Among all of the unbelievable plot points in the teen TV drama Gossip Girl, there’s one that always stood out as the most ridiculous. Dan Humphrey, a long-suffering and insufferable teen with ambitions to be a writer, has his work accepted for publication in The New Yorker on his first attempt and without prior publication elsewhere.
I fear to this day that the episode gave budding, talented writers an unrealistic picture of how to build a career.
Most writers understand that landing a piece in the print edition of The New Yorker is something you work up to rather than land in high school, even if you’re the next Franz Kafka. Yet many remain preoccupied with placing stories in major name publications from the outset of their careers. They’re convinced that it is the only way to set themselves up for future success and respectability.
By getting caught up in the prestige and “cool” factor of publications, many writers are talking themselves out of bylines that could actually lead to those more illustrious jobs.
But let’s face it: established publications are usually going to want to see your byline elsewhere before they publish you. Even worse, by getting caught up in the prestige and “cool” factor of publications, many writers are talking themselves out of bylines that could actually lead to those more illustrious jobs.
Many writers will go so far as to refuse to even pitch publications without a household name (or at least one that most editors would know). They believe that writing for “the wrong” places will hinder your career, and that the publication’s name will forever be an ignominious brand on your portfolio.
The truth is that good, responsible writing will be valued regardless of where it first appeared. And the advantages of starting your writing career at smaller, less prestigious publications are bigger than you might think.
Starting from the bottom
I began my writing career at xoJane, the now defunct women’s website that had a reputation for being a “career-ruining website.” I wrote 26 articles for them over the course of thirteen months. They were crude at times—it was xoJane, after all—but they were funny, showed personality, and were offensive only to the especially prudish.
Six months into my tenure at xoJane, I pitched the respected but niche interest publication Religion Dispatches to see if I could write a few op-eds on religion in the public discourse. I left xoJane out of my pitch and instead talked up my Yale Divinity School credentials. It worked, and I got into religion commentary published at a small but established site. So you can imagine my horror when a few weeks later, my editor Evan started an email with, “I happened to follow a tweet to your XO Jane (sic) post.” I nearly passed out from the dread of what I was sure would be his disassociation from me in the following lines.
Instead, he complimented my stories, and continued, “You have this great voice that you temper in some of your other writing, which of course makes sense, but we’d be interested in having you blog for RD in whatever way suits you best… Lisa and I both loved your post and don’t see any reason why a blog on religion has to be more sober or pertinent than a blog on any other topic.”
Despite my fears, it was precisely my willingness to write in a fun, flippant style on xoJane that made me appealing at Religion Dispatches as more than an occasional op-ed writer. This role begat more roles at niche interest sites, which eventually gave me a critical mass of clips—most of which were in my voice—to warrant major publications to invite me to write for them.
I will be the first to admit that I was eager to graduate from the world of niche media outlets. I would have felt stuck if I had stayed much longer.
But that first year and a half of my writing career without the massive audience or the pressure of prestige was critical for developing my voice as a writer, and for figuring out exactly what I wanted to write about. Taking creative risks and venturing into new territory is something that bigger publications often steer writers away from, especially new ones whose reputations aren’t sturdy enough to withstand major blowback if a creative risk ends up being a bad bet.
Another benefit of establishing yourself at smaller publications is that the editors are, as a general rule, exceptional. This is not to say that the mainstream media is overrun with ambivalent editorial staffs on auto-pilot, but smaller publications are often so niche that the editors there are deeply knowledgeable about the topic they cover, whether that’s sunglasses or socialism.
Taking creative risks and venturing into new territory is something that bigger publications often steer writers away from.
And as much as it seems like there are upper tiers and lower tiers in media and that never the ‘twain shall meet, those editors working the labor-of-love blogs almost definitely know editors at bigger publications—and might even become those editors in the time that you know them. Developing as a writer under their mentorship is an opportunity to hone your editorial voice as well as prove yourself worthy of future recommendation.
My writing at Religion Dispatches soon got the attention of editors at The Baffler, a beloved political and social commentary publication. Soon after, my writing there caught the eye of editors at The New Republic, where I went on to publish op-eds and cultural commentary, all within less than a full year. More recently, I’ve been invited to write for The New York Times. It was all a chain-effect that began at smaller publications, and my writing is all the better for my “less prestigious” beginnings.
If you’re sufficiently hungry to write and publish, the ascent to landing major bylines doesn’t have to be an endless slog through obscurity. But for the benefit of writers, editors, and their readers, it can and should take longer than the week between two episodes of Gossip Girl.