Yesterday a 22-year old graduate impressed me more than anyone has in a while. Wondering into the Guardian offices (where I am drafted in semi-frequently as a freelance writer on the Travel section) a smartly-dressed Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski handed me a small business card printed on thin paper. He did the same to every person who passed through the revolving doors on York Way and into the Guardian.
The card introduced him as an “unemployed graduate” looking for “work experience and employment”, and included his email address, his blog address, and his phone number. I sought out Graham Snowden, who edits the Guardian’s Work and Graduate sections, and suggested that it could be a decent story for him. I wasn’t the first. Graham dashed downstairs and walked him into the building, and by the end of the day Tom had written his first blog for the Guardian. Good on him.
I get a lot of emails from people asking if I have any tips on getting into professional journalism, and Tom’s chutzpah has nudged me into writing this post. The following will by no means guarantee entry into a profession that is currently firing a lot more than it is hiring, but hopefully it helps someone.
1) Start a blog
One of the wonders of the Internet age is that anyone can be their own publisher. Start a blog and specialise. Don’t just write about whatever comes into your mind, as this will spread you too thin…pick an area and focus on it. Perhaps that will be travel. Perhaps football, or education, or political satire. Write topical posts in response to issues of the day…best of all, write ripostes to articles in the publications that you admire. Be controversial if necessary. Use pictures and embed YouTube videos… often a passerby will judge your blog in seconds, purely on how it looks.
2) Network and flog yourself
Once you have your blog, make a huge list of blogs that you admire, and that fall into the same genre as yours. Add them to your blogroll and email them informing them that you have done so. Perhaps they will replicate. Leave comments on their posts, making sure you leave your blog url as part of your commenter identity. Respond to their posts with posts of your own. Sign up to Twitter and tweet your posts at journalists and bloggers in your sphere. Eventually one of them might retweet it.
3) Collate contacts
Once you have something to show for yourself, start making a list of editors and deputy editors in the sphere you have chosen. You can usually find these people on Google or Twitter, but if you can’t just call. Find the switchboard number of the publication you are looking for and ring them up, asking “Who is the current editor/deputy editor of the XX section?”. Perhaps they will even give you their email address.
4) Work out the email addresses
If you can’t get the email addresses as suggested above, all is not lost. Every publishing house in the world has a formulaic email system. Somewhere on their website you will find at least one personal email address. For example, if you find an address that is FIRSTNAME.LASTNAME@PUBLICATION.COM, you can bet that the address of the person you are hunting for will be the same. Once you have a list of 20 editors and deputy editors (never forget the deputies – they often act as the first screening line for pitches before the editor even has a look) you are ready to send your first email.
Make sure you know who you are pitching to. Read their content widely. Work out the kind of pieces they like. Perhaps even work this into your pitch… “I noticed that you ran a piece on XX recently, and I was wondering if you were interested in a piece on YY”. But start with a single sentence on who you are. If you are young, tell them how old you are. “I’m the 22-year old author of the XXX blog, and here’s a post I recently wrote in response to one of your pieces”. Keep this short. Don’t just send one pitch…send three. Make sure the pitches are covering new and current ground. Keep them short – around 80 words each (you should never make the editor scroll…they don’t have the time), and send links so the editor can read around the subject. Offer your first article for free, and mention this high up in the email***Various commenters disagree with this, see below. Make sure the subject of the email is pithy and eye-catching, just like a newspaper headline.
6) If at first you don’t succeed...
You will almost certainly get no response. Even if you get a “thanks, but no thanks”, do not despair. Go back to the drawing board, and come up with three more ideas for next week. Keep going, and keep updating your blog.
7) Cash in
If you eventually get a piece published, you’ve jumped the highest hurdle. Then you can start all your subsequent emails with “I’ve had articles published in XX publication” which will immediately get more attention.
All of the above is a very personal take. But I’m interested in any other tips from published writers, which I will add to this post. Do let me know if you think there are any glaring omissions. And if all else fails, pull a Tom.