long before I met Neha Kale at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival in person, I had read her work. I was full of admiration for her eloquent and evocative writing, and how Neha manages to master a range of styles, from personal essays to profiles and food articles. In person, Neha is just as her writing suggests – thoughtful, articulate, honest, passionate and willing to explore topics that rarely get highlighted in the mainstream media. I hope you enjoy this Q&A with Neha – it’s one of my favourites.
Meet Neha Kale – freelance writer, editor and delightful human
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your path to becoming a freelance journalist and editor?
I’ve wanted to be a journalist and writer for as long as I can remember.
I’ve always been a voracious reader and growing up in suburban Perth in the ‘90s, I used to haunt newsagents, and magazines and books were my prized possessions. As a child, I was an obsessive diarist and used to make a publication reporting on family stories for my grandparents who lived overseas — a hilarious display of early confidence!
But I’ve always felt awed by the way words can spark new ways of seeing and open doors to different worlds. There’s nothing else I’ve ever been interested in.
As far as writing professionally, I studied Professional Writing and Cultural Studies at Curtin University and I still credit that course with helping me tell stories, make arguments and think critically.
In creative industries, I think it’s easy to romanticise the notion of overnight success but frankly it’s taken me the best part of a decade to build up to the freelance writing career I have now.
My first professional writing jobs were in corporate writing and B2B publishing but for years, I’d wake up early to write and pitch stories on subjects that I was passionate about. I think the biggest turning point for me came about six years ago when I lost an editing job in Melbourne, moved to Sydney and committed myself to going full-time freelance.
Looking back now, I’m not sure how I had the courage — like many children of immigrants I really had to work to quash my imposter syndrome because from the outside at least the media world can often seem so privileged and well-connected. But I’ve also been lucky enough to work with amazing editors who’ve championed my writing and have built a body of work that I’m really proud of.
I think there’s this myth of the great, lone genius writer, which could be an unfortunate hangover from the days of Hunter S Thompson. I say, destroy that! I can’t overstate the importance of good working relationships or the fact the industry is really an eco-system.
Which publications do you tend to write for mostly? Do you have a niche?
I’ve just stepped out of an editing role at contemporary art and culture magazine VAULT that I was juggling along with freelancing for different publications to focus 100 percent of my energy on writing again. Along with VAULT, where I write features and profiles on artists, I also write for SBS Life, Daily Life, Broadsheet, i-D and Vice and have also recently written for The Guardian and various magazines. I’m also writing print features for The Sydney Morning Herald’s art pages as well as the weekend Spectrum section, which is a real dream.
I write broadly about art, culture, people and places. Although I’m a generalist, as most culture journalists and critics tend to be, I think my work is united less by a niche than it is by the desire to search for nuance and contribute something meaningful and original to the wider conversation.
You have been on both sides of the fence – as a journalist and as an editor – what kinds of insights did you get working as an editor that you think are important for freelance writers to know?
I think the obvious ones — when editors say that they’re busy and dealing with countless emails, they’re not exaggerating.
I think it’s easy as a freelance writer to take a delayed response or even silence really personally but most editors are writers and care deeply about writing and writers. When I was editing, I always wanted the best outcome for the writer and that story and I try to remember that on the other side of the fence.
Lots of freelance writers have gripes about editors (taking a long time to reply to emails – if at all, being unclear about payment terms or rates, feeling as if editors have all the power) – what do you think about that?
I understand how frustrating it is being a freelancer and feeling like you don’t have any control over whether an editor accepts a pitch or commissions you.
But editors are also all kinds of pressures that are completely invisible— from adhering to a budget to ensuring the right editorial mix in every issue of a publication to managing writers and securing interviews and shoots.
I feel like films like the Devil Wears Prada, create the false (and highly gendered!) notion of the editrix, the editor as a power-hungry careerist rather than a human being with a demanding job. Of course, there are good and bad editors out there but I think this lack of empathy and acknowledgment is pretty unfortunate.
I’m interested to hear about what prompted you to go freelance and how you’ve ensured that you have plenty of work.
Like many other freelancers, I’ve always dreamed of being full-time freelance.
But when I lost my job it felt really traumatic and I was really struck by the notion that when you’re working for someone — especially in industries that change as much as media and publishing — your livelihood can disappear overnight.
When I moved to Sydney, my experience in B2B and business writing meant that I could get freelance work that paid me enough to support myself while I pitched relentlessly and it was years before I could achieve any semblance of work-life balance.
I’ve always taken on less glamorous writing jobs alongside more creative, editorial or journalistic work and without those, I would never have the financial buffer to pursue the stories I want to pursue or the opportunities I have now, which are much better compensated.
Nowadays, what’s your favourite kind of writing job and why?
I love writing profiles, essays, columns and features that let me blend reportage, analysis and cultural observation — especially if I’m learning something new as I write.
I also love writing profiles and I think that the form often gets unfairly pigeonholed as ‘soft’ journalism when great profile writers through history use their interview subjects to say something bigger about society or culture. I find that pretty inspiring and always try to aim for that.
Do you have a favourite story (or two) that you’d like to share? What makes these pieces so special to you?
I’m proud of this long-form piece on how the underpayment of childcare workers in Australia reflects the way we devalue female labour for The Guardian a few months ago. It combined a lot of my favourite things about journalism — interviewing real people and working out how damaging ideas that circulate in the culture manifest in the real world.
It’s a few years old now but I’m also proud of the first column I ever wrote for SBS Life on food trends and faux diversity.
Do you have a writing routine? What does ‘a regular week’ look like for you?
I’ve just moved back into a home office after years in co-working spaces so my routine is currently a bit of a work in progress. My brain works best in the morning, so I like to start by 8am at the latest and work through about six when I’m on deadline. These days, I usually have about three to four big deadlines a week.
Some days, I’m out in the city doing interviews and for me the feeling of being out in the world is creatively re-energising. I mostly save more tedious tasks like invoicing for the afternoon. I’m also trying to work on a long-form writing project so trying my best to carve out one day a week for that with mixed results!
Do you do any corporate or content work? How have you found these clients? What do you like/dislike about that kind of work?
I do write some branded content and articles for corporate and B2B clients — these are mostly for clients and agencies that I’ve worked with in some form or the other for a long time and most of these relationships have come about through recommendation.
For me, I really like that I can do these jobs with a lower level of emotional investment than my other work – although these days, 80 percent of my work is journalistic or editorial, I think I’ll always take on this kind of work in some capacity just to ease the pressure.
What do you find most challenging about being a freelance writer?
I do think that you have to have a certain kind of temperament to be a freelance writer because the loneliness of relying on your brain and creativity to generate ideas and pay the bills can sometimes be really mentally hard.
Having said that, I have a partner who’s really emotionally supportive and wonderful friends who are also freelancers that are a source of connection and inspiration so I’m pretty lucky!
And then, of course, there’s the matter of constantly chasing up late invoices.
And the best thing?
Being able to indulge my curiosity, ask questions daily and make meaning with words. For me all the stress of being a freelancer – the late invoices, the terror of being in an industry that’s constantly changing — is worth it. Although I do think it’s dangerous to glamourise and is definitely not a path for everyone. For me, it’s such a privilege to make a living doing this kind of work.
How can people get in touch with you Neha?
I loved what Neha said about how long it can take to become a ‘successful’ freelance writer. What stood out for you from this interview?