Ruksana Hussain
Episode 51

Writing on your Own Terms with Freelance Journalist, Ruksana Hussain

with Ruksana Hussain

Episode 51 – Coffee N. 5 – Freelance Writer

When you write for a media outlet or a client, you might have some struggles to deal with your style and point of view and the client’s needs. Today, our guest is Ruksana Hussain, an award-winning journalist who has been writing for over 20 years for national and international print and digital media. She’s also the publisher and editor of Traveler and Tourist, a digital lifestyle magazine. Ruksana talks about what things you should be aware of when you start writing and how she built her career in journalism from scratch. How can you pitch yourself to someone? What elements should you have to show? Being a publisher and editor herself, she also shares the way that she works with several writers to maintain the style of the magazine while also allowing the writers to develop their own. 

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • How Ruksana started in journalism and what helped her to build her career. 
  • Ruksana discusses writing in your voice and style but also doing it aligned with the media and client. What should writers be aware of before starting?
  • An editor’s best friends: the brief and style guide.
  • How to deal with comments on social media? Ruksana analyzes the different strategies that magazines have.
  • What do you need to start as a freelance writer? Ruksana shares some tips to start pitching and writing.

Find out more about Ruksana on RuksanaWrites

Instagram: @ruksanah

Twitter: @ruksanawrites

LinkedIn: @ruksanahussain

You can also subscribe to Traveler and Tourist

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Lara Schmoisman, CEO & Founder of The Darl and Marketing Simplificado

Instagram: @laraschmoisman

Facebook: @LaraSchmoisman

LinkedIn: @laraschmoisman

Twitter: @LaraSchmoisman

SPEAKERS

Ruksana Hussain, Lara Schmoisman

Lara Schmoisman

This is Coffee Nº 5, I’m your host, Lara Schmoisman. Hey, everyone. Thank you so much for being here in Coffee Nº 5 today. And as everyone knows, I’ve been there, I’ve been here and I been a little further chill. But also I, one part of my existence that I don’t know, if you were aware is that I was on the red carpet a lot. And I was interviewing a lot of people in the industry. And I found that fascinated, but something I found out also is that in an interview, it’s great to hear the answers. But in order to get great answers, you need to do good questions, to ask good questions. And everything depends of the questions. And the angle that you take, and the point of view, is how you can drive a conversation with someone. And I think that’s why I became always fascinating in listening to people’s stories. So today, I have with me Ruksana Hussain. Did I say it right?

Ruksana Hussain

Hussain, Hussain

Lara Schmoisman

Hussain, yes. Thank you so much for being here in Coffee Nº 5.

Ruksana Hussain

Thank you for having me.

Lara Schmoisman

So let’s talk a little bit about your background. Let’s tell people who you are. And today you’re a freelance journalist. But I think you have one of the coolest jobs ever that is travel.

Ruksana Hussain

Yes.

Lara Schmoisman

And I don’t want to even get jealous and know all the places that he went, because I gotta get really, really jealous. But tell us a little bit. How do you become a journalist? What drives you to be a journalist? And how do you become a travel journalist?

Ruksana Hussain

Sure. So in my case, I was born and raised in India, for the most part, I was raised in Oman for my formative years, and then moved back to India for high school education and work before I moved to the US. So I actually a lot of people assume that because I’m a journalist now that I did graduate in journalism, but I did not I did Sociology when I was in college. And that’s primarily because back in the late 90s, my parents did not think journalism was a good profession for me to be in, or a safe profession for me to be. And so I wasn’t allowed to do journalism, but I eventually found myself back to it. So I’ve always loved working with words, I’ve loved telling stories. I’ve loved talking to people and sharing their stories with others. And so right out of college, interestingly, my first job was actually as an editorial assistant for a chess magazine in India,

Lara Schmoisman

where you’re really good at chess?

Ruksana Hussain

I didn’t know anything about it, but I got to learn, you know, interviewing skills, I was covering chess events, I got to learn photography, because you have to be very quick and very focused with the pictures when you’re watching players play, and you know, when you’re trying to get the closest shots of their moves. So it was an interesting experience. But I took a little bit of a detour right after that. And I went into banking, industry and personal loan,

Lara Schmoisman

oh, my God, I love it. You’re like me, I’ve been everywhere. And I mean…

Ruksana Hussain

it did not work out. Well, for me, it was not it was not, I had to figure out that I needed to to work with words, I was more of a creative person when it came to working with words. And so I found myself back into working in corporate communications, content management, that sort of thing until I’m married. And I moved to the US, which is when I moved a few years before the recession happened 2008. So no one was hiring. So I couldn’t find a job. And I sort of went into freelancing as a default setting. So it was like, well, let’s see what I can do. I started writing pro bono for a couple of organizations for a couple of outlets, and eventually found my way into doing a couple of courses on like freelance writing, copy editing, and then started networking and meeting people in the local industry. And at that time, I was in Atlanta, Georgia. So I had to sort of start from scratch. Do a lot of networking, right to work with all the media associations in the area.

