The college try

It’s never too early to begin the writing career you want to have when you graduate from college. 15 steps can lay the groundwork for future success.
By Harvey Rachlin | Published: August 21, 2013


iStock_000009073713LargeBusiness journalist Joanne Cleaver credits her college internships at a savings association for launching her writing career, which began with a 17-year gig for Crain’s Chicago Business. Nonfiction author and journalist Caitlin Kelly never studied journalism, but she wrote for her college paper and used the clips to sell her work to national magazines and newspapers while still a student. Entertainment reporter Libby Slate, who has written for The Los Angeles Times, Emmy Magazine and TV Guide, started her journalism career writing for the UCLA Daily Bruin. Author and pet columnist Susan Ewing never wrote for her college paper but credits her English and writing professors for nurturing her love of literature and encouraging her to become a writer.

From campus publications to career services assistance to school websites, colleges offer numerous resources that allow students with writing ambitions to start making inroads into their chosen field. Students needn’t wait till they’re out of school to get published when they can jump-start their careers while still in school. Many of these resources can even be used by non-college students looking for other opportunities or markets to launch writing careers.

Of course, the rules of the professional world apply to the student writer. When you submit work to editors and agents, your classroom is no longer a nondescript room in an ivy-covered building on campus. It is the whole world, and you are competing with all the other writers seeking publication. But you may want to let recipients know you are a college student, either directly or through your campus address. Youth won’t make it more likely that your writing will be accepted if it’s subpar; it needs to be top-notch and submitted according to the same standards as professional writers.

Being young and in college have advantages for the aspiring scribe. Scouts are ever on the lookout for fresh talent, and if you bring youthful energy, perseverance and resilience to your career ambitions, you may be able to pry open doors to which seasoned professionals already have the key. With a college’s resources and programs, you can make valuable industry contacts, start building press clippings, find an agent or even land a book-publishing deal. The enterprising novice undergraduate has been known to stumble upon shortcuts.

So what can the college student do to launch a career as a writer? Here are 15 possibilities.

  1. Get an internship. College students have a unique opportunity to intern at real companies. There are many benefits to interning at a media company: It may lead to a job after graduation – and internships are readily available at all sorts of media companies.
  2. Write for the college newspaper. A school newspaper is a great place to learn and practice journalism. You could report on campus activities or write feature articles. Your press clippings will serve as a résumé for future jobs, such as newspaper or magazine writing. You may want to write the kind of material that will further your career goals – that is, to become an investigative journalist, music reviewer or political columnist – or work your way up to editor.
  3. Write for local alternative newspapers. Most college towns have at least one alternative newspaper that caters mainly to the college audience. These publications, which are often distributed for free at campus sites, typically have serious social articles, quirky pieces and entertainment coverage. An alternative paper may offer the opportunity to write feature articles as well as columns and reviews.
  4. Write for the literary journal (or start one). Many colleges have literary journals, and agents and editors scour them for new voices. Make it a goal to be published in your college’s literary journal, or get involved with it in some capacity so you can learn the ropes and perhaps work your way into the editorial side. If your college doesn’t have a literary journal, find out how to start one. If possible, become the editor. You may find running a literary journal a richly rewarding experience.
  5. Join or start a campus literary club. A school literary club brings together students who aspire to be writers outside the classroom. Club members can explore how to further their careers and engage in activities that can help them reach their goals. They offer feedback on each other’s work, share opportunities and connections and attend off-campus publishing conferences together. Guest speakers are also resources to further the careers of members. Because lit-biz folks are on the lookout for exciting new voices, they are often receptive to speaking on campuses.
  6. Do readings on campus. Do you have any work that you could read in public? Most colleges have coffeehouses, rathskellers or other venues where talent performs. Why not sponsor a reading by college writers in these venues? The college community, which comes out to hear musicians and singers, may (with the right PR push) embrace the idea of readings of original works by fellow students, followed by discussions with the writers. Hand out questionnaires to get more intimate feedback on the readings. For publicity, put up flyers, print notices in the school paper, send emails to the college community and press releases to the local media. At the readings, collect audience members’ emails addresses and create a mailing list for news about the readers and their works.
  7. Attend college writing and publishing seminars. Many colleges host publishing seminars or workshops at which agents, editors and professional writers speak. These can be beneficial to your writing career. If your school does not sponsor such seminars, check the Internet or writing magazines for listings and advertisements of those that do. Learn and network at these programs – even if they are on another campus.
  8. Ask a teacher for contacts. Writing instructors typically have lots of publishing credits and know agents and editors. If you feel your work is of publishable quality, ask the instructor if he or she agrees. If the answer is yes, politely ask if the instructor could recommend an agent or editor. Also, college newspapers, alumni magazines and websites often announce new books published by faculty members. Arrange to meet professors who are currently publishing, tell them your plans for a writing career and ask for agent and editor contacts.
  9. Write for the alumni magazine. Alumni magazines often publish articles by freelancers, and as a student at the college, you may have an inside track. Study the publication, visit the magazine’s office and introduce yourself as a student at the college who would like to write for the publication. Then watch for campus stories alumni might like to read.
  10. Participate in student projects. You can find many writing opportunities in projects undertaken by your fellow students. For example, write or co-write a student film or music video, compose liner notes for someone’s self-released CD or craft publicity materials for intriguing research efforts, which could give you exposure or help you develop a career niche. Seek out students who are creating projects to which you could lend your writing talent.
  11. Initiate projects. Seek out groups that may need writers. Is there a theatrical troupe for which you could write a play, a photography club for which you could write essays to accompany exhibitions or publications, a technical group for which you could write a handbook or an instructional manual? Campus groups may not realize they need a writer, but with some imagination, you may come up with good ideas to help them. Get a listing of the various groups on campus and devise ways in which you could write for them.
  12. Work for the communications office. Most colleges have a department devoted to issuing news about the college and its faculty and student body, as well as about events that take place at the school. If you can get a part-time job in this department, you might compose press releases or be the liaison with the media, giving you both writing experience and professional contacts.
  13. Publicize your writing success. Every college has a website, and if you publish an article or a book, let the content manager know so your accomplishments can be posted. Likewise, if you’ve published a magazine article or a book, try to get your college communications or public relations office to publicize your success to the local media (or even throw a party at the school in your honor). A college student who publishes a book or an article in a national magazine is newsworthy, and you want to reap all the publicity you can. Don’t forget your college newspaper or the local alternative paper as other places to publicize your writing credits.
  14. Write for your college’s website. Writing content for your college’s website is a specialized skill, offering valuable experience that could lead to other online jobs.
  15. Go the conventional route. In addition to milking campus resources, you should do what all writers do: Read target publications, query and submit. Send query letters to agents and book editors. Need inspiration? Start a buddy system with a friend by which you challenge each other to get out a certain number of submissions each week. Create a blog, record podcasts and use social-network sites to build a fan base.

