Writing a Novel: 6 Lessons I Learned From Freelance Writing

writing lessons fiction

Do you dream of writing a novel?

I never imagined I’d write children’s books.

I thought I’d found my groove writing online and for print media for over 25 years, freelancing for 12 of those.

A few years ago, my groove began feeling like a rut, and I began to think about writing fiction.

I’ve always been a reader, but I’d never thought of writing novels of any kind.

Writing fiction was something that other (much cleverer) people did. I didn’t have the faintest idea of where to begin.

Or so I thought.

Once I actually sat down to write my first novel (which remains unpublished), I took the enormous leap of faith that goes with taking an idea and swimming through 90,000 words to reach ‘The End.’

And I began to understand the quiet, invaluable lessons that freelance writing had taught me about writing fiction.

Here are six lessons I learned.

1. Where to find ideas

If I had $1 for every time a new freelance writer asked me where my ideas came from, I’d have retired to my private island years ago.

Ideas are everywhere and it pays to pay attention to what people are talking about, what they’re watching, thinking, and reading.

It’s a muscle you can train, just like any other.

The Mapmaker Chronicles, my adventure series for children, came from two conversations I had with my eldest son, then nine. One about how far space goes, the other about how the world was mapped. Tapping into those conversations and a thought (what’s really at the edges of the universe?) became an idea, which became a three-book, 160,000-word epic adventure.

Lucky that attention muscle was in shape…

2. How to write dialogue

I’ve been interviewing people for a long time, and here’s what it’s taught me:

  • Learn to ask the same question three ways to ensure you get a succinct answer.
  • Know how to reach the essence of a quote, honing it for maximum power.
  • Learn to listen for the rhythm in a voice. A pause can be more effective than words will ever be.
  • The key to any interview is asking the right question—even if you feel stupid uttering the words.

Quotes are the lifeblood of any feature article, quickening the pace, giving the story bounce and flow. And so it is with dialogue in fiction.

If you talk to many different people, you get a fantastic sense of how to give your characters distinctive voices.

3. There’s always more than one side to a story

As every journalist knows, there are always at least two sides to a story. To produce a well-balanced article, you need to present both, and allow the reader room to decide.

In fiction, you can switch point of view to offer differing perspectives but the most important thing to remember is that every character is the hero of his and her own story.

Your hero may dislike the villain—in fact, the latter may be the blackest, darkest character of all time—but you can never forget the villain’s perspective. Even in the backstory you don’t include, it is important to remember each character’s side of the story if you are to create well-rounded characters.

4. Write for an ‘ideal reader’

When I worked with an interiors magazine, we created an ‘ideal reader.’ She was a 40+ mother of two with a blonde bob and a healthy income, and her name was Jan. If we were arguing about whether or not to include a particular house or feature in the magazine, we would simply ask ourselves ‘would Jan like this?’.

When I wrote the first book of The Mapmaker Chronicles, I did not write it for ‘children.’ I wrote it for my then nine-year-old son.

I wrote the kind of story I knew he liked to read—and when I read the first draft aloud to him, I noted whether or not he laughed at what I thought was funny, whether things made sense to him, and ended up removing all the ‘boring bits.’

It’s difficult to write for a large, faceless audience; so much easier to write for one person in that audience, while keeping an eye on the universality of your story.

5. Stay true to your voice

As a freelancer, you become adept at adapting your writing style across a wide range of publications. The very best writers, however, manage to hold on to a modicum of their own voice even as they write to suit the environment. That voice is what makes you stand out in a crowded field.

As a writer of fiction, your voice is the key to the whole world. You can study structure, tweak dialogue, obey the rules of genre, and outline your plot until the cows come home, but if you aren’t using your own voice, none of it matters.

Years of working as a freelance writer taught me to write like I speak—only better. It is the single most valuable thing I have learned as a writer.

6. The importance of a deadline—even a self-imposed one

While the dream of freelance writing involves pyjamas and daytime television, for working writers, the reality is very different. Productive (and therefore paid) writers need routine and discipline—and there is no faster way to learn that than a relentless onslaught of deadlines.

Freelance writing taught me that the best way to cure writers’ block is to write. It taught me that it’s possible to write 1000 words on a day when you’re not ‘feeling it,’ but your deadline is looming.

And it taught me never to wait for The Muse. Instead, I assume she is stuck in traffic and start without her, hoping she’ll catch up when she can.

When I began writing fiction, I fit it in around paid work, wedging it into cracks in my day. I quickly realised that it was easy to put it off. When you’ve spent an entire day writing articles, the last thing you want to do is pull out a manuscript.

So I gave myself a deadline—and announced it to the world. There is nothing like a battalion of interested friends asking ‘Have you finished your novel yet?’ to spur a person on…

For me, deadlines are essential to getting work done, and writing fiction, though fun, is hard work. Just ask The Muse…


Freelance writing is still my day job, and I’m glad, because it continues to teach me so much. Every day, I interview experts in their fields. I talk to real people about their lives. I deal with deadlines and discipline and the delicate art of negotiation.

All of which fuels the fiction writing I love.

Have you learned any lessons about writing fiction from your day job? Please share in the comments, and keep the conversation going.

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About the author

Allison Tait

Allison Tait is a multi-genre writer who has more than 25 years’ experience in magazines, newspapers and online publishing. Her popular children’s series The Mapmaker Chronicles is published by Hachette Australia.