How do I make the transition to becoming a professional feature story and/or personal column writer
April 16, 2005 2:13 AM   Subscribe

I want to make the transition into professional writing, specifically feature story and/or personal column writing and I'm not sure which steps to take make this dream come true.

As of yet I'm not ready to go out there. I still have to work on defining my style and area of writing to know exactly what I want to write. I could also use more knowledge about the world of journalism to feel more confident and have an idea of how to get published.

I have a feeling that going back to school to study journalism is not the right step for me now (I'm 36 and have a law degree). The emphasis there is usually on news reporting (which I don't want to go into) and I'm scared of losing my own style and point of view in the standardising which is part of news reporting.

I'm looking for a good writing course. I was thinking of some sort of assignment driven course which would take me through the steps of writing a few pieces or help me shape my column without aspiring to show me how to do it the "right way" but letting me feel how it's done and find my own voice (though I could use guidelines in research so I won't overdo it). I could also do with a course about the industry and how it works. I'd be grateful for recommendations. Online or correspondence courses or would especially be appreciated (I'm writing this from abroad).

posted by mirileh to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Just a quick broad comment: Be aware that this is a highly competitive field. Particularly "personal column writing" which is the dream of tens of thousands of novice writers and journalism students. If you want a real, paying gig writing a Rooney-Royko-Hamill-Breslin-Bombeck-Barry-Goodman-type column for a reputable publication, you need years—no, decades—of experience. Otherwise, get a blog.

Good luck. It can be a tough business.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:14 AM on April 16, 2005

"defining my style and area of writing to know exactly what I want to write"

I suggest you work up at least 3 or 4 different styles and the same number of areas. Also, start a blog and get accustomed to writing 500 words every day.
posted by mischief at 6:56 AM on April 16, 2005

I wouldn't worry so much about your style. You need to start writing and getting to know people in the field. Journalism school does not solely concentrate on hard news reporting, but at the same time, it doesn't make much sense at your point in life. Journalism is still one of the few fields where you can come up through the ranks, and that's what you'll end up doing.

I recommend you identify a news outlet for which you would like to write, and persistently contact the features editor about being a stringer, reviewer, or occasional contributor. It's not terribly hard to convinve someone to give you a chance, (that is, if you're not starting with the NY Times or another paper with similar command of the writing market). You'll need to be flexible and take assignments that maybe don't thrill you at first, but they will teach you the skills of reporting (which you use in features as well as hard news, needless to say) and more importantly, allow you to build a clip file and contacts. The clip file that you build is going to be your passport into better and better writing gigs. It's a portfolio of your reporting, as it appeared in published form. Editors you contact in future will want to see your clips to judge your potential.

You are approaching this field in a rather more scholarly and studious manner than necessary. You learn to write by writing. Editors will edit your work, and, as they do, show you exactly what they want from you. At first, it hardly matters what your 'style' is -- even if you are John McPhee, when you're a new writer, an editor is going to re-arrange, rephrase, and replace parts of your work. It's their job to give the paper something of a consitent voice, and only when you've paid some dues, proven your reliability and worth, and started to develop flexible writing skills will you be able to write more creatively, as a columnist does.

Mo Nickels is right about the competitiveness of the field, and the difficulty of making it through the hoops to be a columnist -- know that in expressing that wish, you are saying something on the order of "I'd like to become a filmmaker. I'm interested in getting $20 mil from a major studio to create my first movie." On the other hand, you may want to explore column writing for smaller, regional papers or even freebie alt-weeklies, which are easier markets to break into. Sometimes those gigs can lead to syndication (not often). But they will teach you to come up with something to write week after week after week, to write within a standard column-inch count, and help build clips. So don't rule the small time out right now.

Here are some links you can explore: Editor & Publisher, universally read in the print trade; CJR or Columbia Journalism Review, which takes a scholarly/analytical look at the world of journalism; Journalism Jobs, which is a mecca for people seeking journalism careers, but also contains great articles and market information; and Media Bistro, another job-focused site which looks broadly at all forms of media, hosts meetups, and is a general hangout for word people.

Don't be discouraged! I come from a big journalism family. My mother began a journalism career at age 33, starting with covering town meetings and such. She's now the editor of a significant paper. Many people in the field can tell similar stories. It's actually easier to succeed in journalism once you have some real life experience, some content knowledge from other fields, and a well-honed BS detector. Good luck!
posted by Miko at 7:29 AM on April 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

Oops, and I just noticed you said you were living abroad. Use that to your advantage; think in terms of contacting your hometown paper and writing a column on the view from the other side of the ocean, etc. Connecting local people to world events is always a challenge for editors. Another good outlet for that kind of thing is your college's or grad school's alumni mag.
posted by Miko at 7:31 AM on April 16, 2005

Not a course, but a book recommendation: Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilburs. This is easily the best book on writing I've ever encountered. Usually when I say this someone always pipes up that Strunk + White is the only essential book. In my opinion, this book trumps that staple and should be read by all writers. No info within re: getting jobs at newspapers or magazines but if you're at the "finding your voice" stage, I think it would be beneficial to read this.
posted by dobbs at 7:58 AM on April 16, 2005

In the unsnottiest way possible, I say to you: get a blog, not a correspondence course.

You learn to write by writing. It's really not something that can be taught. Write some essays about subjects that strike your fancy and try to make them lively and engaging. You could opine about global issues or write up a humorous bus ride you took - anything really. This is how you will find your voice and discover if you can write things other people will want to read.

You can't normally just get a job as a columnist at a newspaper without working your way up through the ranks - they are the plum positions and an editor will want to know you have the writing chops and a good sense of the readership and many interesting things to say before offering you something like that.

