Career Advice

7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Writing Career

By Grace Bello February 19th, 2014

Find your inspiration

Here’s the secret: Inspiration is everywhere.

“Keep an incredibly open mind and open eyes,” New Yorker writer Susan Orlean suggests. I feel like I’m always primed for something to present itself and for my response to be, wow, that’s a great story.” Oftentimes, your instinct is the best metric for figuring out whether or not an idea has the potential to make a great narrative.

Of course, writers sometimes find inspiration over the transom. Excellent online tools include the AP mobile app for news roundups, Digg Reader for RSS feeds, and Next Issue for digital versions of all top consumer magazines.

There’s no one place to look for stories. Follow your own curiosity, and it will lead you to interesting places.

Be fearless

Instead of focusing on going to the right school, the right events, or meeting the right people, hone in on what you’re passionate about. Then, generate ideas and submit them to editors.

Thanks to the internet, there are fewer and fewer gatekeepers between you and the people who will let you tell your story. Social media also makes it easy to mingle with editors online, broadcast your point of view, and showcase your curation skills. Be vocal on Twitter, pursue the stories that interest you, and gather the courage to pitch them.

When it comes to pitching, editor S.I. Rosenbaum says, “Be fearless.”

Stay ahead of the curve

Now that the internet yields a virtually limitless amount of published content, and the news cycle is constant, volume and speed are more important than ever. Alexis Madrigal, editor at The Atlantic, told Scratch Magazine, “Star-writerdom only gets you so far.”

Vulture editor Josh Wolk said in a Mediabistro interview, “Do the best job you can on your first assignment … If you hand it in just clean and on time, you are surprisingly ahead of a huge percentage of people.”

Don’t worry about making a pitch or a story “perfect.” Good prose counts, but it is more important to focus on the nuts and bolts of your article. Hit your word count, use spellcheck (!), and meet your deadline. Your editors will thank you, love you, and most importantly, give you more work.

Get paper

Legendary journalist Gay Talese advised writers, “Get a job at a restaurant.” Haha, kidding. Kind of.

From keeping your day job to teaching or consulting on the side, there’s no singular solution to padding your wallet while starting your writing career. Platforms such as Contently connect journalists to brands paying top-dollar for great stories. And sites like The Big Roundtable and Beacon enable writers to crowdfund their work.

While the market is more open than ever, it’s also more unstable than ever. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Keep your day job if you need to, look for opportunities everywhere, and get paid based on what you’re worth.

Pitch your heart out

Look at the publications that you read all the time. Check out their “About” or “Contact Us” pages. See the editor’s email address or the site’s submission form? Reach out to them with an idea that you, as a fan of their work, know would be great for their readers.

No need to get too formal with the editor. In 300 words or fewer, tell him or her what the story is, why it’s timely, and why you’re the one to write the piece. The more you go through this process, the better you will become at it.

Don’t apologize. Have confidence in your ideas, and share them with the world.

Read everything

Read more than you write.

Reading a ton of blogs, magazines, and newspapers serves a couple of purposes. One, it shows you what’s out there and the kind of reporting and writing style you might want to aim for. And two, it helps you discover what kinds of subject matter a publication is interested in, which will help you to refine your pitches.

Subscribe to the outlets for which you might want to write. Study up and submit.

Write, write, write

Write something — anything — every day. Just as excelling in sports or in music demands consistent exercise or rehearsal, writing requires a ton of practice. Rather than waiting for the muse to visit, write what you can. It may be a blog post, a pitch, or the first draft of an essay or short story. But use those skills as often as you can, even if they don’t result in a polished, editorial product that you can sell.

Your writing talent isn’t fixed like your eye color is; it’s flexible like a muscle. Train that muscle every chance you get. Then flex.

Follow Grace Bello on Twitter at @grace_land.

Tags: , ,