Lara Schmoisman

Yeah, see people networking works work.

Ruksana Hussain

It does work. It has worked a lot in my case, because I was the only way I could find work. I was a graduate. But all my education was from India, all of my work experience was from India. So the only way anyone would hire me was if I networked, and I showed them that I could do the job. Because what they saw on my resume was not very helpful for them. It wasn’t relevant for them to see someone with education and work experience from India. So I had to network to get myself get my foot in the door, so to speak. But ever since…

Lara Schmoisman

Yeah, I was sent same for me. Same for me. Exactly.

Ruksana Hussain

Right? Yeah. So ever since then, it’s been good. It’s been a gradual progress working for one editor. It’s kind of a small community in Atlanta. They do refer you to others. So by word of mouth, I was able to work with a couple of different outlets, I was then able to pitch other outlets because I had a portfolio of work that I could now say, I have worked in the industry a bit. And so I moved on from there. And I ended up doing a bunch of freelance writing for an editor who at that time could not travel, because she had children at home, and so she couldn’t be away from them for a very long period of time. So I started with doing really small roadtrip stories from Atlanta. And then that moved into well, Oh, I got an invitation for an international one. Why don’t you go for that? Okay. Sure. Also, on an international trip, I don’t mind. And then it kind of built on from there. And it ended up being where I could pitch stories off of these trips. And eventually, yeah, I kind of worked into being a travel journalist as well. So I do a lot of other writing as well. So it’s not only travel journalism

Lara Schmoisman

Who are you working for?

Ruksana Hussain

right now?

Lara Schmoisman

Yep.

Ruksana Hussain

Okay, so I read for a couple of different outlets. My travel work has been published in Cuisine Noir, it’s been published on The Traveler’s Table. I did get to write for Delta Sky Lines Magazine while it was still around. I’ve written some for let’s see, who else… FoodieTravelUSA.com. So yeah, a couple of different outlets, mostly online. And then of course, that eventually ended up in me going ahead and publishing my own travel magazine as well. So I do have a monthly travel magazine on travelerandtourist.com, which is now subscriber only, but it’s like a full 52 page edition that you can get every month. So that’s where I’m at right now.

Lara Schmoisman

That’s incredible. So talking about point of view, because we know that there are things that like you can say is first impressions, they’re real, they exist. But also the point of view is something that exists, I cannot say that it’s tangible. But each point of view is unique is I like I always say we both see there is a convention that we will see red, but we’re not sure that we will both say exactly the same red is the same with a point of view, every point of view is different. And I love to explore that, how you choose your topics? Or what’s the point of view that you’re going to go into an interview? Because you feel like you’re gonna get the best answers the most interesting answers and the answers that they will sell. How do you approach your articles first

Ruksana Hussain

so in my case, most of the times I am working on assignments, or I already have an outlet in mind for where I’m going to pitch the story. So I typically try to ensure that my questions are aligned with what that magazine covers, or what the theme of that month is, what the editorial calendar is, and I try my best to speak with my editor ahead of time to see where I can pitch that story if there’s a certain department that we’re working on. And so based on that, that will give me a little bit more of an idea on the slant of the story. So I wouldn’t be necessarily doing, you know, traveling technology piece for a magazine that only covers travel and food, unless there’s a way that that all the three intersect in that one outlet. So I think a lot of times my questions are dictated by the outlet where I’m going to publish, and definitely my discussion with the editor on what they want to do with that article. If there is something interesting that I do find in the course of my work, then I definitely add that in the story. And then of course, it’s up to the editor eventually, if that’s what they want to publish. And I think the same goes with I work as an editor as well. So I do have writers that I work with most of the times I give them a brief, a very specific framework of what we want the article to be like, because you have to remember that as an editor, I have an overall view of what magazine is going to be like at the end. Whereas each writer is doing one or two pieces for me. So there is a certain language and flow that I’m looking for the whole magazine to show. So when I speak with my writers, I make sure that they have a framework, what the slant is going to be for the article. But definitely, if they have something interesting that comes around when they’re asking questions, then sure enough, please include that. And we’ll always see how we can have that be part of the article as well.

Lara Schmoisman

That’s fantastic. You just said something really interesting about the framework, which is super important. But also like in marketing we always say, branding is important, the voice of the magazine. So do you have any guidelines for your journalists that say, this is what we say, this is what we’re not saying? Do you have any guidelines in that way about the voice or you let each journalist to have their own style?

