I’ve now had several people reach out to me on LinkedIn, asking my advice about how to break into writing as a career. I’m not sure if this is an assignment for college or if these people are taking the initiative to ask me — a random stranger! good for them if so. But after I’d typed out the same information three or four times, I thought maybe it would be easier to just put it here and send the next person a link, if that person ever emerges. (Heck, maybe Google will index it and then they can avoid sending a random stranger that question entirely!)
“So you want to make a career as a writer, eh, kid? Well, here’s my best advice for how to get your foot in the door in this day and age.”
What do you want to write?
As I’ve learned, writing for a newspaper is not the same as writing for a magazine, and both are vastly different from marketing copywriting. And editing isn’t remotely the same thing as writing, although it does help to be skilled with both if you want to excel in one area. You don’t necessarily have to know exactly what you want to do as soon as you graduate, but hopefully you’ve secured an internship or maybe two, and you’ve got some idea of what you like to write about and what really doesn’t interest you in the slightest.
One potential challenge is that a lot of people who like writing and words also tend to have other interests in common, such as music and food. Everybody wants to write about music and food, or be a music or food editor! That doesn’t mean you can’t write about either, but it does mean that it will pay off to think about specifics.
My own specific interests included electronic music and vegetarian/plant-based food when I was first getting started as a writer. Most of my colleagues at the publication where I started out were not all that interested in either of my specific interests, so I was able to write about them. Maybe you like soul food and bluegrass. If you don’t have a lot of experience (yet) as a writer, then leverage some of the experience you’ve gained in other areas to shape what you’ll write and use them to your advantage.
If you have areas of interest that aren’t very popular, then you should seriously consider using them. Not everyone cares about tech startups or business news or health care or real estate. If you do — and you could see yourself making a career out of writing about them — then think about starting now. The worst that can happen? You won’t actually care enough about your niche to keep digging in it. But if it’s a good fit for you, then you’ll have a head start.
Do you have to have a niche right out the door? Well, it helps — but not necessarily. I tried a lot of different types of writing before I settled on what I’m doing today. Dabble in what interests you, but you should at least know what interests you. Would writing website or app copy seem like fun? Do you want to write blog posts? Do you want to be an old-school shoe-leather journalist and write hard news? There are no wrong answers here, but if you have an idea of where you want to go, even generally speaking, that will help you figure out what to do (and what not to do) in order to get there.
You’ll need a portfolio
When I was in college, portfolios were not necessarily a common thing to build for yourself, though a couple of students I knew did it anyway. I always thought it was pretentious to have a portfolio in college, but you know what? Those students were a lot smarter than I was. Even if all you have to show right now are some college essays or stories that never got published, the fact that you’ve bothered to put together that portfolio speaks volumes about your commitment to the craft and your future as a writer or editor.
In 2019, this is probably going to require building a website. There are lots of ways you can go about this — free tools like Wix and Weebly, or you can fork over some money and get something a little bit more flexible and permanent, such as WordPress or Squarespace (my own personal choice). Heck, if you want to, you can even put together a Google Doc, Google Sheet, or Google Slide presentation and build your portfolio there.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, of course. The main disadvantage to opting for a free site is that you’ll have no control over the domain name, which probably doesn’t matter to you that much in the immediate future, but may be a reason why you’ll want to migrate your site to a paid provider sooner or later. The main disadvantage to a paid website builder/host is, well, it costs money. If you’re a brand-new graduate and you don’t have a lot of (or any) income to spend on a website, this can be a barrier.
If I were just starting out and didn’t have a website, I’d probably use a Google Doc, Sheet, or Slide format and then build a website as soon as possible. Having control over your domain name gives you a little bit of an edge, and for a little bit extra each year, you can create an email address with your domain name. Sometimes those little details can really matter to an employer or freelance prospect; they show that you care about the small stuff and that you’re serious about this writing/editing business.
… And some stuff to put in your portfolio
The hardest part about getting your foot in the door as a writer or editor is landing that first job. It’s a sort of catch-22: People want to hire writers and editors with experience, and how do you get experience with no experience?
It’s possible, but it takes a little extra creativity on your part. One option is to use your time in college to find an internship. Those can be difficult to land in the publishing world in 2019 because of laws and regulations about intern pay, which I’m not going to get into, but they do still exist (especially on the marketing side) and you may be able to find one. Ask if you can use some work samples from your internship in your portfolio.
Another option is to use your existing friends network. I’ll bet you have friends who are independently employed and who might want to build their own website and content for that website — but they don’t have the resources to hire someone to do it. I would never recommend that anybody, even an entry-level brand-new graduate, work for free, but what about a trade in kind? Can your real estate agent friend introduce you to their broker or other agents who need work done if you do a good job, or offer to coach you on home financing so you could one day buy a house of your own? Could your yoga instructor friend offer a certain number of private lessons in exchange for your help? If you have friends who are massage therapists, would they be willing to trade a few hours of massage for a few hours of writing or editing work?
