Earlier this week, I met a local college student for coffee. An aspiring journalist, she wanted to interview me about my own experience in the field for her senior capstone paper.
Besides being extremely flattered that someone would want to interview me, I have to admit that the experience left me feeling pretty proud of how far I’ve come since I started my career as a part-time editorial assistant/office manager for Hagerstown magazine five years ago.
My own path to becoming a journalist was different than most. I didn’t go to journalism school for one, nor did I major in English when I attended Shepherd University. I majored in Spanish, thinking I’d eventually become a translator. After I earned my degree in 2009, I traveled to Valencia, Spain, and worked as an intern for a nonprofit organization for a few months in an effort to bolster my speaking skills—which even after nearly ten years of academic study were woefully lacking. During that trip I realized I neither had the verbal skills I needed nor the true ambition to be a translator, though I did have a knack for written language—verb conjugations, grammatical structures, and spelling—in both Spanish and English.
I was no stranger to writing either. As an honors student back in my college days, many of my courses were very writing intensive. My own senior capstone papers (I had to write two of them, with one requiring both an English and Spanish version) were more than 30 pages long each. And although I never would have admitted it at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed writing those papers. I relished the challenge of arguing my stance while weaving a compelling narrative and backing up my claims with support from my carefully selected sources.
Looking back now, it seems quite natural that I’ve taken to editing, particularly copy editing and proofreading, as well as writing. Ever since I learned to read as a child, I’ve been silently (or sometimes not-so-silently) pointing out errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation in everything I read, from novels to newspapers. I can’t help it. They just jump out at me, clamoring to be corrected.
Beyond the 9-to-5 Grind
After getting back from Spain back in fall 2009, I knew I wanted to work in publishing. My dream was to work my way up to being a staff writer at one of my favorite magazines like Outside or Eating Well or to become an editor for a publishing house.
I quickly learned, though, that dream jobs like that are few and far between, if not completely nonexistent, in my hometown of Martinsburg, West Virginia. So, not wanting to move or make the four-hour round-trip commute to Washington, D.C., every day, I settled for working at a local newspaper and then for an online university press before moving on to work in the marketing and public-relations fields.
In each of the full-time staff positions I held over the past five years, I gained a lot of useful skills and knowledge, but I also felt deep down that I could do better than the 9-to-5 grind—that I could find something that would make me happier and more fulfilled.
At some point I realized that as a freelance writer, I was my own boss. And I enjoyed that freedom, so I decided to create my own dream job.
I eventually found what I was looking for in the freelance writing I was doing on the side. I’d been spending my precious evening and weekend time writing articles for Hagerstown magazine ever since I got my start as editorial assistant there, but I enjoyed the work. I was given an assignment and a deadline, sure, but how, when, and where I completed that assignment was ultimately up to me. At some point I realized that as a freelance writer, I was my own boss. And I enjoyed that freedom, so I decided to create my own dream job.
I knew there were plenty of other local publications that needed writers, so I started reaching out to them in early 2014, slowly building my network of clients while I worked part-time for a local public-relations company to help pay the bills. Today, having left my last staff job behind in December, I contribute regularly to numerous regional and statewide publications including Blue Ridge Country magazine and The State Journal newspaper, and I’m continuing to expand my stable of publication clients.
A Natural Transition
Since I started Sheehan Writing & Editing in December, I’ve also been building my network of business clients, for whom I craft marketing and public-relations materials like brochures, blog posts, and press releases. Considering my previous work experience, it was a natural transition for me to offer these services. Doing so gives me more variety in my day-to-day work and challenges me to tell stories from a different point of view than I do as a journalist.
Plus, I find that fellow business owners are typically a joy to work with. They value my time and expertise as a writer and editor. And they appreciate when someone takes the time to make their story—whether it’s in the form of a brochure or a press release—really shine.
I have to admit, I never thought I’d be a business owner myself. But I’ve learned over the last year that when you’re a freelance writer, you are, in fact, running a business, whether you officially register as such or not. I’ve also learned that even when life takes you in directions you never imagined you’d go, you can end up in a place that just feels right.
I’ve definitely faced challenges—which I’ll write about in future posts—becoming a business owner, but overall, it’s been an enjoyable journey. And I can’t wait to see where else it will take me.