Surprising as it may seem, a journalism degree sure helps but it isn’t absolutely necessary to have one in order to get published. So if you’re not a Rory Gilmore type with your father and grandparents squabbling over who’s going to put you through Yale, and you haven’t been offered an internship or a seat on a presidential candidate’s campaign bus, don’t give up! Here’s what you need to know:
Most editors want to see what they call “clip sheets,” which are just what they sound like: Copies of your work that you have clipped from newspapers and magazines, either in hard copy or sent via email. Now that so many publications are also on line, things are getting even easier: you can often submit your clips electronically or ... when you have a pretty good library on line ... the editor can just Google your name and see your work pop up.
So how do you get these initial assignments so you have some clips to show?
First you gotta pay some dues and work for free. The reward for these early efforts is seeing your name in print and adding another clip to your portfolio.
Generally speaking, it’s good to start small.
Write a blog that you can offer up as evidence of your talent. Take it just as seriously as if you were up against other writers to create this piece, were being paid by the word, and it’s going to have to pass muster to be published, because if this is a sample of your work that’s supposed to sell you, it better be good. If an editor checks your blog for your skill level and see’s undocumented facts, sloppy spelling, typos and factual errors, you’re dead; if you did this in their publication, it’s would be their head. Plus editors really hate printing retractions.
Contribute to a newsletter for an organization you belong to or know a lot about, but make sure it’s a publication you’ll be proud to be a part of ... Remember the old Groucho Marx joke, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” You don’t want your name anywhere in a messy, sloppy publication; that just reflects badly on you.
Look at the little weekly or “community” papers in your town. Because they concentrate on local news and don’t pick up all the wire service articles, they may have more room for your work. Also explore alternative publications and giveaway publications that are free in distribution boxes around town. Study a few back issues of each (either at the library or on line) to see what they types of stories they like to run. Nothing turns an editor off more than knowing the writer coming to the publication for work has never bothered to read it!
Don’t overlook internet publications ...which can be a bit of a mixed blessing because while it’s open to anyone, many sites are totally unfiltered and unedited, meaning if you’re making mistakes they’re going to be out there for all to see.
Do a good deed or three. Work with local charities and write up their pre-event publicity and/or cover the event and offer it to the local publications free of charge. Steer away from the $1000.00 a plate and black-tie events; those will probably be covered by established reporters. Look to the humane societies, church fundraisers, women’s shelters... the “grassroots” efforts.
Be your own photographer - With today’s digital cameras, you don’t have to be a super-photog to get decent pictures, and if you’re a good photographer, so much the better. Editors love nothing more than when you make their jobs easy. Hand them a package of a well written piece and some interesting photos to accompany it. Also, if your photos are exceptional, it will serve you well when bidding against other freelancers later; you can point out that you’ll save the publication the cost of sending a photographer and furnish the photos for an additional nominal fee.
Now that you’ve decided what to cover and for whom, be sure to be professional about it: Spell-check is a must, then let it sit and steep overnight before you read and re-read the piece, and it never hurts to have another pair of eyes on it as well, so ask your most grammatically correct friend to proof for errors.
Once you break in and have some track record pieces to show, you can go to the editors and ask if they use freelancers and if so what areas they most need covered. From there it’s just a little rapport building and ability proofing to a staff position or regular job as a “contributing editor.