Then again, you are in a terrific position to write up some feature pieces about the country you are in and send them to a paper back home to see if they will print them. Miko's idea of a "view from abroad" type column is great.
Also, if you want to put your legal background to good use, try writing up some interesting law problems and selling them to a legal periodical.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:57 AM on April 16, 2005

If you come from a town with a smaller newspaper (say, fewer than 50,000 or so subscribers) you might be able to convince them to run a "view from abroad" column from time to time. I know that my paper occasionally runs columns from native sons and daughters who can give local meaning or context to world events. I doubt you are likely to get much -- if any -- pay for this type of thing, but you can develop the writing clips that will open doors and help you get real paying gigs in the future.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:03 PM on April 16, 2005

Sorry, I just realized how redundant my post was. D'oh. Hopefull this will make up for it a little

To find newspapers from your home town, assuming you're from the US, check out this US newspaper list. It's fairly complete, and includes both weekly and daily papers.

If you have a hard time getting your foot in the door at a daily paper, try writing columns for a weekly paper for a while (maybe 6 months or a year), then sending your clips to a daily as proof of what you can do.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:10 PM on April 16, 2005

Contact me off-MeFi. Let me know what kind of columns you have in mind -- subject matter and so on. Send me a sample if you have one. I might have an outlet of opportunity for you.
posted by grabbingsand at 1:19 PM on April 16, 2005

Another idea: if opinion pieces, or legal analysis, are your thing, try writing a few things and submitting them as op-eds (the point-of-view pieces that usually appear opposite the editorials page, hence the name). Some papers pay for op-eds, and people with professional expertise (like yours in law) or meanginful perspective (like living where you're living) can provide a diversity of informative points of view. It's a way to get some clips without writing on deadline or covering stories that aren't your idea.
posted by Miko at 1:42 PM on April 16, 2005

My wife is a freelance writer and swears by Freelance Success. It's a subscription-based site, but she feels like the investment has paid for itself in terms of making contacts, getting advice about possible publication venues, and finding online courses designed to teach industry-specific skills like query writing.
posted by lewistate at 7:26 PM on April 16, 2005

Check out this excellent advice from metafilter member and top notch writer jscalzi. (His site is being rebuilt, so I've linked to Google's cached version.)
posted by tdismukes at 10:02 PM on April 16, 2005

Thanks for the responses you have all given my so far (especially to Miko)!

I want to emphasise my writing course question (I'm looking for one). I completely accept (and agree) with all of you telling me a course won't turn me into a writer. I don't expect it to. It's a confidence issue. I'm one of those people who think too much about things I do. That means that if I'm trying to write a piece for the first time, I'll either overwhelm myself with questions (and maybe never get it done) or overdo it (turn in a PhD). I need a course to get past that stage (after doing something once, I once again become a near normal human being).

So please bear that in mind as I again ask for course recommendations (especially online ones).
posted by mirileh at 12:54 AM on April 17, 2005

Having just taken a class called "Advanced Writing for Media" as my final free-elective before graduation this month (!!), I can not express to you just how disappointing this class has been. I learned NOTHING important. I've been writing columns for the school newspaper for two years and just got a gig writing for the local free weekly, yet I'll probably be getting a D in the class.

I signed up hoping that the lab instructors, all local writers and editors, would provide me with critiques to help improve my writing style. All I was graded on was my ability to write within the constraints of the sick and vile AP-format. My ability to explain the latest Israeli-Palestinian debacle to incoming and ignorant freshmen was useless if I didn't know when and where I can use "UN" in a first reference. Throughout the class I came to understand why people just don't read newspapers anymore. These people are trained to write in a non-colloquial, rigid, and dumbed-down style with no real connections made with the reader.

Be wary. Email instructors for a syllabus before signing up. Get a blog. Train yourself to write. This is something I complain about to my musician friends all the time... one can't simply wait for a muse to hit them, they have to be professionals with steady output. You'll have some hit and mss stuff at the beginning, but it'll become more consistent. If you're a builder, you build. If you're a writer, write. If you're a guitar player, play guitar. Don't make excuses for yourself.

I would never get anything done if not for deadlines. Try setting yourself up times like having at least one post every Wednesday night and Sunday night... it really helps.
posted by trinarian at 3:22 AM on April 17, 2005

So please bear that in mind as I again ask for course recommendations (especially online ones).

I took a class in freelance writing at the New School many years ago - note that I am not a professional freelance writer now, so make of that what you will - which I found reasonably useful. The instructor emphasized little details, like learning to write a given length, coming up with good ledes, making a pitch sound sexy, etc. It didn't improve my writing skills (particularly) but it did make me more aware of the ins and outs of the biz, so to speak, and various stylistic things to keep in mind when writing for a general audience.

I don't know how effective it would have been as an online course, but I suppose there's no reason it couldn't work... here's the website for New School online; you can poke around and see if there are any courses being offered that fit what you're looking for.

Again, it's no magic bullet, but you may find you focus your intentions more when you have money invested and deadlines set, and it can be useful to have a group to bounce things off of.

Good luck.
posted by mdn at 6:54 AM on April 17, 2005

thanks a lot to all of you. tdismukes, thanks for fishing up jscalzi's advice (found it very down to earth).
posted by mirileh at 12:15 PM on April 19, 2005

I'm a columnist.

My Columns

Basically, you have to have a style. Mine is humor. I freelance aside from this school stuff - so I email someone, say "Can I write this for you?" and they say yes or no. You can use a blog as clips.
posted by moooshy at 7:26 PM on April 20, 2005

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