With course work and other activities, college students often have little free time to devote to getting published. But if you’re really determined to become a writer, you’ll find the time.

The journey to publication can start whenever you choose. But as an aspiring student writer, you will be well advised to exploit campus resources while you have access to them. Once you graduate, you may no longer have these opportunities. With a smart and energetic approach, a college student can be published and launch a writing career while still an undergraduate.

Harvey Rachlin is the award-winning author of 13 books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles.

If you build it…

For students, internships at newspapers, magazines, literary journals, book publishers, literary agencies or book packagers can be a golden opportunity to get an insider’s view of a trade they’d like to enter. Even though metropolitan areas such as New York City offer more publishing internship openings than others, opportunities can be found virtually anywhere.

Begin the search. Troll the Internet to see what’s available. Keep an open mind; even if your dream internship is not listed, other kinds of internships may still be worthwhile.

Check internship websites. A number of sites list internship opportunities. These are often general search sites, so you may have to type in a particular location where you wish to work.

Check company websites. Some company sites have an internship page with listings of open positions and online application forms.

Ask around. Instructors may be able to recommend companies you were unaware of, and students who have already interned at companies you are interested in can tell you about their experiences and share contact information.

Query career services. Many colleges have a career service center that assists students in obtaining internships.

Read for leads. Have you read about a local editor who sounds like someone from whom you could learn a lot? If so, fire off a letter or e-mail describing your interest. Also, peruse industry directories like Literary Market Place. Smaller independent publishers frequently take on interns.

Create opportunities. Is there a particular company that doesn’t advertise for or normally use interns? A sincere, well-crafted letter might do the trick. Send your inquiry to the attention of a particular person, the human resources department or the intern recruiter.

Ask published authors. Some authors hire research assistants. Find established local authors who might hire you by attending author lectures in your area or asking local librarians or bookstores for referrals.

Ready the resume. Your resume should include your career objective (such as journalist or book editor), relevant courses and jobs. Resumes and cover letters may need to be tailored to each application.

Send it. Send the materials a few months before you’d like to begin your internship. The more you send, the better your chances of getting hired.

Prepare. Doing well in an interview begins with intelligent preparation. If it’s a publisher, know the kinds of books it publishes. If it’s a literary agency, know some of the authors it represents. Prepare a few questions to show your interest. Ask about specific operations of the company. You may want to role-play an interview with a friend or family member or rehearse in front of a mirror.

Be sharp. Dress appropriately. Get to the office on time. Bring your resume in case the interviewer does not have it. Smile. Sit up straight. Maintain eye contact. Listen intently to what the interviewer has to say. Bring a pen and take notes. Ask questions. Be confident, poised and calm.

Make strong choices. You may receive an offer you like, but if not, hold off if you can. An internship is a large investment of time, energy and perhaps expense on your part, so you want to find one you will be happy with and that will serve your best interests.

Maximize the benefits. Once you accept an internship, you are ready to take an exciting career step. Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities and make the most of them.

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