Working as a journalist has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life—and has significantly affected my fiction writing. As a reporter, I have interviewed Syrian refugees, photographed protests at the Supreme Court, interviewed Congressmen, and met with local business owners to hear their stories. Journalism at its core is about slowing down and practicing the art of observation, taking note of the people around us, and translating what they say into a compelling story.
So how do you get started as a journalist? If you’re interested in an MFA program and you want to gain extra publication experience, taking up freelance assignments (or working as a staff reporter) is an excellent way to grow as a writer. You’ll gain publication credentials, increase your online exposure, and practice distilling the important information down to what really matters.
Here are a few tips from my own experience.
Have a professional website
Even if you’re just starting to look at graduate school, having a professional website is an excellent way to gain necessary exposure as a freelance writer. Yes, it’s helpful to have a blog, but if you’re hoping to land paid freelance gigs, you should absolutely have an online portfolio showing samples of your work.
There are some incredible resources out there for building your own website. My favorite options are WordPress, Wix, or Squarespace.
My professional website is like a glorified CV. I have a tab for academics, which includes a list of conference presentations, academic papers, and awards. I have a tab for creative writing where I include work I’m querying and catalog my fiction and creative nonfiction publications. Then I have my journalism portfolio, which includes a link to every article I have ever published. On the one hand, this is to help me keep track of my own work, so I don’t forget where my articles have appeared. But it also helps future employers. In addition to my resume and clip samples, I always send a link to my website and inform employers that they can access my full portfolio online.
Decide what you want to write — and study the field!
Writing lifestyle pieces is very different than academic articles or hard news or features or editorials or self-help. Know what you want to write. And the answer can be all of the above. (Side note: most publications don’t run editorials unless you’re an established commentator with a credible platform.)
If you want to write news articles, you should be reading and watching the news daily. If you’re interested in national news, you should follow the Associated Press, Politico, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. If you’re interested in local news, subscribe to your city newspaper. You should also learn how to write in AP style. It’s a requirement for most news publications.
If you want to write features or life style pieces, read the popular blogs and local magazines that include the topics you want to write about. The best way to break into these categories—if you don’t already have a platform that makes you a qualified and credible voice on a subject—is to develop a “beat.” A beat refers to the field or genre of stories that you cover. A news beat, for example, could be healthcare, education policy, the environment, or local elections. If you’re a lifestyle or popular culture writer, you might be interested in covering fashion, music events, restaurants, film reviews, cooking etc. So decide what interests you, research the subject matter, and start writing!
You can’t write good fiction or poetry or nonfiction if you never read. The same is true for journalism. Study the form.
I learned how to write like a journalist by attending a summer boot camp called The World Journalism Institute (which is free for accepted students!) with WORLD Magazine in Asheville, North Carolina. While there, I learned how to write news stories, profiles, obituaries, how to conduct interviews, and cut my own radio segments. I would never have been able to work professionally as a reporter had I not received this necessary training. And after this program, WORLD hired me as a reporter for the summer and placed me for a few weeks with the Washington, D.C. bureau where I covered breaking news like healthcare reform, Senate votes, and landmark Supreme Court cases. I was twenty years old and brand new to journalism, but thanks to their training, I learned to hold my own. With proper instruction, you can, too—no matter your background.
Here are some resources:
Poynter: Poynter offers webinars and courses on journalism and working with a digital audience. They also have regular lists with internships and job opportunities. (They’re also based in St. Petersburg, Florida.)
Thomson Reuters Foundation Courses: These courses combine face-to-face teaching with online material to help you grow as a journalist in any field.
WJI: You can check out the World Journalism Institute, which focuses on equipping Christian journalists to work in newsrooms around the country.
The Art And Craft of Feature Writing: This book by William Blundell (a writer for The Wall Street Journal) is an excellent resource for anyone interested in writing feature stories.
The Life Story Interview: Check out online resources that offer helpful tips, like how to conduct interviews.
Start for Free
I get a lot of questions about how I got started as a journalist. The simple answer is that I began by writing for any outlet that would accept me, whether or not I got paid. The online exposure was payment enough. Additionally, I could put all of those published articles in my online portfolio, which increased my credibility when I began applying for future jobs. When you’re starting as a freelance writer, try to say “yes” to any article you are assigned. The more you write, the more freedom you’ll eventually have to write articles of your choice.
Yes, we all want to write for the big leagues. But start in your network. Is there a local magazine or newspaper you can work for? Pitch an article or ask to pick up an assignment. If you’re still in school, consider writing for your university’s paper or working as an editor. It’s a great way to boost your portfolio while still a college student. I wrote for the Opinion section of my student newspaper before working as Editor-in-Chief in my senior year. This provided invaluable experience, since I oversaw the entire publication process and participated in several articles with our Spotlight (investigative) team.
Compile your favorite “clips”
Whenever you apply for a steady journalism job or a freelance position, the employer will ask to see “clips,” or published pieces in your portfolio. In the world of freelance writing, your work is your resume. Ideally, you want to have different styles to show your diverse range as a writer.
Over time, your portfolio should demonstrate that you are responsible and can report within a deadline, that you are comfortable with interviewing, and that you have a strong grip on language and effective narrative methods. As you gain journalism experience, I recommend including the following in your clips (as you have them):
- A feature/profile or interview
- Two-three hard news stories
- A review (film, book review, play review — anything!)
- A personal essay or more creative piece
Do not send in more than five or six pieces, as you don’t want to overwhelm a future employer. And of course, always submit what they request in their guidelines.
Over time, you can start to make good money as a freelance writer. And if you work hard and build your portfolio, you can land work in larger publications. Working as a freelance writer is an incredible experience—and since it’s part time, it allows ample flexibility to work on graduate studies. As you become more experienced, you can even apply for a freelance business license and get steady business as an independent contractor.
So best of luck, writers. Keep sending out your work!
A list of recommended places to submit your writing:
The Orlando Sentinel
Travel + Leisure
Great Escape Publishing