Most six year old girls aspire to be doctors, teachers or that swishy haired Disney Princess with her own pet tiger. I wanted to edit the Guardian. (Thus generating enough income to purchase my own endangered jungle cat.) More than 20 years and several hundred applications later my dreams have shifted slightly, but the ultimate goal of ‘published writer’ remains the same.
After a journalism MA at UCLAN, a move to Dubai, two fulltime jobs on B2B (that’s business to business if you didn’t know) publications and 18 months of head banging, I’m finally navigating my way down the precarious path of freelance writing.
I’d never trade my experiences for the stability of accountancy life, but being a poverty stricken creative type isn’t nearly as romantic as those 15th Century Parisian poets would have you believe. Blighted by an exceptionally bleak recession and the blogging boom, traditional journalism has taken a more aggressive battering than Mike Tyson’s punch bag. With new publications entering the websphere on a daily basis and young graduates clamouring for the opportunity to work for nothing, the value of the written word is rapidly diminishing. And whilst lolz and retweets are no doubt gratifying, landlords and supermarkets have yet to accept them in exchange for that food and rent stuff I’ve heard so much about.
Although I’d advise anyone to exercise caution (and be realistic) about a journalism career, it does have its upsides. In between wallpapering my bedroom with rejection letters I’ve met executives from around the globe; interviewed ex drug addicts; travelled by camel across the Arabian desert; eaten lunch overlooking the Taj Mahal and proudly filed my very first articles in a slightly tatty high school achievements folder. (The ‘once begrudgingly participated in a netball game’ and ‘cycling proficiency’ certificates just weren’t cutting it.)
So if you’re keen to shun what my parents call ‘a real job’ in favour of professional writing, I’ve got a few tips for you:
1.) Learn your trade
Launching a blog is a great start but it doesn’t make you a qualified writer. Though a handful of school leavers emerge with the necessary skills to cut it in a busy newsroom, most of us have to work at it. An NCTJ accredited degree in journalism is a great idea or, if you’re low on funds, take a shorter programme with a qualified trainer. I recommend former BBC journalist Susan Grossman http://www.susangrossman.co.uk/ who you can follow on Twitter @wordsallowed.
Even for seasoned hacks, networking in a room full of strangers can be a daunting task. But with approximately 90% of jobs gained through contacts, it’s a necessary skill for media professionals. If you write a blog, contact as many relevant PRs as possible and ask to be added to their press release lists. Provided you express a genuine interest in their news and don’t beg for free mascaras, event invites will begin to trickle into your inbox. Once you’ve secured a place on the guest list, dress in your glad rags, put on your very best brave face and start introducing yourself to strangers.
3.) Get social networking
An extension of traditional networking, Twitter and Linked in are a great way to meet virtual contacts. Make sure you’re following influential PRs, editors, bloggers and journalists in your niche. Reply to their tweets, engage them in conversation but don’t badger them with follow requests like a needy Labrador puppy. Keep your own tweets regular, relevant and well constructed and gradually your tweeps will come.
4.) Prepare for rejection
So you’ve lovingly crafted your perfect pitch or application, subbed it 327 times, done your good luck dance around the bedroom and… NOTHING. Rejection is par for the course in journalism and many companies won’t even respond to requests or applications. However, if you’ve been turned down after interview, you should always chase the employer for feedback. Accept it, learn from it and try again.
5.) Prepare for criticism
Despite the odd ‘you’re fatter than a hippo’s vajayjay’ remark from the dedicated trolls, comments on personal blogs tend to be from supportive girls admiring your choice in nail varnish swatches. Criticism is generally constructive and negative comments can be quickly removed by the blog owner. The same isn’t true of the mainstream media. When you put your writing in a heavily viewed public sphere, you can’t expect the waiting pack of wolves to spare your jugular. Just look at Samantha Brick.
6.) Don’t be precious
Before you jump ship into a sea of application forms, consider this: How many paid positions are there on women’s magazines across the UK? And how many people fancy taking a crack at that job? I’m no mathematician, but the odds of bagging yourself a glam role on the back of a part time blog or degree are pretty slim. If you want to get into journalism, be open minded. Think B2B magazines or editorial admin on Cross Stitch Monthly rather than fashion assistant at Vogue.
7.) Intern with caution
According to magazine editors, interning is the only way to get your scrubby little foot through the door. Whilst I’d never wish to discourage someone from gaining new skills, I urge you to be cautious before undertaking an extended work placement. Almost exclusively the stomping ground of middle class graduates, internships are not meritocratic and deny poorer students opportunities. Although some positions will provide you with much needed training, many more are exploitative and lead nowhere.
8.) Broaden your options
You shouldn’t give up on your dreams but a girl needs to earn a crust. If you’re struggling to find job opportunities in journalism why not consider related career paths such as marketing, PR or social media? Religiously check the journalism.co.uk, Guardian and Gorkana websites for job updates and be open to any paid opportunities that are thrown your way.
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