This post is based on a speech I gave at my favourite writers’ festival - Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival - in 2009.
1. It’s true, the media industry is about who you know - or more accurately, who knows you - but you don’t have to know people to get started. Getting to know people who will publish you and getting known is process that happens over time, and in my experience, it’s been more about consistently doing work and accumulating a good set of bylines than about schmoozing with people at parties.
2. Start submitting your stories now. I had my first big piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald when I was 22. It’s possible that I could have done it before then, but I didn’t, because I never submitted anything to them. It never occurred to me that I could - I figured you could only do the kind of writing I wanted to do once you’d lucked into an entry level position and worked your way up as a staffer. Then I met other early twenty something and teenaged writers who were getting big bylines and started submitting my stuff. They took the second story I sent them.
3. Work hard. Work really hard. I’ve published as much as I have not because I’m The Most Amazing Brilliant Writer in the World - although through practice, I’d like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at it - but because I worked at it. When I was at university, I wrote so many articles for student publications that one of my antagonists asked me if I was using them as my personal diary. I told him I was just practising being a journalist, just as he was practising being an arrogant politician. As a freelancer, I’ve gotten where I have because I stayed up late writing pitches, writing stories and submitting them.
Even the most naturally talented writers have to work hard to get really good at their craft. As a young man, Hunter S Thompson used a typewriter to copy F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in order to learn the writing styles of the authors. Former New Yorker correspondent Daniel Baum says he broke into the magazine by writing incredibly well-researched, two page pitches.
To give you some perspective, most pitches I write for Australian magazines are about two paragraphs long. Sometimes two sentences. Five hundred words max. But that’s what you have to do if you want to be really, really good and break into that top level of publications - and that’s advice I could still stand to learn from.
4. Write for publications you enjoy reading, and write the kinds of stories you want to read. It sounds a bit sappy, I know, but being true to thy ownself has as many practical benefits as it does idealistic ones. For one, I personally find writing for publications I like a lot easier than writing for ones I don’t - and I’ve pitched to publications that are seemingly in my market but which I don’t personally enjoy the style of, I’ve never once succeeded. For another, it means that you’ll get known as the ’go to’ person for the kind of work you actually want to be doing. And if you’re doing work you can respect, you’ll be a lot happier.
5. Get to know those publications really, really well. Learn the way they use language. Learn how they structure their stories and how many words they run. Figure out how that publication would approach the story you want to write before you suggest it to them. And try to make sure they haven’t run anything similar in recent months before you pitch - editors say it’s a pet hate.
6. Learn how to leverage what you‘ve done. A lot freelancing is about chutzpah - but unless your confidence has a base, it’s not going to get you very far. Editors are a naturally cautious bunch - they don’t want to commission someone who won’t deliver - so if you pitch, say, Vogue or The Monthly before you’ve got a lot of clips under your belt, you’re not probably not going to hear back. You can think of it a bit like weight lifting - you’ve got to get to good at lifting one weight before you can move onto the next.
7. Getting to where you want to be will almost certainly take longer than you want it to. That’s okay. I can think of so many times when I first started out when I felt complete despair that ‘it’ - ‘it’ being my career - was never going to happen. That magic first clip makes it easier to get the next one, but it doesn’t equal a fully fledged or decently paid career: for that, you need time and you need consistency. Even now, that’s advice I can still learn from - the project I’m working on now will probably take another three to five years if I want to do it right, which is in some ways incredibly frustrating, but that’s the reality of an achievement of that level. It’s the same with freelancing - it took me probably a year and a half to two years to build up a decent client base, and even then my earnings were far from enviable, but like those hair ads, while it didn‘t happen overnight, it did happen.