Three years ago, I left college with a degree in one hand and a few film reviews I'd written for the campus paper in the other—ready to take on the writing world. A phone call, résumé polish and good reference later, I had my first professional writing assignment. It wasn't long before I had a full-time writing position at a local newspaper, clips and awards under my belt, as well as a steady flow of freelance work coming in.
It took effort to parlay my meager college experience into a viable career, and with hard work, you can make the transition, as well. Whether you're saying sayonara to high school, college or beyond, it's important to be prepared to take on the writing world. The bad news: Some harsh realities you've heard are true, such as how you can't make any money reviewing underground heavy metal albums. But the good news is that most of the encouraging things you've heard are also true, such as how there's no qualifying test—you're a writer as soon as you decide to be.
Take a look at these tips and words of wisdom from college professors and professional writers who want to help you get started right in the world of publishing.
Use what you have With so many publications seeking new nonfiction material, where do you start? Just as important, what kind of ideas do you pitch to editors? Fortunately, chances are you already have some ammo to use—you just don't realize it.
If you need to get the ball rolling and have no writing assignments on the burner, look to previous class work. Andrea Reeves, an Ohio-based journalist, used college feature writing assignments as a path to publication. After writing two features for in-class projects, she sent the pieces to major metropolitan newspapers in the Midwest. Both articles were purchased and published when she was just out of school.
"You need to do your research, even for smaller magazines and newspapers," Reeves says. "Newspapers need a finished product, and chances are you've got some quality pieces if you've ever taken writing or journalism courses in school."
Carol Fletcher, journalism professor at Hofstra University in New York, agrees: "I encourage students to try to publish everything they've written for class—either in the school paper or in commercial venues. To do this, they must have a fixed publication in mind before they begin reporting, understand the audience of that publication, know how to write a query letter and aim for smaller publications to start off."
This philosophy applies not only to students in journalism and English fields, but also to all areas of study. Jason Karp, a doctoral student at Indiana University, used his years of studying exercise physiology and biomechanics as a kick-start to writing for national publications such as Runner's World and Shape.
"There's a lot of writing when you're working on any degree, and you can use that work to get published. Every time you do a research proposal or paper—and especially if you do a literature review—you become very well read on a topic," Karp says. "Take the information you learn, put it in a way that people can understand it, then target a market."
Class assignments, whether it's a short essay for a science class or your graduate school dissertation, lead you to new information that editors may buy if you pitch them with a good idea. "There's an avenue in the magazine world for research and class work," Karp says.
Still in school? It's never too early to get your writing career in gear. Here's how.
Take what you can get Some students will graduate high school or college with several published clips in glossy magazines and full-time job offers to boot. Don't worry if this isn't you; it isn't most people. Because you need clips to get clips, it's important to begin immersing yourself in the writing world as quickly as possible—even if that means inglorious and low-paying assignments.
"You have to start somewhere," says Jack Lessenberry, journalism professor at Wayne State University in Michigan. "There are a lot of community newspapers out there looking for freelance talents. Be proactive. You're in a situation where you need to accumulate clips because no one will hire you without examples of published works. When you're a beginner, you shouldn't hesitate to have some things published for very little money. The more you do, the easier it gets."
Local publications and community newspapers often don't have enough reporters to cover everything they need to cover and little money to spend on those reporters they do employ. That's why such outlets are usually open to anyone who'll take the time to write for them. And don't be afraid to write an entire article before submitting it to new publications. (This is called writing "on spec.")
Another tip: Any and all clips can be submitted to various contests. Before I was a staff reporter, I wrote stories as a contributing writer for a weekly community paper. I submitted a few of these clips to the Cincinnati Society of Professional Journalists, as well as the Kentucky Press Association, and I won awards from both organizations. Now, instead of newspaper clips, I had award-winning clips that helped open doors to better-paying gigs and a full-time position.
Because community assignments aren't going to make you rich, be realistic about how you're going to support yourself for a while. Kentucky-based freelancer Debbie Kennedy says she took traditional part- and full-time work to pay the bills while launching her career. "I started freelancing for an area newspaper six months before I was hired full time," she says. "That's how I established with them that I was a good, reliable writer. It helped me build a port-folio to show other papers and magazines that I had experience writing about different fields."
Branching out, up and sideways Being a new writer means earning your stripes. Once you have some momentum, it's time to expand your horizons and move on to the next step. If you've established a good relationship with a community newspaper, try pitching a well-known metropolitan paper or magazine in the area. If your college alma mater has an alumni magazine, query it with a solid idea. If you've written only for magazines, try writing for a website.
"It takes a certain amount of time to establish contacts," Kennedy says. "If you start early, then you have that much more time to find lucrative work at a lot of different publications. If you start late, you sometimes get stuck writing for a few publications instead of keeping your options wide open."
If you're trying to break into a high-profile magazine, let your work do the talking. Stress your accomplishments and any awards you've won. Send a smart, thoroughly researched idea with some good clips to back up your word.
Lessenberry says graduates eager to join the writing world can also better their chances by staying flexible in what assignments they take, as well as being knowledgeable in different media, such as Internet and television news writing: "The more comfortable you are in more media outlets, the better you'll be, career-wise. The more skills you have, the more valuable you are."
Know your resources If you're looking to expand your network (and you should be), do what I did—call friends, relatives and professional contacts to ask if they have leads on any available writing jobs or assignments. Send out a blanket e-mail to fellow graduates, as well, and mention that you're willing to work on just about anything as long as it can open doors to more assignments.
Michael Smith, journalism professor at Campbell University in North Carolina and author of FeatureWriting.Net, stresses that graduates shouldn't under-estimate the value of informational interviews, where you schedule a meeting with editors to introduce yourself and ask questions about the writing field. "You make the rounds and hit every publication in a 50-mile radius," he says.
Don't expect to get offered a job. Instead, recognize the value of talking to a writing professional, soaking in some practical advice and laying groundwork for a possible future relationship.
Scour the Internet and seek out sites that assist novice writers, such as oncewritten.com and our site, writersdigest.com. Hit the library to read through regional magazines and newspapers to familiarize yourself with publications you want to write for. Pay attention to each media outlet—do they like shorter articles? Do their features usually begin with an anecdotal lead? Do they use only staff-written material, or are they open to freelancers?
Don't think that just because your official schooling is over that there's no more to learn. Continue to educate yourself on writing and how to get published, whether that means more classes, studying the writing style of your favorite authors or picking up any instructional materials you can get your hands on. After a little while, you'll find your groove and be doing well enough to write some underground heavy metal album reviews for free on the side just for kicks.
Starting out in the writing world when you're just out of school is a challenge—but it's a challenge you can be well prepared for when it comes. "Yes, you'll have rejections," Smith says, "but every time you get rejected and every time you fail, you learn something—that's your apprenticeship."