The writer and UMN graduate shares advice to aspiring writers
Safy-Hallan Farah is a Minneapolis based writer whose work has recently been featured in Teen Vogue, Paper Magazine, Spin, and Nylon, among many other publications. Often critiquing music or culture, Farah’s observations are wise, sharp and on-point, much like her hilariously real Twitter feed (@safyhallanfarah). We asked the University of Minnesota graduate to share some of her experiences in navigating the freelance writer’s life.
The Wake: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer, and why?
Safy-Hallan Farah: I was a really performative kid, so growing up I wanted to play a lawyer on TV or be a singer. As I got older, and I realized where my strengths lie, my creativity went into writing—or, in my case, thinking about writing. Journalism kind of happened randomly, and I’m still not really sure if it’s something I want to pursue for real.
As a Minneapolis resident, how did you come to write for places outside the state? How do you cultivate relationships from afar with editors at major publications, and why did you choose to stay here rather than move to a writing hub like New York City?
SF: The way to build relationships with editors at publications is simple networking. I used to think I was like a dweeb who wasn’t socially savvy enough to network, but to be honest it’s really easy to network from behind a computer screen. Be passionate and nice and people will reach out to you, or at least want to keep the line of communication open with you in case you want to reach out to them. The reason so many local people get stuck here is because they know everyone from high school or from their college paper. They don’t know how to get anything that literally wasn’t given to them. It’s embarrassing, and I think it’s respectable to put yourself out there, even if you get rejected.
I also recommend being active on Twitter. Even though Twitter feels like it’s on its way out, it’s very relevant to media folks. I built my following making dumb jokes. I’m in a pretty clutch position now where I don’t have to put any effort into networking or trying to be interesting online. I have a lot of solid work on my plate and good relationships going for myself, but it wasn’t always that way. In summer 2014, I had zero followers. That’s around the time I started officially trying to get into the freelance game. One of my favorite editors started a kick-ass Facebook group that motivated me to put real effort forward. It was a really low summer, and I’m thankful to all the people who helped me during that phase.
I haven’t really chosen to stay here. I’m just waiting for the right opportunity to move to a better place permanently, whether it’s Los Angeles or New York. This city does not inspire me, and I need to be perpetually inspired to do writing that isn’t for the Internet.
What tips do you have for aspiring journalists and freelancers? What are the biggest challenges of being a freelance writer in 2016?
SF: Develop taste! Oh God, please for the love of God! This is so important because then you’ll avoid writing for garbage publications. Other than that, practice and pitch a lot, and develop solid relationships with other professional writers, not just editors. There are so many challenges, but one of the biggest ones is just consistently churning good work out.
How do you approach music criticism?
SF: I think about what I like, what I don’t like, what stands out/is noteworthy, the context that the music comes from, etc. I approach it sonically, lyrically, culturally, I guess. For me, the hardest part is being concise about something so abstract. Music writing is extremely challenging but rewarding.
What kinds of stories do you think get underreported, and what can be done to change that?
SF: I think stories on my own people, Somali people, are underreported. I really would like to see that change. It sort of is changing thanks to Somali girl journalists like Huda Hassan and Sarah Hagi.
A lot of journalism professors talk about the need for new freelancers to develop a “brand identity.” What are your thoughts on that?
SF: I used to want that. I thought that was cool. I don’t really care about branding anymore. I’m interested in showcasing every aspect of my personality—my arrogance and pride, my messiness, my vulnerability, my cuteness. All of it. Even the parts of myself that complicate whatever people already think of me.
What’s a piece you wrote recently that you’re really proud of?
SF: I’m excited about two pieces I recently flew out to Toronto to write.