Ruksana Hussain

I typically allow every writer to have their own style, most of the editing that I do comes in in terms of magazine style, and voice so there are definitely certain language and certain words that we would use if I was in a formal trade publication versus if I’m writing for a consumer publication.

Lara Schmoisman

Do you have a dictionary of those that you can send to?

Ruksana Hussain

I definitely have…Yes. So we do have a writers guidelines and we do have a style guide like an in house style guide for every magazine that I work with. So we definitely make sure to use those words or those specific terms and there Certainly there’s one magazine I worked for, that’s more of a travel and lifestyle like luxury magazine, there’s certain words that we definitely do not use there. And we actually have a running list of, let’s never use this word again, if it pops up in another writers article. So we have, as an editor, a copy editor, I go through each of those stories and make sure none of them have those words. That’s just the look and feel that they want, that they believe that there’s a certain caliber of readership that they have for that magazine. So they don’t want certain words used in that. So it totally depends.

Lara Schmoisman

And that’s totally understandable.

Ruksana Hussain

Yes, exactly. And that’s part of their branding and marketing. Right?

Lara Schmoisman

Yeah. So when we talk about giving a because with with our writers, too, we have so many writers in in our team, and we always give them what we call a blurb of what we want, which means what we expect from that article. On top of that, we have keywords, backlinks, all those things too, that there are great, and everyone needs to know these days how to write for SEO. But with that said, that blurb is gives a direction. But given the direction is okay, I wanted to show this part of the story. But you still can give it your own twist, you can give it your own point of view. And, and one of the things I remember myself, I used to teach in college. And when we were talking about creating content, I always say that there are different types of content. But if you want to be a journalist content, you always need to try to be not bias. So how you achieved this and how you transmit that to your writers? Like, Come on, guys, you need to not take sides, you need to show the story.

Ruksana Hussain

Absolutely. And that’s a big part where the factual reporting comes in place, right? You are working with facts. It’s not about how do you feel? Or what do you think it’s what did happen, what is going to happen? You know, that’s exactly what you want to focus on. So if you stick with the facts, I think for the most part, you will ensure that there is no bias involved as far as your experience or someone else’s, something that’s becoming very hard for a lot of people to do, just because of the amount of information we’ve got coming at us from all angles. So it might seem like you’re doing a perfectly factually perfect job, whereas you’re not. And this is why we have a lot of magazines have I won’t say everyone does. But you do have fact checkers, you do have copy editors, there’s a whole process and a team that works behind that article. Because all of that is important. And there is a lot of bias training being given these days, just with the changing landscape of journalism overall. But there’s a lot of work to be done on that front.

Lara Schmoisman

We, even as an agency, will have proofreaders fax checks and all those things because are important that we supply our clients with the right content. But there is also now we have an addition because I’m not going to pretend that we haven’t been around for a little while already. And now we have the addition of social media and social media is another twist. Because we are not only have the facts, then you have in every story, there’s never one side of the story, there are many sides. So there’s the side that you decide to show or to tell the story from. But also then you have like for example, in travel that the places make you feel bad, every person feels different. And on top of that you have the social media and the people can give opinions. And now also online, people can make comments about your content. So how journalists and medicines deal with all this.

Ruksana Hussain

It’s a tough, it’s a tough one. Social media is difficult to ignore. It has to be part of your work. But also I think it depends on the attitude you have towards it. So I’ve seen so I’ve seen the whole spectrum. I’ve seen magazines that don’t have don’t allow you to have comments. So they disallow comments on any of the articles. I’ve seen magazines that have it, but don’t do anything about it. So you’ll just see a running list of comments, but no one replying to them.

Lara Schmoisman

Oh, I think I think honestly, that’s the worst thing you can do.

Ruksana Hussain

Right. And then I’ve seen magazines where they do ask writers to engage. And they do try to engage from the magazine site as well. They do have community managers and social media managers who try to interact It is especially if you’re doing work that is hard hitting news that’s covering touching topics. That’s very relevant right now. And that’s going to touch a lot of nerves. You are going to find people that have very positive and negative thoughts on what you’re writing. And that’s going to show in your comments. I think a lot of writers that I know who are especially freelancers have to brace themselves sometimes for what they might read, but it’s part of the package

Lara Schmoisman

it’s the same as always, I mean it’s the same even about being an entrepreneur you need to create, develop a thick skin but something that I learned is that if someone gives me a comment to my company, or to myself, I always answer or I have someone from my team answer because they will thing you can do in social media is ignore the comments, because you’re accepting.

