There are some things in life that can only be learned through trial and error, but fortunately, most things can be learned from those who have gone before us.
With this in mind, here are five important pieces of advice for anyone who is hoping to start writing content professionally.
1. We all have to start somewhere
One thing that newbie writers often fail to recognize is that even the most successful people in this business have had to pay their dues working for small-name websites, magazines, and publications you may never have heard of.
At the beginning of your career, no job that will leave you with experience under your belt and writing samples in hand should be frowned at.
My first ever paid writing job was crafting product descriptions for a coupon website. When people would ask me well-meaning questions like “So how’s the writing going?” or “Where can I see some of your work?” I would mumble my way through an explanation and then hurriedly change the subject.
But that job, as menial as it seemed to me at the time, actually taught me a lot (it expanded my vocabulary for one thing, because you can only describe something as “fun” so many times) and gave me more confidence in my abilities as a writer.
My point is, the first time you see your name in print it probably won’t be very glorious, and you may even look back on that piece with embarrassment a few years down the line. But right now, that article or job is your ticket to moving up a notch.
2. Don’t burn bridges
Knowing people and having a wide and diverse range of contacts is very important no matter what kind of writing you are hoping to get into.
Everyone from your classmates in college, to the sources or subjects of your stories, to your clients or coworkers can be a valuable contact to have in the future. With this in mind, it’s important to develop and maintain good relationships with the people who cross your path.
Don’t skimp on appreciation when someone has been helpful, keep your cool when dealing with unreasonable requests, and don’t sever professional ties without good reason.
Because you will often need to get quotes or insider advice for a story you are working on, it can be useful to keep a database of all the experts you have worked with in the past who have been helpful and provided good, clear commentary.
Include their name, title and area of expertise, contact information, and details of the story they were quoted in. Then in the future, when you need an expert for a story on the same topic, you can save valuable time by going straight to your database.
3. Be a digital innovator
Don’t underestimate the importance of having some digital know-how.
One advantage that today’s aspiring writers have over the seasoned professionals is that they have grown up using technology, and digital tools and platforms.
Become a pro at using social media for everything from networking to brainstorming ideas to disseminating information and engaging your audience.
Why wait for your readers to come to you? Market your content before and after it is published, and try to interact with your readers as much as possible by responding to comments.
Some basic multimedia skills can also come in handy in today’s editing and publishing environment.
For example, photo editing skills have become very important for those working for publishers like Buzzfeed, and the ability to capture and edit simple video footage could come in handy practically anywhere.
As Jon DiPaulo, executive producer of SkyNews.com, explained in a recent podcast, a “visual awareness,” in addition to the core skills of having a good understanding of what makes a good story and the ability to write well, will give young writers a big advantage.
4. Never stop learning
One thing a writer should never become is complacent.
You will leave school with some of the key skills you need to succeed, but the moment you think you’ve “arrived” or know everything you need to know about the business is the moment you will begin to stagnate and lose your edge.
Take additional courses, read widely, network with journalists you admire, ask for advice from those who are more experienced than you and write as often as possible (even for free if you have to).
Do whatever it takes, but never stop looking for ways to improve your craft, and never stop asking questions, because curiosity is the driving force behind this industry.
5. Embrace rejection
As a writer of any kind, you are going to face a lot of rejection.
The publications you want to write for will turn you down; people will tell you that your work sucks; and if the ideas you come up with aren’t crushed entirely, they will be dissected and altered beyond recognition.
This is the reality. If you want to succeed you are going to have to develop a tough skin, and more importantly, not get too attached to your ideas, writing style, or methods. Criticism is rarely meant as a personal attack, so don’t take it as such.
We often learn far more from our mistakes than the things we get right the first time around, so take the rejections and criticisms, learn what you can from them, and then get back up and try again.