by Rachel Smith
27 July 2023
Freelance writer Susan Horsburgh has an enviable CV and portfolio, writing for some of the country’s most prestigious titles, including the Australian Women’s Weekly, The Good Weekend (in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age) and Qantas magazines. She has written more than 30 Two of Us columns for The Good Weekend, which we know is a highly read and sought-after commission for freelancers.
In her chat with Rachel and Lynne this week, she talks about:
You can listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts and on Spotify or keep scrolling for the transcript.
The following is a very rough / edited transcript from our chat with Susan – it is not the full transcript but rather pulls out some of the key points of our discussion.
interview, people, work, freelancing, writing, story, editors, love, magazine, profile, qantas, pretty, weekly, years, celebrities, interviewee, melbourne, good, feel, word
Lynne Testoni, Rachel Smith
Well, I started in the early 90s, fetching coffees as a copy kid at News Limited in Surry Hills in Sydney. After a few months, thankfully, I got a cadetship with The Australian and worked across the newspaper for the next five years. I landed very happily in the arts department, which was one of my all time favorite jobs. But probably the highlight of my time at the paper was the five weeks I spent in Kenya in refugee camps during the war. I was there reporting on violence against women, and that was pretty life changing. In 1997, I became a staff writer for Time magazine in Sydney and later went to London and worked for time there before moving to New York, where I became a staff writer for People Magazine. And you know, back then it was, you know, it was magazine heyday, I think it was the most profitable magazine in the world, it had something like 36 million readers a week. I spent some time working in in special issues, which was great. I’d come to work and, you know, we’d sit around a boardroom table in the Rockefeller Center, discussing things like who should be the sexiest man alive. My knowledge of celebrities at the time was just next level. Like, I could tell you the name of George Clooney’s potbelly pig, that kind of thing? Which is Max, by the way. I was also living there when September 11 happened. And we obviously wrote a lot about that day and the aftermath.
I came back to Australia and I moved to Melbourne in 2004 to get married and start the breeding program. And when I did my first freelancing stint, I wrote primarily for the Weekend Australian magazine and The Age Melbourne magazine. In 2010, though, I got lucky and joined the Australian Women’s Weekly as a senior staff writer, and that was working from home in Melbourne. And that was pretty much my dream job. You know, I was there for more than seven and a half years and you know, interviewed a range of people like Gordon Ramsay, Tim Minchin, Kim Kardashian and lots of fascinating non-celebrities as well. I really loved that job. But at the end of 2017, the staff writing roles were made redundant, and I have been freelancing ever since, mostly for Good Weekend, Qantas and The Weekly.
I’m not the main breadwinner in my family and there’s no way I could be with the work I do, which is mostly for magazines. You know, budgets are tight; word rates haven’t changed for more than 20 years. And the word rate system is inherently flawed, because there isn’t necessarily any correlation between the number of words in a story and the time it takes to write it.
I don’t need to tell you that a 2000 word story could be a one-interview profile, or it could be a social issues feature that requires a dozen interviews and weeks of research and reporting. And either way, you get paid the same thing. And in any other industry, that would be considered bizarre, not getting paid for the time you work, but it’s just the reality with with newspapers and magazines, and I think the only way you can make freelancing work financially is if you do mostly corporate writing. And you know, I definitely love to do more of that.
I think I get paid pretty well for the industry. What I get paid is probably the most I could ask for I’m, I’m aware of that. I do ask, sometimes if there’s any kind of room for movement, but there’s a lot of people getting paid a lot less than I am in terms of word rate. So I’m aware of that.
It was always my dream to be a journalist. You know, when I was 11 or 12. I used to pretend I was Jana Wendt and make my friends sit down and do tell-all interviews. And you know, back then, especially in the 80s pre-internet, you know, magazines are a really big deal. You know, they were how you learned what was going on in the world. I used to love Dolly and Cleo. And, you know, the editor of Cleo, Lisa Wilkinson was my absolute hero. I mean, I I once wrote to her when I was a teenager actually asking for an internship. So, you know, I’ve always loved magazines.
The first one I pitched but pretty much the rest of them have been commissioned. I wrote my first Two of Us five years ago. And since then I’ve done about 30 of them. I mean, the column has been around for more than 30 years, I think it’s one of the most popular sections of the magazine. And sometimes people say, ‘Oh, I thought the two people just wrote them themselves’. And that just that just makes me want to weep. Because it can be quite tricky and time consuming to write. You have to interview the two people separately, usually, you do the chattiest person first, and then you interview them for about an hour or an hour and a half each.
So then you’ve sometimes got a 15,000 word transcript, which you’ve got to somehow whittle down to about 1100 words, but it’s got to be in their voice, but in a vaguely chronological coherent form. And with that column, it’s all about the interview and capturing that detail, like funny anecdotes, and memories that either illustrate the character of the other person or the nature of the relationship. So, you also want to talk to them about what they don’t like about each other, which is why I like interviewing spouses or parents and children, because they usually let rip about that kind of thing. Whereas friends are usually a bit too polite!
