Steady Yourself: How to Get into Journalism



Last year when I left my home, my job and my partner in the space of a month, I think my Mum thought I was undergoing some form of mortal crisis. She’d come into my room proffering cups of tea and if not tea, then maybe a sandwich? The problem: I was bored. Bored of London, bored of office chairs, bored of washing a man’s pants. In the wankiest way, I knew that I am a writer. But a writer who does not write is, astonishingly, not a writer. It was time to stamp my be-Dr Martened foot down and let myself bloody get on with it.

I saw my Mum work days and nights to bring up two daughters on her own. I’ve worried about money for as long as I can remember. Somehow it enabled me to become a wily little fuck. But not a nasty one, wily in the way whereby I basically just told everybody I was a writer until I was. Until I’d sold all my possessions at carboots for rent money, subsisted entirely on water-porridge and written so much for free that I had a portfolio.

Never at any point during this, however, has it become easy for me to worrylessly submit any writing. I get readily nervous every time I send something, anything off; it’s always a battle between my belligerence and an acutely nuanced sense of vulnerability. I believe in everything I write and it’s a stupid position to put yourself in. I should maybe just go into copywriting and fart out puns, giddy along capitalism with some choice-phrased commercialised merriment.

Instead, I choose to sit in corners swaddled in woollens, legs splayed in spine-wrangling shapes whilst I scribble silently into notebooks. Within these notebooks are quotations and drawings, parts of plants or recipes ideas, various oddments and the odd cake stain. One harbours all the little things that make me laugh: the Mum who gets onto the tram and reaches up to grab the handrail to steady herself; her toddler echoes her movement and reaches up to grab up simply onto thin air. He looks up to smile at her in appreciation and shared motion. Elsewhere, a recount of overhearing an old man expertly and lengthily playing the harmonica on the street before spouting hot vitriol about how dreadful women are. He hasn’t seen his daughter for 33 years, she’s now 35: ‘That’s life’. Somewhere the daughter doesn’t know her Dad is sat on the street gregariously playing the harmonica and defaming her sex. I wonder whether maybe that’s a good thing.

I wrote flat out for a month to finish a play I started two years ago. These feverish throes saw me waking up at night slamming down my sleep-enabled plot points on my phone or hurriedly jamming scene changes into margins. I got it done, I sent it off. And then there are my articles. I’ve written before that ‘freelance’ is a word I’ve begun to use more and more synonymously with ‘imaginary’. Freelance work is stupid tough, freelance journalism is just outright hilarious. (The fact that Lois and Superman apparently subsist on journalist’s salaries is one of the biggest unrealities in the film).Editors are elusive at best, deadlines are tough and money is never mentioned. This is annoying, it’s as though writers are expected to feed themselves on figurative language alone.

On inconsistencies, writing itself is awake with them. Quite often I’ll come up with the words but it’ll take me days to work out where they’ll sit. Meanwhile, I sit belching out bad syntax and consuming ungodly quantities of chocolate. And then, of course, there are the times when words fall out in perfect reams and you half expect a congratulatory centaur in a linen apron to bring you a strong black coffee and remark something along the lines of, ‘Why, Miss Mimi, today you are your own muse’. I often find that these will strike late at night or early in the morning. There’s nothing practical or remarkable about these times, it’s simply when I get twitchy hands and my brain’s banging about too many ideas to be quelled with either sleep or breakfast. The latter being the only reason I’m usually able to get out of bed.

This week I got my first big break. It’s taken me 8 month’s solid work to whack my way upwards with incrementally bigger pieces of serious journalism but now I can proudly say that I officially work as a Book Reviewer for the largest Arts magazine in Australia. There’s hope yet, friends, and there’s higher places too. If I’m reaching up and grabbing the air, not quite making the bar, I’m going to be smiling as I keep reaching. 

Meanwhile, I’m happy and self-sufficient and it all comes down to wanting to take something seriously and, because I knew it could never be myself, then it had to be my writing. To document all the thousands of little lovelinesses, to bewilder the masses with my rampant rationalisations, to call out all the willy-wavers who’d rather have women put energy into starving themselves and contouring their noses thinner with skin gunk than investing in and exercising their talents. If you really want it, simply pick up that pen and don’t let go. 

Five Things to Get You on your Way 

It might not be necessary for you to perform such a physical form of catharsis, for you it might be as simple as changing your washing powder. But, if you’re ready to steady yourself and get scribbling, I’d highly recommend fulfilling the following.

Start Reading 

Everything from Private Eye to singing aloud your shampoo ingredients from the bottle in the shower. Get used to the sounds, the sibilences, the various rhythms of things. Look up words, then use these words, make up new words. Start noticing when people use the rule of three.

Designate a Notebook 

This is the first step of creating yourself some space. Next, fill it with your wordy wisdoms. The most important thing to identify at this point is whether sitting down and scrawling out the insides of your skull is something you actually enjoy doing and furthermore: can see yourself doing continually, to earn your rent money, to be an adult with a job. You can’t be a romantic here: if frantically sharpening pencils and staring into the wordless abyss hoping only to yank out maybe one appropriate adjective after an hour’s worth of tears isn’t, in fact, your life ambition, it’s time to write yourself off. I’m being hyperbolic but this is important: there’s a difference between writing as a hobby and writing for money to live on. Decide where you’re at.

Write Some Articles 

About anything. Review a film you’ve seen or engage with a waffling meta construct about how to be a journalist. Publish them yourself on a blog (reference my very own ‘Bloggadike’ if you wish to witness the mortifying beginnings of my writerly nascence) or keep them to yourself and look back on them to further gauge and solidify your style. Next, approach people.

Email All Editors 

This is where your research skills kick in. Start furtively photographing editor’s email addresses out of magazines in newsagents, identify the websites which look like they may need writers, search for local magazines (Instagram is insanely useful for this with its suggestion tool, follow one and many more will line themselves up for quick perusal). Once you’ve got some ‘YES’es, start forecasting this writing for free. You’re building a portfolio, one which will enable you to later land something that’ll pay you real world monies. Essentially, detail your trajectory and hone your skills with these freebies to carve a niche for yourself on how you’ll wish to be employed further down this line.

Ask the Awkward Questions 

Most of these will be financial. For some ever-irrational reason, no-one will talk money to you. Sometimes not even until the article is published and you’ve sent them 5 emails in the space of four swiftly drawn breaths. Therefore: ask first, be blunt. Know how much you charge and, regrettably, know too that you’re not going to be able to garner much paid work initially… For a good year… Maybe two… Sorry. If you follow the advice above though and selectively secure yourself that preferred niche, at least by the time you are paid it’ll actually be for stuff you care about.

And, for some much needed quid clarification: expect to be paid around £100 for approximately 1000 words for your first job(s). Progress to almost double that once you’re starting to gain some ground and can approach the larger publications with a wealth of articles and expertise. This will only increase once you’re starting to specialise, just keep going mates! And if you’re wanting to do some copywriting on the side to ensure the continuation of a healthy cheese and cake habit, then typical rates for this level around £30-40 ph.

I wish you luck, I wish you good words and if you get stuck: revisit your favourite wordsmiths. For me, Frank O’Hara, every time.