Freelance journalist focus: Sally Ann Voak

Sally Ann Voak is a freelance journalist specialising in nutrition, diet and health. She has been freelancing for six years, having previously worked as a features journalist on The Sun and her work has also appeared in The Mail, Yours, Woman’s Weekly, and other IPC Media titles.

This week, FeaturesExec caught up with Sally Ann to discuss her work, how PRs can be useful to her, and to find out what she’s reading at the moment.

About your work

What do you write about?
My core subjects are nutrition, diet and health, but what I love about my present working pattern is that I can diversify if I suddenly get a good idea, or am asked to deliver a celebrity interview. After 32 years on a tabloid, I have plenty of contacts! I also spend more time broadcasting and writing fiction (my first novel was published last year – a wicked expose of the food industry called “Thermogenesis: sex, conspiracy and calories”.) I have another novel on the go and write short stories, too. I also write, edit and produce a very popular local community magazine.

Where are we likely to see your work?
You’ll have seen my features in The Mail, Yours, Woman’s Weekly, and other IPC Media titles. I recently wrote a piece about the history of the diet industry which appeared in The Mail. I’m a regular on BBC regional news programmes, and pop up on TV occasionally. I presented a film on obesity for Sky Real Lives last year. Over the years, I’ve written 28 non-fiction books on diet and fitness – available on Amazon and in libraries.

What’s the most memorable work you’ve done?
Thanks to my freelance status, I was able to write a piece about my search for my grandfather’s grave in France. He was killed at the very end of the first world war, leaving a wife and four children. The impact his death had on my grandmother, Carrie, and her hard life after the war made a moving story which appeared as a DPS in The Mail. I was awarded the Society of Women Writers and Journalists’ Lady Violet Astor Rose Bowl for the best published article of the year. A great surprise. It has given my confidence a boost, which I think freelancers need from time to time.

Working at home is a solitary life after years of being part of a brilliant creative team of journalists and photographers at News International. Every day was challenging and exciting, especially when the legendary Kelvin Mackenzie was Editor of the Sun.

What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
If there is a change of government, I will be first in line to interview the the new Health Secretary. I’d love to know just what he or she intends to do about the obesity crisis in this country.

About you & PRs

Where do you source your ideas?
It’s essential to get out there and look for ideas. Of course, like everyone, I trawl the papers, websites and PR info, but you can get stale if you rely on that, and every other freelancer is doing the same thing! My biggest inspiration is just talking to people – I travel a lot these days, and ideas come from listening to the people I meet, here and abroad.

How can PRs be useful to you?
By keeping me up to speed on new products, developments and ideas. Forget the frills and waffle and don’t clog up the in-box with boring product pics I will never use. Invitations to launches are great if the event is held in the evening or late afternoon …work comes first..

How and when do you like them to get in touch?
A phone call is a good idea – yes really! Freelancers do like to chat to someone, so consider a short call instead of an email if you have a hot story. First thing in the morning is best. Keep it brief or leave a clear message, and make sure you follow up with an email containing all the details, especially if it is a medically related product or service – things like proof of efficacy, trials that have been carried out, prices, availability.

Do your find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
Conferences are excellent if they are half-day, held somewhere easily accessible, and have impressive, well-qualified, newsworthy speakers. Trips are not so hot as I lose money. No-one is paying me to sip cocktails! I am a part-time PR myself these days – I represent my son Tom Ward-Leeand his wife Alison, who own Alps Accommodation, a holiday chalet and apartment company based in the Grand Massif in France. With my experience as a journalist, I know what writers want – the news, the prices, suggested angles for their publication, an efficient follow-up.

If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
I get annoyed with PR people who don’t do their homework before contacting me. Also, if you are pitching for a new account, you are welcome to phone and pick my brains, but say “thank you”, and offer me a small fee. Every little helps!

How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
It would be challenging to work full time for my son and daughter in law. With my background, I can do almost anything from writing copy for their website,, to cleaning chalet loos – but they would have to give me a day off each week to ski!

If we gave you £1000 how would you spend it?
I’d book first class tickets on Eurostar and whisk my long-suffering husband Pat to Paris for a weekend of decadence – art, food, and shopping!!

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My second job was as a sub-editor on SHE magazine, when the entire staff consisted of just six people. We worked in a dusty set of offices above Regent Street. The wise, talented Chief Sub told me I would do well in journalism if I remembered three important things: never complain, always smile, and do more than you are asked to do. I get so furious when I hear hacks moaning on about their paltry pay, maternity leave allowance, holiday entitlement, office coffee, etc. etc. You don‘t know how lucky you are!

What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bags or blogs on your screen?
As I am a confirmed Francophile, there are always copies of Paris Match and the French edition of Elle on my desk, plus a pile of travel magazines. I am reading an excellent novel, “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith, which won the Orange Prize in 2006. Witty and clever. I bagged a copy of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga from our brilliant local library. This is a savage insight into the realities of life in India and will be a challenging read. Much as I use and love the internet, I would rather read a thought-provoking, well written newspaper column than a rambling blog!

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