Two of Us stories take a while to do, but I really never get sick of doing them. Because it’s just really nice hearing what people mean to each other. You know, it can it can be really beautiful. There’s an editor of the page who vets the two of us people to make sure they’re suitable.
I interviewed a really great pair of 90-year-old Italian twins last year. They were just hilarious. They lived through the war, lived through bombings, they had moved to move to Australia together. And you know, they had they were just full of different little anecdotes, and they were fantastic value.
Peter Alexander, the pajama king and his mum were really good, too. Also Christian White, a novelist, and his partner, were great. They were just so honest. She was really candid about how jealous she’d been when he’d had all this success and became a best-selling author – that made for a great Two Of Us.
If there’s something that someone says that I think, oh, that might be hurtful to the other person, I might call them and …. basically save them from themselves, I guess. And just say, Look, do you really want to say that? Do you want to soften it or something like that? But generally, no. They don’t they don’t see it. I’ve only had one person come back from the 30 I’ve done, and [be a bit upset].
It was a pair of friends. And one of them said something slightly disparaging about the friend’s husband and friend’s husband wasn’t happy. But the friend whose husband it was, she knew that she had said even worse itself. And I would never have even thought that that was going to be an issue. So sometimes the things that you worry about no one is concerned about, and then something else will pop up. But generally most people are really happy to have the chance to talk about someone they love.
What do you like / hate about it? Well, this is my second stint of freelancing. So this time, I’ve been freelancing since I left the weekly. So that’s been five and a half years now. I think it’s pretty obvious what I hate about it. I mean, in terms of the upside, you can’t really beat it for freedom and flexibility. And you know, especially when you’ve got three kids, which I have, it’s great to be able to take time off when you need it. And it also means you can write the stories that you’re interested in, too, which is an added bonus.
By the time I started freelancing, the first time, which was in 2004, when I came back to Australia, I’d been writing for 12 years. So I had a lot of good clips. And I’d worked for editors who could vouch for me. And I think that’s mostly how I’ve managed to get work as a freelancer, through contacts, and in editors, referring me to other editors. And, you know, there’s also a lot to be said, for meeting editors for a coffee, if you can just put your face in front of them and let them know what you’re like. And, and also, you’ve got to be aware that editors that you have a relationship with eventually move on. So I think you’ve got to be really cultivating your connections all the time.
I just love chatting to people and writing about it. To me, jobs don’t get much better than that. Journalism, as you know, gives you access to people and experiences that you’d never ordinarily get to have. And that’s always felt like a huge privilege to me. Also, you know, I just love asking people personal questions. So, you know, it’s the ideal job for anyone who’s essentially really nosy.
It would probably be much smarter financially, if I had a niche, but I love being a generalist. Just being able to follow my curiosity. And I guess the closest thing I’d have to a niche would be profile writing, because I love asking people about their lives, I want to know who they are what they love. Why they do what they do.
I don’t think it’s that complicated. You just need to be nice. I think it’s important to be really well prepared so they know that you’ve done your research, and you’re genuinely interested in them and their work. I always have very long list of questions, but you’ve got to really listen obviously, to their answers. So if they do allude to something that you can ask a follow up question and see where that goes.
And sometimes you just need to be comfortable with silence, because often they’ll fill it. It’s amazing what people will say, if you’re quiet and you just wait. It’s almost like a game of chicken really, but obviously, you know, you don’t go in with with the tough questions straight up, you’ve got to ease into the conversation and, and it helps if you can find some common ground between you but but also, sometimes you’ve just got to brace yourself and ask an uncomfortable question. You know, the interviewee can always dodge it if they want to. But I think sometimes people don’t have the guts to ask the questions that readers would really like to pose. And yeah, and they can result in some really interesting answers.
Yep. I think celebrities can sometimes have rote answers, because they’ve been asked the same question so many times and it’s especially frustrating, on the odd occasion, when the publicists insists on sitting in on the interview. I once interviewed an actress who’d had a lot of recent success in Hollywood. And I asked her about turning 50 and her publicist just basically came across the room and just stopped the interview, because she didn’t want the the actress’s age revealed, even though, you know, it had been in other stories, and it was really relevant to The Weekly’s demographic. I mean, this was a good news story. This was something that readers would be interested in. This was an actress who was turning the whole female invisibility theory on its head, you know, that the publicist got very shirty.
And I think probably the best interview subjects are everyday people who’ve gone through something extraordinary, because they have a great meaningful story to tell, and they’re also less guarded. I remember talking to Rosie Batty for The Women’s Weekly, three weeks after she lost her son in the most horrific circumstances. And she was extraordinary. She was just so raw, and so open and eloquent and just so, so generous. And, you know, it’s a cliche, but I think it’s true that most people have a story to tell if you dig deeply enough.
Just the other day, I interviewed a zookeeper for a Zoos Victoria publication, and she was telling me about the gorillas that she looks after. She was saying how they love going to sleep listening to Michael Buble. I just love interviewing people and hearing kooky details like that. That’s the best, I eat that stuff up.
