There are multiple paths to freelance writing. Some people (*cough*) decide to go all in and make freelance writing their full-time pursuit, while others (perhaps with a bit more acumen) decide to build freelance writing into their existing professional and entrepreneurial lives. Ebonie Johnson Cooper is one such writer whose freelance articles are helping her build her name as a thought leader on African American philanthropy.
The founder of Friends of Ebonie, a marketing and communications agency that promotes philanthropy among African American millenials, Cooper oversees a blog, organizes social events and runs a full-time nonprofit consulting service, all geared towards helping to promote the role that young African Americans are playing in charitable giving. In the midst of all of that, Cooper finds time to work as a freelance writer for outlets like Ebony.com and Guest of a Guest. While writing full-time isn’t a goal for Cooper, penning articles related to her field has helped to solidify her voice as an industry expert.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Cooper about how she manages writing along with her many professional endeavors.
CM: How did you start freelance writing?
EJC: I started freelance writing out of the desire to want to write professionally. The honest truth is, I wasn’t always confident in my writing. I knew I was a good writer and everyone else told me I was a good writer, but it’s different when you’re writing for a large public. When Ebony [magazine] started their digital platform, I knew they were looking for new writers and a girlfriend of mine happened to know the editor. I had an idea brewing with growing my own professional brand around giving, philanthropy and millenials. Knowing that Ebony had a need, I had a desire and a contact, I just kind of put it all together. I started with Ebony.com just last year; it’s almost been a year, and it’s been really great.
CM: For you, is freelance writing more of a part-time pursuit?
EJC: Yeah, absolutely. For Ebony.com, because I’ve written so much for them, there’s an expectancy that I’ll probably pitch one or two articles or ideas a month. So that’s doable. Being able to write as a part of my professional umbrella makes it enjoyable and keeps my ideas fresh.
CM: How did you come to the idea that you wanted to write in the area of philanthropy?
EJC: It was a natural fit, having Friends of Ebonie as a blog…it just really came out of that. I had more that I wanted to share and talk about on a larger platform. Philanthropy for me is kind of natural. I serve on a couple of different boards…so when it is a part of your life, it becomes a natural fit to want to write about it. Being a consultant as well to nonprofit organizations, particularly about growing their giving demographic and reaching out to a different sector of folks, it just kind of fit.
I should also add that I don’t always write about philanthropy and giving. I have written about love, my own personal relationships, and my relationship with my biological father. I’ve written about [singer] Beyonce and her giving—so I still kind of switch it up. Even though philanthropy is what I do professionally, I also have another side of me that’s really creative, and I write about other things that are more emotionally driven.
CM: For that more creative side of you, do you have any particular goals in mind for fun projects that you would love to do one day?
EJC: I’d love to write a book about coming of age and the “quarter-life crisis.” I’ll be turning 30 this year…if I had a chance to do it over again I would probably have a more positive outlook about being in my twenties, but it was a time when you don’t really know what’s happening, you don’t really know what’s going on. My twenties were a little difficult, I’m definitely glad to be going out a lot better than I came into it; to have the opportunity to talk about that process and be helpful to other young women who are in their twenties would give me a drive to know that my life story has made a difference.
CM: Writing was a part of your strategy around your professional branding. How do you think writing can help professionals and entrepreneurs?
EJC: Any time you are a professional in whatever field, there is a brand that comes along with that; whether or not you share that publicly or explicitly, it still matters that the brand of you as a professional rings true to what you do. Especially if you’re looking to have a public platform…that’s when you have to sharpen your brand and make sure everything around you, whether its online or in person, works together.
At the core of what I do, I’m a marketing and communications professional, so being able to write is a skill set that I have. Because I am able to write…it just worked out that way. It [freelance writing] also gives credibility to what I’m doing and what I have to say.
CM: Tell me about Friends of Ebonie?
EJC: Friends of Ebonie has really become an umbrella. Part of that is the blog. I’ve grown our writing team–because of everything else that I’m doing, I can’t write for the site every day. While I don’t write as much as I used to for Friends of Ebonie, it’s been complementary to the way that our platform has grown. We have a team of writers, three young ladies, that really represent the areas that people have been talking about and have had an interest in—advocacy and social justice, professional and career development, and inspiration and motivation. I kind of wrap that up with a focus on millenials and giving.
