The London School of Journalism

Student case study - Hilary M


Sometimes more experienced writers need a little help to advance their journalism career, and over the years even working journalists on national titles have found LSJ courses a useful way of filling gaps in their professional knowledge.

For Hilary M, moving around the world for the past 30 years has exposed her to a range of different writing experiences. But when she embarked on the LSJ’s features and freelance course, she hadn’t really considered freelance writing as a career – and could not have envisaged the thrill of having a programme broadcast on the BBC’s World Service.

Hilary had just arrived in Cairo when she started the course in 2010, but already boasted an impressive international CV, having edited a Russian real estate magazine in Kazakhstan and a Scots magazine in Kuala Lumpur before acting as a stringer for The Times in Libya from 2009. When she arrived in Cairo, she was promptly invited to become editor and writer of Obelisque, a quarterly lifestyle glossy.

“I fell into the current job on my arrival and decided that it was about time I got a formal education in journalism, so I signed up with LSJ,” she recalls. “I had written often for community magazines that I was editing, but when I became a stringer for The Times in Tripoli I glimpsed a very different world with a very different standard.”

Now 58, Hilary trained and worked as a lawyer before her marriage, and has never been short of drive and initiative.
In the 1990s she launched what has since become a leading international school in Beijing, and her husband’s job with an American oil company has forced her to find new challenges and opportunities in 11 different countries over the past three decades.

So what difference could an online course make to her writing?

“I don't think I needed to build confidence.  I was seeking the tools to write better and the course, especially the assignments, opened up horizons I had not considered at all.  The surprise was that the pitches were so successful.”

Writing assignments for the course soon started to translate into commissioned articles, she discovered.

“The piece I wrote about a woman I interviewed for Assignment 5 was successfully pitched to the editor of The Corkman,” she says. “Getting this paper's very different prose and lovely humorous touch was very difficult but interesting to do.”

As the course progressed, other articles were successfully ‘pitched’ to The Times, Yachting Monthly and a range of publications in Cairo – as well as in-flight and e-travel outlets.

But Hilary’s biggest “coup” during the course was the positive response from the BBC’s Outlook programme on the World Service – a half-hour slot featuring extraordinary personal stories from around the world.

“I was very candid with the BBC that I had no experience of audio work, and I have been amazed at how much coaching and tuition they have given which resulted in my second attempt at a programme being accepted,” she says.

Her first Outlook piece was about a vibrant, articulate 22-year-old from a deprived area of Cairo who was unable to move at all and lived for 10 years on the ground in her parents’ one-room home, shared with her six siblings – until she learned to walk.

Her next programme is about a young mother who ran away from home at the age of nine and lived precariously as a vulnerable young woman on the Cairo streets during her early life.

“Without this course I definitely would not have gone into freelance writing and would not have considered audio work,” she admits.

“Before I started this course I was good at writing and it had some flow and structure.  Now my writing is much tighter.  I think about the hook and subsequent flow, I keep my reader in the frame. 

“Reading newspapers and magazines has acquired a new dimension, I now appreciate the way it is written and good turns of phrase.”

Asked about any advice she has to offer those considering a similar challenge, she has a few ‘top tips’:

•  Go out and make contact with people.
•  Never go out without a notebook and (working) pen.
•  Anticipate stories: going on holiday? Consider what is attracting you there and consider who would be also interested.  Talk to the barman, the manager, the lifesaver – it will really deepen your understanding of the location and what drives it.   
•  Spend time researching potential publications for your stories, analyse these for style and scope – and find the right person to pitch to.
• Challenge yourself: use the research and find your story more than one market. The Assignment 6 travel feature was first published in a local paper, then changed to complete assignment 10, targeted at Yachting Monthly and published this October.  

As for the future, Hilary knows better than to think too far ahead: “There is no point making plans.  I don't know how long I will be anywhere and I have no choice as to the next posting.  Better to live in the present and enjoy the opportunities each day presents.  And now I have started into freelancing, every day can present a story – and it is certainly very portable!”