It’s one thing writing the occasional blog or penning a witty anecdote on your Facebook wall, but it is an entirely different thing trying to land yourself one of the often elusive careers in writing professionally. The market has changed dramatically over the years, and what is now on offer varies significantly from what journalists of old used to face. Pitches no longer need to be sent by snail mail, articles aren’t always printed on paper, and newspapers don’t just report on the news.
Instead, the digital world has pioneered a new face for writing, giving everyone a voice and opportunity to speak. It’s no longer simply about talent, but also what audience you have and who is willing to listen. Printed magazines and newspapers are a dying breed, with much of their revenue now coming from online ad sales. So how on earth do you go about forging a professional writing career?
Build up your toolkit
Firstly, it’s definitely worth brushing up on your skills if you feel you may need them. The London School of Journalism has a wide selection of established courses available, including freelance classes and creative writing courses. You can do these during the day, in the evenings or even via distance learning. They also run a four-week summer school each August. Their courses cover everything from media law to internet journalism and equip you with a wealth of valuable skills.
You can also train with the Press Association, and they offer courses on a wide variety of areas from news reporting to magazine journalism to sports reporting. These courses can often be challenging and stimulating, but offer everything needed to get your writing up to a professional level. They are also widely accredited, meaning employers and clients will value the training on your CV.
It can often be a catch-22 situation for a wannabe writer – you need experience in order to build up a portfolio and put your skills to the test. However, people want to see experience in order to trust you. The best way you can get these much-needed hours under your belt is through offering your skills out for free for a period of time. This can eventually lead to clients when they find themselves impressed with your work.
Alternatively, you could sign up to freelance writing platforms such as Copify, in which the work is available for you to complete without the stress of needing to find the clients or prove your worth to them beforehand. This can really help you get a lot of work completed in a short space of time.
Know your speciality
You can be the most adept writer on the planet, but every writer will have some kind of strength. Whether they find themselves better at penning features or more savvy with advertorial copy, they’re able to focus on what they’re good at so they can get the most out of every pitch or opportunity. The better you are at something, the less time it takes, which means the more money you can make per hour.
It’s not to say you can’t generalise – you can. This is often best if you are looking at writing for local or regional publications. It will open up more doors for you in terms of assignment opportunities. However, if you want to become part of the ‘big’ names, having an ‘expert’ subject can be hugely valuable. People will start to know that they can come to you for a specific topic. For example, everyone knows that Martin Lewis is the man to head to for articles about finance. Robert Peston is the person for politics. Deliciously Ella is famous for her interviews about food and nutrition. Jamie Oliver talks about kids’ food a lot.
Never stop thinking of ideas
A good writer will always be on the hunt for content or article opportunities. From the people they speak with to the experiences they endure, there will always be an article waiting to be written. As a professional writer, you will need to generate a lot of ideas. As freelance writer Roger Morris notes for Writer’s Digest, “Ideas are the currency of freelancing, and the rule of thumb of needing to pitch five to 10 for every article you place is pretty on target for most of us.”c
It’ll always be easier to pitch your articles after you have built up a bit of a track history, but the more ideas you have, the better. Just make sure they are fleshed out before pitching so people don’t get bored of your name popping up with half-considered ideas. It’s not all about quantity but quality too. The more original your idea is, the better. Often editors will jump for ideas that go against the grain or feel controversial but don’t say something simply for the sake of it. You’ll always have that article to your name – don’t be trite.
Meet the editors
If you are serious about forging a professional writing career, you will need to start meeting with the people who publish your writing. It won’t be easy – they’re very busy people with very little time. However, the more you can get to know them and build a secure relationship with them, the higher the chances are that they will think of you when a writing opportunity comes knocking. Don’t be scared of them – even if they’re your writing idols.
Send them an e-mail and ask if you can take them for coffee. Once you have managed to get their valuable time, find out what they look for in article pitches, what their focus areas are (so you’re not pitching the wrong subject matter to them), how they go about working with freelancers or hiring staff writers, what opportunities they have available, and what type of writing they really like.
You could also ask them about their journey and how they managed to get the job they did. Typically the road won’t have been straight, so it is always interesting to find out what turns in the road they have followed. Then, either follow up with a thank you note and your CV/portfolio, or apply for a job with them when it next becomes available. They’re far more likely to put a face to the name than if they were to get an anonymous application land on their desk.