Another area of Friends of Ebonie is consulting and that’s what I’ve taken up more on a full-time basis—consulting with nonprofit organizations, helping them with their messaging so that they can pull in a new demographic, which includes millenials and particularly African Americans. We also do social engagement and social media—that’s a huge platform for us
CM: It definitely sounds like you have a lot to manage and to handle. How do you manage your schedule with all that you have to do?
EJC: Going back to the freelance writing piece, whenever I have an idea for an article I write it—I write it on my phone or I will write the pitch down—so that I don’t forget. If the article gets picked up, all I have to do is edit and send it. Part of my time management is writing in that moment, whether I’m writing an article for Friends of Ebonie or a media outlet, I’ll try to take care of it right then and there.
Managing everything else just comes along with the territory. I have an assistant who is very helpful with the administrative part of things. I realized that I needed someone when I started dropping the ball, not returning emails, missing phone meetings and things like that. I’m one of those “I can do everything myself” kind of people, and it just doesn’t always work. I have a solid team at Friends of Ebonie, my mom is really helpful…I just take it one day at a time.
CM: What have you learned about the freelance writing process since you’ve been working with Ebony.com and the other outlets you write for?
EJC: It’s essential to know how to pitch. You have to understand the value and nuances of pitching. Not every editor wants to read a three-paragraph pitch, but some do because they want to know more about what you’re writing so they don’t have to go back and forth with three or four emails.
And just because your article wasn’t picked up doesn’t mean it was a bad pitch; it may mean that they already have something in the pipeline for that. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know they just did an article about [that topic] two or three weeks ago, so it may not be the right time to pitch that particular article. A couple of months later they may want to pick up on it again. It’s [also] understanding who you are writing for and what your idea is, and being confident in it really. Your pitch is almost a sample of what your writing is like so you have to make sure that it is as error free and engaging as possible.
CM: What are some practical ways people can get to know editors that they want to pitch, especially if they’re not in New York and can’t casually “bump” into someone at a happy hour?
EJC: These days with social media and the Internet, you can find anything you want. While you may not be able to pick up the phone and call Anna Wintour, obviously, if you’re already in that industry then I’m sure you know someone who knows someone.
It’s also reading about the background of your editor. Who did they write for before they became an editor? Do they have a personal blog that you can read? Everyone has a bio on their website, there’s LinkedIn…you can find out about a person through all those different ways. I hate to call it stalking—more professional research on people that you are looking to engage with. When you do get the opportunity to send them that email, be personable. You wouldn’t want to read something that is boring and very stiff, so you should present your personality as much as possible when you reach out to different editors.
CM: Who are some of the writers that you look up to?
EJC: A lot of my fellow freelance writer friends. I think that I look up to them just in the way that they’ve been able to break down some barriers. J.Maureen Henderson and Amanda Ebokosia—they write for Forbes. I have another friend by the name of Lyneka Little, she has really helped me along the way…having people who do it more on a professional day-to-day basis I think has been really helpful for me.
CM: What is the dream for Ebonie Johnson Cooper?
EJC: Professionally—I’m starting to see that unfold every day. I would have never thought this is where I would be at this point in my life. I’ve never been one of those folks who said in five years this is where I want to be [or] in ten years this is where I want to be. I think I’m just starting to have those types of thoughts…I guess the dream is to be that go-to person when you turn on CNN and they’re talking about engaging with African Americans for fundraising or philanthropy—I want to be that person that they turn to. Thought leadership is definitely something that I want to continue to grow in. Also becoming a really great consultant and continuing to use my expertise in that way. The dream is also to run a marketing and communications department for a large nonprofit or foundation. I’ve noticed that nonprofits and foundations aren’t always the best at pushing their messages. In order to be able to fundraise and push forth your mission and your goals, you have to be able to communicate in an effective way.
I think I’d get bored if I did one thing. Having lots of different things going on but having them converging in some way is what I do. I’ve been able to make it work, so far at least.
CM: Anything else that you’d like to add?
EJC: Freelance writing is something that is different for everybody. Sometimes freelance writing is your full-time job. Sometimes it’s something that you just find fun to do. I think no matter what part of writing you do, you have to enjoy it. Being a writer, being creative, you always have to enjoy what you’re doing, otherwise it becomes burdensome and people pick that up. If you ever write and you’re not feeling good, your writing will reflect that. The better you feel, the better your writing will be and the more lives you’ll be able to touch.