Look at the people in your network who are also in the “just starting out” phase and reach out to them. Ask them if they’ve thought about blogging, building a website, launching their presence on a social media platform, or other work that you could offer. There’s even a lot to be said for having an eye for language and typos when someone is building a resume — can you offer to proofread some resumes for recent business graduates? Does one of your friends own a local boutique or restaurant that doesn’t have a website? Opportunities do exist, and even if they can’t pay you immediately, if they can trade services, you’ll get something to add to your portfolio plus a little bit extra for your efforts.
Your local newspaper or news outlet probably also accepts submissions, even from brand-new writers. Look them up, reach out, and ask what their freelance submission process is and how you can get started. Be aware that these people are usually quite busy and don’t have time to hold your hand — you might need to come up with story ideas yourself, and you’ll have to make sure your copy is as clean and compelling as possible before you submit it. But a clip or two from a local news outlet is a great way to start to build your portfolio, and once your editors there get to know you, they may even assign stories to you when something emerges that fits your style and niche.
Job boards and agencies: Do they work?
Here’s the thing about job boards: Sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re awful, and oftentimes they’re a little bit of both. You’ll have to pick through a lot of truly terrible job offers to find the ones that are worth considering, and even when you find the gems, there’s a lot of competition from other people who are just getting started and want to get that foot in the door.
That said, sometimes it can be worth your time to go through a job board; look for one that’s specifically structured to your skill set. I would stay away from the websites where you can hire anyone to do anything and look at the ones that only offer paid blogging work, for example, or paid proofreading, or whatever your specialty happens to be. If you can, set up an alert or sign up for emails when new jobs are posted, then be diligent about applying to the ones that fit your parameters. Remember, no job lasts forever, especially not a freelance job; it’s OK to apply to something (or accept something) that you’re not sure is going to last forever if you think you’ll get some decent experience and clips or work samples out of the arrangement. When it’s not working for you anymore, or you move on to something bigger and better, quit! It’s that simple.
Creative agencies that connect employers with job-seekers are a step up from job boards, in my opinion; there are often more hoops to jump through in the early stages, but then you can set parameters for the level of work you’re seeking and how much you want to be paid, and the jobs will come to you. Some of them will be contract, some will be full-time, and they’ll have different requirements, but you’ll likely see something that’s a good fit for you sooner or later.
I also think that job boards on websites like LinkedIn can be very beneficial. Fill out your LinkedIn profile as best you can — recruiters do look at these things! — and set up a job alert for yourself; you can even set up your profile on LinkedIn to let recruiters know you are actively job-seeking, which can lead to job offers if you’re lucky.
If you have a portfolio, you know the basics of setting something up on the internet where people can find you. Why not build yourself a blog and maybe even a newsletter? Some people say the blogging golden days are over, and it’s probably true that you’re not going to get sponsorships and payment for writing about what you eat every day, but there is still a market for quality, well-written content — even if it’s just about your everyday life. At the very least, you’ll be educating yourself about how to set and stick to deadlines, how to build and send a newsletter, how to post about what you’ve written on social media, and other skills that will serve you well in your life as a writer or editor; at most, you’ll capture the attention of someone who might have the wherewithal to hire you for a full-time job with benefits, and that person will like what they see on your blog.
Don’t neglect the business side of things
One thing I’ve noticed is true about myself and many other people who have a propensity for words and language: We’re not always the best at business. I’ve already admitted that it took me a long time (too long, really) to put a portfolio together, and marketing myself didn’t always come naturally. (It still doesn’t, frankly.)
You don’t need to hire a business coach today or tomorrow or even next year, but understand that it is actually important for you to be aware of the business side of your, uh, business, and take steps to close your knowledge gaps. Plenty of coaches have free resources available that you can use when you’re not sure how to learn more about what you don’t know, and I’m also a big fan of Udemy, which has regular sales where you can buy online courses on everything from writing to SEO to business accounting basics for a smidge over $10 per course. And don’t forget about taxes — if you’re freelancing, you’ll have to pay extra when tax time rolls around, and once you get your feet under you, it is well worth the time and money to find and hire an accountant to help you file quarterly taxes or even set up your own business as an LLC or S-corp or another structure.
Getting started as a professional wordsmith isn’t exactly easy, especially in a market and environment where it seems like a lot of people want the same thing — but it is possible, and you can do it. Yes, you! Use the tools already at your disposal and follow these tips, and you’ll have yourself a skill set … and maybe even an entire business … that will carry you through an entire career. Good luck! And if you have more questions about what it takes or anything was unclear, please feel free to email me (you can find my contact information quite easily on this very website) or comment below, and I will gladly update this post with more details that will hopefully help you succeed.