Just getting started on a writing career? Read these tips for success.
Around this time of year—as new college graduates are hitting the cold reality of the working world—I start getting questions about how to find work as a writer. How did I get started? What advice can I share?
When I got my undergraduate degree in English, I had no idea how to get a job. None. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, so getting the degree was the big goal for me. Nobody gave me much career counseling, and I didn’t know enough to look for it myself.
I struggled to find a job, and I was really close to having to move back home to live with my parents. I worked in direct sales for a while and then landed a job at an insurance brokerage owned by a friend’s father. They were nice people, and I was incredibly grateful to have a job, and I liked working there, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever.
At the same time, I had a friend who had just graduated with a political science degree and had started working for political groups and writing pieces that were getting placed in newspapers. I was astonished. I mean, I was the writer. I was the one who had written for the school paper in high school and college.
Find a Niche
Pick a niche and look for an opening.
Upon reflection, I decided his biggest advantage was that he had a niche: politics. He had something to write about, and I didn’t.
It took me many more years and a roundabout path, but I finally ended up with a masters in biology and as much work as I could handle as a science writer and editor. Learning to write about something complicated turned out to be an especially great edge because not many people can understand medicine and biology and write well.
You actually don’t need an advanced degree to become a science writer or, I imagine, a writer in any complicated field, but if you’re just starting out, immersing yourself in a difficult field so you can write about it intelligently and with insight is a path I recommend. You will have less competition, and these tend to be smaller universes, so once you get a little experience, it will be easier to network.
Identify Opportunities That Make You Attractive
When you’re just getting started, you need to look for an opening. For me, a laboratory fire at UC Santa Cruz was my first big break—it got me my first freelance writing assignment for the magazine “The Scientist.” I heard about the fire from a friend on campus, and I immediately cold called the editorial offices at “The Scientist.” Because I already read the magazine, I was pretty sure it’d be the kind of thing they’d run. My main pitching point was that I was physically in Santa Cruz—that I could go up to campus, see what was going on, interview people, take pictures, and write about it quickly. They said yes and didn’t even ask about my experience, and because I did a good job, my next pitches were welcome and writing for “The Scientist” became a regular gig.
One implied tip in that story is that you should be regularly reading the publications you want to write for. You have to know what they’ve already covered so you don’t look clueless pitching something they just ran, and you have to be familiar with the tone and scope of the stories so you pitch pieces that are appropriate.
Another strategy that’s tied to geography is to offer to cover conferences in your hometown or that you’ll be attending anyway. This works especially well for trade magazines that may be interested in the event but not have the budget to send someone. If you’re going to be there anyway, it’s a good way to get your foot in the door without a lot of experience.
Joining writing and trade associations is another way to find out about opportunities. When I was starting out as a science writer, I joined the National Association of Science Writers, and later the American Medical Writers Association. You should frequent the discussion groups or social media pages and go to the events and meet people. A large part of getting a job or getting new clients or assignments is who you know. A lot of opportunities are never posted anywhere.
If you’re shy and have a hard time making small talk, volunteer to help in some way. You could set up the room, contact potential speakers—anything that gives you a reason to talk to people.
Also, give people physical business cards. It makes you harder to forget. At the very least, people will probably put your card their pocket or bag and think of you again when they take it out after the event, and you never know: they might keep the card and see it on their desk or in a drawer when they need help in the future.
Look for Work During the Holidays
Another way to get your foot in the door is to write when nobody else wants to. Look hard for work around the holidays. Many established writers will turn down work in December, but people still need things written. These days, I would definitely turn down work because of the holidays, but when I was just getting started, I picked up a lot of new assignments and clients in November and December.
Look for Work Close to the End of a Fiscal Year
Another good time of year to put your search in overdrive is at the end of a fiscal year. Big companies and government agencies often have money left at the end of the fiscal year, and if they don’t spend it, they lose it. Find out when the fiscal year ends for people you want to work for, and drop them a line or call them to say hello around that time. I picked up lots of work from people who found themselves with money to spend and only a couple of weeks to spend it.
Ask for Advice
Also, when you’re just getting started, don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice; you have nothing to lose but a little dignity, and you’ll probably even get to keep that. Right after I graduated, I met a couple of people at a party who freelanced for the local newspaper. I wanted to ask them for introductions and advice, but I was too afraid. In reality, I was being ridiculous. What did I have to lose? Maybe they would have thought I was annoying, but I never saw them again anyway.
More likely, they would have loved to talk about their jobs and pass on bits of useful information. Most people love to talk about their work, and if you’re not pressuring them to give you a job or an introduction immediately, they’re usually happy to give you advice, which can start out as general advice, but become more specific if they like you.
Build Your Reputation
Finally, once you get assignments move heaven and earth to do a good job. It’s absolutely shocking how many writers miss their deadlines. Make your deadlines. Author Mur Lafferty said this best on a panel at the WorldCon conference about writing games, but it applies to all writing situations: If you get a reputation for being dependable, you’re more likely to get work. Even if you’re not the most brilliant writer editors know, if they know you’ll turn in decent work on time, you are much more likely to get hired than the brilliant writer who is always late.
It all comes back to who you know, and that can work for or against you. Build a reputation as a solid, dependable writer, and after a few years, work will be a lot easier to find.
Finally, I came cross a great book about freelancing a few years ago called “The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing” by Zachary Petit. I never taught freelancing when I was a college professor, but if I had, it’s the book I would have used. It’s full of advice like I just gave you from own experience and more.
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