The image of a writer: a moneyless starver, compiling newspaper obits just for crackers and bill appeasement, toiling at barrel’s bottom with all the traveling musicians and junkyard painters.
Though I doubt you’ve met an alleged writer in such dire straits, it’s easy to conjure such a stereotype. “There just weren’t any jobs out there,” recent graduates of journalism programs often groan.
That, or like with anything in life, they didn’t play their cards right. I certainly didn’t at first. But now I feel like I’ve bet on enough bad hands to know the ones that are worth pursuing.
In short, you can make it as a writer/journalist, one that lives, eats and sleeps with comfort and then some. One that, while often not reeling in the dough of a cubicle dweller, has a level of experiences and self-fulfillment seldom found in other careers.
All it takes is a little life planning.
Here are the top five things I’d recommend incorporating into the beginnings of those plans. And don’t worry if you start down the road of a wordsmith but decide on a career change: Writing, as any lawyer, office manager or owner of a small-business startup would tell you, is a very transferable career.
1. Get cranking early.
Sounds easy right? Go to college and have a good time ‘til junior year, then start building a resume and portfolio.
Sure, this might work. But when I say get cranking, I’m talking high school.
Think Almost Famous, the story of a teenager writing for Rolling Stone, which was a 1970s reality for director Cameron Crowe. Feel free to set your sights that high, but don’t expect it.
I’d aim at your local newspaper to begin with. Many have programs that allow high-school students to contribute—Valley Voices, for example, at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, my hometown paper.
It’ll probably be the softest journalism you’ll ever do, but the most important thing is to get to the ball rolling. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll have several publications at your publishing disposal, more advanced and exciting stories to cover, scholarships in your mailbox, select internships giving you the thumbs up, and a portfolio bleeding with awesome.
If you’re long beyond the halls of your high school, it’s cool. Most people are. And most people start just-doing-it at their college newspaper, even the middle-agers enrolling to start a new career.
The bottom line is that you should email an editor. Now. They had to start somewhere, too.
2. Pick the best college possible.
You might think the almighty selectors of scholarships, internships and jobs base their decisions solely on merit, not alma mater. This is true in many cases, but not always.
Sometimes, the application stack gets trimmed with a fast glance at the Education section. So if you’re going to take the financial plunge for college anyways, seriously consider at least applying to top journalism programs, whether there is one in your state or elsewhere.
Going to a new state, of course, amplifies college tuition costs. There are always opportunities for scholarships, and you could check with the school beforehand to see how soon you can get in-state residency (this might require bypassing a dorm and going straight to renting an apartment, condo or house).
But if out of state isn’t feasible, every state does have a college that offers a communications or journalism program. If you work your hardest there in undergraduate, you could easily land an assistantship at an out-of-state university that includes a tuition waiver for graduate school.
Which leads nicely into my next point.
3. Pick the right major.
Now if numbers 1 and 2 didn’t sound commonsensical…
But this one gets a little trickier.
First, confide in the fact that you absolutely need a bachelor’s degree, meaning you can put off decisions like grad school for four or five years. But there’s a slight catch: Some planning is needed if you are going to go on to get a master’s. To maximize that degree’s value, it should work with your bachelor’s degree.
I’ll use science, a very complex field, as an example. Whether covering science happenings because it’s their beat or because they weren’t doing much else in the newsroom that day, journalists are often criticized for not reporting accurately or fully on scientific matters.
In comes you, the hotshot science writer who really gets it. All because you majored in pre-med biology, astronomy or some other field that really goes boom.
The same is true of other majors: political science (politics and government news), economics or finance (Wall Street, money, etc.), sports management (sports), pre-law (courts and law) and criminal justice (law enforcement, from local police departments to the FBI and CIA).
You could even dig into some more niche fields. I’m thinking specifically of the top-ranked recording-industry program at my undergraduate college, Middle Tennessee State University, which could lead to some work doing music writing. You’d have the conveniences of being near Nashville, the music capital, and in the same building as MTSU’s student paper, Sidelines.
But enough about my old stomping grounds.
The key while you’re looking through a microscope or learning how to correctly arrest someone is to be simultaneously writing for the student newspaper—after all, you have to at least look like a journalist to become one. (Beware: Your parents might be confused all to hell about your career goals during what appears to be a chaotic time in your life.)
So now you have a bachelor’s in whatever. You may be happy with where your career is beginning, and grad school might not be necessary. But if you feel the need to march onward, here are the steps:
- First is the GRE. Experience can override more lacking GRE scores, but do study for this baby, for admissions, the $200 it costs to take it, and the four hours of your life you can never get back.
