At 40, after several years as a stay-at-home mom, I returned to college to complete my associate’s degree to make myself more marketable when I returned to the workforce. A medical secretary by default, most of my courses were business related. However, one of my electives, Newspaper Research and Reporting, put me on a new and unexpected career path.
With one semester of community college journalism and a portfolio showcasing clippings from the student paper, I set out to establish myself as a freelance writer. Except – when I thought about approaching editors – I didn’t feel like a freelancer. Compared to the youngsters fresh out of Journalism school, I was just some reporter-wannabe missing the right education and credentials.
For more than a year I struggled with feelings of inferiority and what I saw as a lack of credibility. Finally, I partnered with a career coach to develop a plan to get myself in the game. It was intimidating, but six years later my credits include articles in weekly and daily newspapers, regional women and parenting publications, trade journals and online sites, as well as stints as a staff reporter, editor of an internally distributed newsletter and Web ezine columnist.
Along my unconventional path to publication, I learned several important lessons. Here are my top six suggestions for non-traditional writers working to establish themselves in the journalism industry:
1. Play to your strengths. While I didn’t have a four-year degree, I had a couple decades of experience as a parent (single and married), raising a child with autism, life as a military wife, caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s and more. That firsthand knowledge allowed me to write with greater authority, depth and insight than a 22-year-old just starting out in life. It’s also a great source for ideas to pitch.
2. Start small. In order to build both a portfolio and my confidence, I started out approaching weekly community newspapers and start-up websites. It was an ideal way to refine my skills, write across a variety of beats and topics, and establish a network of professional contacts.
3. Don’t give your writing away. The difference between an amateur and a professional is a paycheck. Don’t let anyone sell you on the idea of writing for free as a means of assembling clips or garnering experience. There are plenty of paying markets for those just starting out.
4. Be professional. Editors are busy people and appreciate working with dependable writers. While they want talented writers, don’t underestimate the value of timely communication, a cooperative attitude, adherence to deadlines and common courtesy.
5. Know the industry. Although I only had one semester of journalism, I’d mastered the basic skills. You want to at least sound like you know what you’re doing, even if you are learning as you go.
6. Go the extra mile. As mentioned above, editors are busy people. They will often choose the writer who can supply photos and a story versus tasking out assignments to two individuals.
It took me a while to realize that there isn’t a single right or wrong way to launch a career as a writing professional. What I initially saw as deficits turned into my biggest advantages. You, too, can do the same.
Maria Connor has worked as a freelance and staff writer for daily and weekly newspapers, print and online magazines, trade journals and newsletters. She covers community news, arts and culture, family and parenting issues, and women’s topics.