Aspiring writers face a Catch 22. You need the experience to get a job, but you need a job to get the experience.
Where do you start? There’s so much to think about – the kinds of writing you can choose from, the qualifications you need, and how to convince people to give you a chance.
Which kind of writing?
Compared with even a decade ago there are now many more opportunities for making a career out of writing. But this can be a difficult area to break into and the money is not always great.
Let’s look at some of the major areas that provide writing jobs:
Newspapers and magazines
Broadcast media, including radio and television
Web and digital content
Press and public relations
But there are many shades of writing within each category. For example newspapers are national, regional and local, while magazines could be print and online, consumer, special interest or trade journals.
Corporate communications include business writing and blogging, but also stretch to press and PR. Marketing may be sales campaigns or email shots.
Advertising could include web and digital content. And have you thought about scriptwriting for video games?
So look carefully at all the categories and refine them down to what you think you would like to do. Be realistic, too, about the amount of effort you will have put in.
What qualifications do you need?
This depends on what kind of writer you want to be – a newspaper journalist, an advertising copywriter, or a creative writer, for example. You need to pick a degree or course to fit.
You need journalism training to work in newspapers. Seasoned journalists actually recommend you get a first degree before you do journalism course. If you don’t want to do a course, apply to be a trainee on a national or local paper and get your training that way.
There are courses offered by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). In case you want to fit studying around a day job, investigate distance-learning courses, but make sure they are professionally recognised.
Maybe you’re more interested in advertising or the arts. Look at media studies degrees. These focus on the relationships between media – including print, film and TV – and society and the way the media influences people.
Or think about a creative writing degree. Some of these combine English with creative and professional writing.
Whichever course you choose, check if they offer taster sessions or open days to see what suits you.
How do you get internships and writing experience?
You may have already got a writing degree or a university placement behind you, but you need to build up a portfolio. This means writing to publications and organisations with story ideas or asking about opportunities to get hands-on experience.
Be aware that this may turn out to be a thankless task, but persevere.
large advertising agencies offer internships, but are bombarded by requests from aspiring copywriters. Research the work of your chosen agency and tell them why you admire their campaigns and how you could learn from them.
scour the magazines, print or digital, you’d like to write for. Do you have something different to add to their content? Send in your idea, putting your argument for your piece at the very top. Quote experts or sources.
If you’re feeling confident about your writing, send in your piece without being commissioned (this is called ‘on spec’ – it means speculative). Say you hope that they will read it, but don’t be disheartened if they don’t respond.
Many department stores and businesses have in-house communications departments. So if you are interested in marketing communications, this may be a fruitful way to start.
Social media: maybe you’re a prolific user of social media and have your own blog or podcast. You could see if there’s a local organisation, business or charity that could do with help managing its social media.
Enter writing competitions, because contests are good practice. There are several run by small publishers hoping to find new talent and you may get noticed. (But don’t be tempted to pay someone to publish your work for you; these so-called ‘vanity publishers’ are often not taken seriously by people in the industry.)
Get behind the scenes
Another way to get find a foothold in an organisation or publication is to write asking if you can shadow someone at their work. Be sure to show that you have researched your particular choice, and that you want very much to learn more about their operation.
If you have built up a portfolio, send it someone whose work you follow in your chosen field and ask if they would act as a mentor. This may be easier to do on a local level – think arts reviews in the weekly paper, or the sports journalist whose columns you always read.
Join a professional group. You’ll be able to swap notes and share feedback. You’ll have the fun of networking, take part in events and possibly meet experts in your field.
Take the credit
Remember that you are working towards creating a portfolio that will persuade people that you are worth commissioning or hiring. That means not being afraid to ask for a byline or credit on any writing. Even if you contributed to a piece, it does no harm to ask for ‘Additional reporting by….’ That little line adds to your credibility.
Finally, remember that your writing is your intellectual property. If you want to take a career in writing seriously, make sure you retain the copyright in published material. You can ask the NUJ for advice.
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