Soon-to-be college graduates: You have gotten – or will get – advice from a long line of well-meaning relatives and family friends regarding your upcoming writing career. Based on their confused stares and concerned tones, you may have considered entering a more stable profession such as cobbling or inseminating horses.
I’m here to tell you that you should keep your fingers on the home row and out of the business end of a thoroughbred.
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If I were 22 again, I’d do many things differently. I’d talk to girls instead of finding comfort in not being rejected. I’d ditch the goatee that made me look like the pudgy afterthought in a shitty boy band.
I would not give up writing; I would give up how I entered the field.
In 2000, when I graduated college, newspapers were the path for starting a writing career. During spring break of that year, I went on job interviews at newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I had a job offer by April, yet I still talked to The Baltimore Sun, The Providence Journal, and The Staten Island Advance, three outstanding papers. The world was my oyster.
And it snapped me right in the balls.
I became a perpetually overworked beat reporter for a Gannett newspaper in suburban New Jersey, a job that nearly cured me of writing. For 13 months, I got a front-row seat to the newspaper industry commencing its endless nosedive. Today, unless it’s for an indisputable powerhouse (e.g., the Washington Post, the New York Times), being a full-time newspaper reporter often looks like an invitation to early unemployment. As newsrooms shrink, it seems like reporters take on more work – shooting videos, posting on social media – to buy one more day on a cardboard rocket ship. What about magazines? Well, full-time gigs at glossies are notoriously tough to crack without previous frequently unpaid internships (though I welcome you to try).
Freelancing strikes me as the best option because you can control your happiness as well as your destiny. It may appear daunting to you because it’s unfamiliar. Journalism programs focus on how to write and report – as they should. But very few teach you how to turn writing into a functional career path, probably because what’s entailed lands outside mastering the five w’s.
Let me help fill in some of the gaps.
You can write regardless of your current job. Editors don’t care if you’re answering phones or hammering nails. They care about your ideas and how you execute them.
Make discipline part of your day. Your willingness to write is your only limitation. When I worked in bookstores, I had at least one weekday off. Frequently, I had mornings off. During the downtime, I would send pitches, report, or write. I’d phone editors during my lunch break. I once spent my week-long vacation writing a 5,000-word piece for a trade magazine.
Learn how to write a pitch letter. Editors are not gods; they occasionally answer emails. I would say 85 percent of the success I’ve had as a freelance writer boils down to writing a pitch letter – one-half sales pitch and one-half blueprint – that is compelling and compact. The art of the pitch letter is another column, but here are a few tips to start.
- Personalize it. Editors can spot a form letter in seconds. Direct your appeal to a specific editor and explain why the piece would be good for their publication. If you don’t know whom to contact, call the home office and politely ask the front desk.
- Offer an idea for a story. You need to tell an editor what makes you qualified to write this story and how you will report it. Provide some clips – from your internship, your college newspaper – to show that you’ve done this before. Never ask an editor during an introduction to give you an assignment.
- You will get rejected. A lot. This is the price of doing business in a world of tight budgets, ever-changing editorial missions, and editors’ tastes. It’s never personal. Save your rage for telemarketers.
A college degree means you’ve completed the assigned course work. You never graduate as a writer. Did you know that James B. Stewart wrote a great book on reporting, Follow the Story? Or that Alana Massey, and other writers, offer classes? Or that the website Freelance Success is a wonderful resource that costs only $99 a year? Have you listened to the Longform Podcast? Do you subscribe to this magazine? I’m 41 years old and continue to learn.
Value reporting and good writing; get better at them. Stay abreast of the ever-changing developments in the digital world. But knowing how to code is useless if you can’t write a compelling sentence. Or if you’re afraid to make a phone call. The classics never go out of style.
Use the library. To understand just how big the marketplace for a writer is, peruse the magazines at your local library. You’ll see what’s selling right now, and you’ll discover publications that might fit your interests and writing style. Plus, while you’re there you can check out books from writers who can teach you something. All for free. A library card is a wallet-sized miracle.
Join Twitter. Turning mine into a professional home has boosted my career. It’s where editors and writers hang out. It’s where you’ll find calls for submissions, writing advice, and connections.
It’s your journey. Don’t compare yourself to the 22-year-old columnist at The Boston Globe or the 24-year-old who just published a collection of essays. Everyone is looking up at someone else. And, yes, even someone is wildly jealous that you’re covering zoning board meetings or editing marketing copy for hospitals. By being obsessed with what someone else is doing, you will miss out on your path.
This, of course, takes time. But it’s worth it.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Like asking out the pretty girl, you’ll feel better for trying than wondering what would have happened.
—Veteran freelance writer Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is working on his first book for Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.