Oh, well, with with a profile, you’re usually interviewing them for a reason. Like, you know, they might have a book coming out or something like that. So that will often influence the angle. And, you know, if you’ve got a couple of hours to chat with them, like you do, you can do a pretty wide ranging interview and, you know, just see what comes up in the conversation. But, you know, sometimes you don’t have much time and you have to be pretty targeted with your angle and your question.
I remember earlier this year, I did a cover story on Linda Burney for Sunday Life Magazine, and she was really flat out at the time she was campaigning around the country for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. She didn’t have much time for an interview. So I ended up chatting with her when she was on a government plane flight flying from Canberra to Alice Springs on a Thursday night or something. She only had 20 minutes to spare and I had to write a cover story from that, so I was pretty nervous about getting what I needed, especially because I’d never written for Sunday Life before. And you know, the story was pegged to International Women’s Day. And, I knew she had done her first speech to Federal Parliament in a kangaroo skin cloak that her best friend had made her so I just decided to make the angle female friendships. So with that 20 minutes so I asked her other questions, but I asked her about her friends and how they’d rallied around her after the deaths of her husband and her son. And she gave me some really lovely quotes. So that ended up working out really well, you know, but sometimes you have even less!
Like with Kim Kardashian, I was only given 10 minutes. You know, so you really have to go in with a plan. And she was over here, this was years ago, flogging her seventh fragrance or something. And she was she was in a hotel room at the Crown Casino. It was like that scene out of Notting Hill when Hugh Grant was pretending to work on Horse and Hound and he was given five minutes to interview Julia Roberts. Anyway, it was just this revolving door of journalists who had been allotted, you know, 10 minutes each. And, you know, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get anything substantial out of her in 10 minutes. You know, in the end, I think I eked out 12 minutes. So, you know, I asked her to give me a selfie-taking lesson, because really, it was just a ruse to get a selfie with Kim Kardashian. But oh my god, she had a lot to say about taking selfies and it made for a fun story. And I posted the picture on Facebook. And it just went off. And I actually got more likes for that than I did for any of my newborn babies!
I probably don’t pitch as much as I should. Because it’s just easier and more time efficient, I guess, as a freelancer to do the stories you’re asked to do. But you know, if it’s a long form piece, I do a lot of research to make sure the story has got legs, you know, to make sure it can be carried for 4000 words or whatever it is. But obviously, you have to know the publication and the audience and then make a convincing case. You know, why this story? And why now? And then you’ve got to make it clear how you can make the story fresh and compelling. I guess.
Well, it’s probably harder to get a staff job because media does tend to be pretty Sydney centric. But as a freelancer, I think you can pretty much work anywhere. And you know, perhaps it helps not to be competing with as many other writers in the same city. You know, when you’re freelancing at home alone, you can sometimes feel like you’re working in a bit of a vacuum. So I think tricky in terms of networks, you know, for a sense of community, I think it really helps to join freelance groups online, like Rachel’s List, or make connections through LinkedIn. I mean, self promotion can feel pretty icky. But you kind of have to get used to posting your stories and putting yourself out there, I think.
I don’t really have an average week actually. Kind of depends on what I’m working on. It’s usually a mix of, you know, researching, interviewing, transcribing, writing. I’m not a very good multitasker. I like to kind of focus on one thing at a time. Yeah, I mean, my workday is pretty much dictated by my dog, really, I mean, who noses me relentlessly at about 9am and 3pm, to make sure we go for walks. So you know, my workday is dictated by him, actually!
Well, at the moment, for The Women’s Weekly I’m doing a profile of an author who’s got a new memoir coming out. So I went and visited her at her house and interviewed her for a couple of hours. I’m also doing a story on another writer and her assistant and I’m also working on two monthly pages that I do for Qantas: one is called Creative Process, which is a short profile of an up and coming artists. And the other is Design Notes, which is a page about an iconic design, like a furniture piece like a Noguchi coffee table or something like that. For Qantas I also do occasional travel stories, so I just finished a batch of stories that I wrote about Japan because I went there earlier this year.
Oh, absolutely. For a profile piece I would never generally do it on Zoom or on the phone. I would do it face to face, especially for a substantial piece. So in the case of the author, I went to her house up in Castlemaine, and we just sat by the fire and ate cakes and talked about her life for two hours! So it was great. And all the details are so telling, you know, the books on their shelves, the paintings on the walls, it gives you such rich color. I don’t know how I’d feel about someone coming to my house – seeing it in its natural state. But yeah, it’s very generous I think if an interviewee lets you come to their house, because it makes for a much better profile. Definitely.
It’s probably even harder now because of the competition. But for people starting out, I think you’ve just got to write as many stories as you can. And then make sure you file a really good clean copy. And most of all, do not miss a deadline. I think editors, especially these days are so busy that you have to make their jobs as easy as possible. And and if you do if you’re responsive and easy to work with, then you’re much more likely to be asked to write for them again.
So many times on this podcast, I’ve heard you both say how essential it is to have a website. And I know it’s true, especially if you want content marketing work, but I’m so ashamed to say I still haven’t made a website. I am so ashamed. I’m just terrified of writing the about page! And I do have a site on Authory.com which has stories from the past few years. And I’m also on LinkedIn, so people can feel free to contact me there