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Award-winning journalist Omar Mouallem on developing a successful, freelance career.
By Kian Samavati
Omar Mouallem is an award-winning author, journalist, filmmaker and more. As a magazine writer, he’s published gripping features and stories for outlets such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Maclean’s and amassed an impressive array of bylines in AMPA publications like Edify, Alberta Views and others. His book, Praying to the West, won the 2022 Wilfred Eggleston Nonfiction Award and was named one of The Globe and Mail’s 100 best books of 2021— and his first feature film, The Lebanese Burger Mafia won the Northwest Fest Audience Choice Award from Hot Docs in 2023.
Interestingly enough, Mouallem was actually a film student when he was first introduced to magazine writing. After realizing how little of his film work might ever be produced or screened, he scored his first bylines in local, lifestyle publications covering music and culture. “David Bertrand was a magazine writer in Vancouver for a music and culture magazine called The Nerve,” says Mouallem. I thought it was a sweet gig, so he hooked me up with the editor there [and] they gave me a shot.”
As one might expect, freelancers juggle a lot of balls in the air, from sourcing and pitching new story ideas to working with multiple editors at once, and of course the most nervewracking aspect, the writing process itself, and Mouallem quickly found that the number of articles he wrote was more beneficial to his long-term success rather than their length. “When I first went full-time freelance just over 10 years ago, I was doing a lot of small stories that paid three-, four- or $500, maybe $1,000,” says Mouallem. “The occasional feature paid more than that, but it was a numbers game.”
This required him to become a “master multitasker” and his early success hinged on his being able to quickly turn around all kinds of stories, in length and topic, in small bursts of time. “I could be working on three to five different stories a day,” says Mouallem. “On another day, I could be starting on an interesting tidbit of information, a news article or a tweet that sort of sparks an idea.”
According to Mouallem, writers can mitigate the often insurmountable task of “putting pen to paper” by developing a solid foundation of research skills, the first and most important aspect of writing a strong story but also by being a consumer of multiple mediums and publications. “I front load my process with a lot of research,” says Mouallem. “I might be reading articles, picking up a book on a subject, watching documentaries or listening to podcasts and interviews.”
Depending on what you’re interested in writing about, freelancers can— and should— also experiment with articles of various topics and formats. Mouallem considers himself a generalist, as opposed a subject matter expert, who’s pens everything from profiles of politicians, like Amarjeet Sohi, From political prisoner to parliamentarian, a story on the then-Liberal MP, now-current Mayor of Edmonton in Alberta Views, to personal essays, like A Mother, Her Husband and Two Aides Walk into a Bathroom… in Edify and more.
And while theoretical journalism courses are well established in post-secondary institutions, there’s no practical course on establishing a freelance writing career. At least there wasn’t, until 2020, when Mouallem founded the Pandemic University of Writing, an online school by, and for, professional writers teaching creative writing courses and workshops that, to date, has taught 2,500 writers from 35 countries (including some of Read Alberta’s very own editors), and raised more than $10,000 for writer’s funds and scholarships to further the next generation of storytellers to produce stories that truly interest them.
For Mouallem, he credits his curious nature and willingness to learn making him a good fit for the “build-your-own” nature of freelancing. “I [can] get bored pretty quickly,” says Mouallem. “I’m pretty open about having ADHD and I think it’s one of the reasons that I’m a freelancer because it allows me to hop from story to story, novelty to novelty.”