Ruksana Hussain

Absolutely, yeah. So you definitely want to be active on social media, but you have to decide what stance you’re going to take, you know, and I think that’s something that you decide as a team.

Lara Schmoisman

Yeah. And also, I mean, also you depends of those personalities. I don’t believe… this is business. I mean, I understand that people get really heated up, because they find things personal. So I always think, okay, I try to understand the point of view of the customer, in this case, as we politely but I mean, you have your roles. And you, I’m sure that each company, and journalists are writing a story for a reason. And we do things as a company for a reason. So and I don’t expect anyone to understand that because like you said, the editor, or the boss or the entrepreneur, they need to be able to see the big picture.

Ruksana Hussain

Hmm, absolutely.

Lara Schmoisman

So just kill them with kindness. Basically.

Ruksana Hussain

That’s a good strategy.

Lara Schmoisman

Yeah. So let me ask you another question. If someone wants to become a freelance, because I know that after this podcast, I gonna get all these questions, and I better answer it right now. Because now you just all some people that no one can work from anywhere. So everyone is going to want to become a travel journalist. So what are the steps that you will recommend someone who’s starting to as a freelancer to… first of all, let’s clarify, you’re gonna have to work for free. You’re gonna have to prove your worth?

Ruksana Hussain

Yes, you definitely have to do that, especially starting out. I think more so in the case where if you don’t have prior experience to show, I think a lot of graduates, especially in the journalism field, or anyone doing creative writing, usually has a bunch of clips that they can show from work that they’ve done in school and college, which in my case, I did not have that. So I really had to start from scratch. But if you have if you have those, and that’s kind of helpful in starting out,

Lara Schmoisman

yeah, but let me tell you, as an employer, you can really, really see when they present your portfolio that is from school.

Ruksana Hussain

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, you can, you can definitely tell. Yes. So, um, but yeah, starting out, you might have to start out looking for a couple of places where you can publish initially, just to get your byline but eventually, I think even when you have about four or five clubs in the areas that you want to specialize in, then that’s it’s good for you to start looking for more paid work,

Lara Schmoisman

Would you suggest someone to create their own medium blog or their own blogs so that they can have a portfolio?

Ruksana Hussain

blogging is hard logging takes a lot of time, if you’re looking to do freelance writing for other outlets, as well as doing some writing for yourself. It takes a lot of work. So be sure that blogging is going to help you I definitely did start out with logging on my website and eventually didn’t find the time for it. And I haven’t done it in a while now. It’s very sporadic.

Lara Schmoisman

Tell me about it.

Ruksana Hussain

Don’t do it.

Lara Schmoisman

We are a bad example, I refuse to let anyone write my newsletters. I had to write them every week. And I normally did on the weekends, and then they will get caught busy even with work. And then you know what? Sometimes I have a life, I just don’t have the time for it.

Ruksana Hussain

Yeah, and that happens to a lot of us. So if you’re sure you can…

Lara Schmoisman

but it’s nice to have an online portfolio, at least a few pieces up so that someone can see your work. As an as an employer, I will really appreciate that when someone sent me a link to say here you can see work that I done and where it was feature, and it’s all in one place.

Ruksana Hussain

Yeah, that’s definitely suggested. There’s always a big debate about whether your work should be on a third party website versus having your own website. I do have my own website, I also have my work on other outlets like muckrack.com and contently.com. People have different opinions on it, I think it does take a little bit of effort to maintain your own website. But I think it’s better on the long run. Because if any of these other third party websites decide to close shop, then you don’t have that content up there anymore. And then you’re going to have to build your own content all over again. So I definitely would say to have your own website, if you can, as far as your portfolio work is concerned,

Lara Schmoisman

Ruksana, I cannot thank you enough for being here. This was such a pleasant conversation. And I loved it, I had so much fun. And I think that we gave a lot of information to the audience. And so where people can find you?

Ruksana Hussain

so they can find me online on Twitter, I’m on ruksanawrites. They can find me on my website, what’s ruksanawrites.com and then if they’d like to look at the travel magazine, it’s on travelerandtourist.com. You just need to sign up and subscribe to it and then you’ll find it monthly in your inbox.

Lara Schmoisman

That’s awesome. Okay, Ruksana. Thank you. Thank you so much. And you guys, I will see you next week on Coffee Nº 5.

Ruksana Hussain

Thanks, Lara.

Lara Schmoisman

Thank you for joining us. If you like the show, remember to leave a review. I will really appreciate it. If you want to know more about marketing and and myself, follow me on Instagram. My handle is Lara Schmoisman. Was so good to have you here today. See you next time. Catch you on the flip side. Ciao ciao.

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