- Second is researching schools. As I already noted, school name can play a factor, so get a consensus among friends, advisers and published rankings. If you hope to teach someday, schools based more in research might fit better. Conversely, professional programs are great, too, suiting you up to better take on the print and digital worlds. Choosing is all about matching your ambitions with what looks and feels right.
- Third is submitting applications—not only to grad schools but also fellowships. Turn this into a full-time job, and send them in everywhere. Every grad school admissions office and fellowship director should know your name. Don’t be afraid of the applications fees because $50 or $100 is not going to determine your future. Be sure that schools know to consider you for an assistantship (you may have to teach, but that’s worth the tuition waiver and having teaching experience in your back pocket).
- Fourth and finally is deciding. At this point, only you know what’s best for you. No decision on grad school is a bad one, only good, better, best ones. For me, the main factors here are rank—again, because other people care—and how worthwhile the assistantship/fellowship offer is.
Oh, I almost forgot: What about just getting a bachelor’s in journalism sans master’s? Well that’s an easy answer. Apply to goodness knows how many schools during high school and pick as high-ranked a program as geographically and financially possible, one that, preferably, incorporates traditional media with a heavy multimedia and Web component.
As for getting an English degree for journalism, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s certainly possible, but journalism has gone way beyond being just about words. And you could do public relations, which is often lobbed in with journalism programs, but I often find journalism degrees transferring more easily into the public-relations field than vise versa.
4. Have a better portfolio than everyone else.
For this point, let’s take a step back to writing for the school newspaper.
Generating news content is increasingly becoming about quantity instead of quality, making the latter more and more rare. Constantly repeating the quantity route is what I believe to be the biggest mistake fresh journalists make in college.
Award contests, scholarships, internships and jobs likely aren’t going to want more than 10 clips. And that’s a pretty high maximum. So you’d be doing yourself a favor—and really, your readers, too—spending a lot of time generating a few in-depth, well-edited enterprise and feature pieces rather than cranking out constant 12-inch police regurgitations. Don’t be afraid to ask the editor if you can see the final edit before publication. It’s your name, and you likely wrote it for little or no money, so you deserve a good-looking final product.
Focusing on quality goes for videos, photo projects, page layouts, etc. Don’t be intimidated by new equipment or software; it wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t user-friendly. Check it out from the school, borrow it from a friend, use the school computers or buy it for yourself. Learning is, after all, what school is for.
Once you have the best work ever, you need a place to display it. You have to have a LinkedIn profile, you have to have clean Facebook and Twitter accounts, and you absolutely positively have to have a website.
Website building can be daunting at first, but just keep chugging along and looking forward to the day where you don’t have tinker and are only posting content (if you’ve included a blog, which I recommend) and adding work samples.
Everyone has their opinions about which platform to go through, but I personally use WordPress, which houses the site you’re looking at. There are two versions: WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
WordPress.com is more so for the casual blogger who just wants a free site to dump their thoughts. For media pros, I’d recommend WordPress.org, which has a larger, more advanced selection of themes. Many of the themes do cost money, but only a select few are worth it. So take the time to choose wisely by playing with the demos.
I’d also claim a website URL so you can drop the “wordpress” out of yours. You can check if “YOURNAME.com” is available at GoDaddy.com, and you could purchase it there as well.
At the get-go of your Web adventure, you’ll find yourself Googling “how to…” so, so many times. But you’ll eventually get to the end-of-the-tunnel light, I promise.
5. Remember to relax.
Gosh, isn’t that the truth?
I often see stress as the biggest assassin of young journalists, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. I was employed for two years by a work-from-home startup, and that certainly taught me a lesson in the importance of rose smelling.
Like with any craft, working set hours is important. My strategy is go a straight eight hours, seven days a week. Once those eight hours are up, I stop for the day.
If you’re already in a full-time gig or will be soon, hopefully they’ve got you on a manageable schedule. If you find yourself dreading going in, then why stay there?
Money’s tight? Apply elsewhere—you owe it to yourself and your one life to be happy in what you’re doing. And don’t be afraid of trying freelance. Contrary to popular belief, there is good money in it—you just have to try writing for several publications (and companies, like hospitals, airlines, anything really) before narrowing down to a small, well-paying group.
And then bam! You’re a pro journo. Getting there went by in a flash, didn’t it? I knew you could do it.
If you have any suggestions yourself, do leave them in the comments. Until next time!