How I got my first writing gig

The story of how I got my first writing gig – an article in The Daily Telegraph – is integral to the founding of Writer’s Residence. Today, I’m sharing this story with you in hopes that it will be useful to those just starting a writing career.

Here’s a overview, with time estimates:

  1. I quit my day job (instantaneous)
  2. I set up a website that declared myself a writer (about a week)
  3. I thought about things I wanted to write about and researched publications that might go for it (eternal)
  4. I pitched editors article ideas until one such idea was commissioned (a month or two)

Here’s the longer version…

First, the background

I studied math and was a statistician at a big bank in London before taking the plunge into freelance writing. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and have always written as a hobby (when I was a kid, I used to write imaginary travel articles about places I wanted to visit, and then staple the pages together into a “magazine” – my first foray into self publication!). I was also editor of my high school newspaper and worked at the Daily Illini student newspaper at the University of Illinois. But all of this writing stuff sat next to my interest in math and science, which seemed like a far more lucrative career prospect anyway.

So a career in math and science I had, but it didn’t make me happy (I partially blame the business suit I was required to wear at the bank). I came to realise that the aspect of my work that I enjoyed the most was the writing: be it writing business reports, academic articles or educational material. I’ve always liked the technical side of things, but what I really LOVE is putting that technical stuff into words that mere mortals can understand.

In 2008 I quit the bank and decided to devote myself to becoming a freelance writer. I decided to give myself 3 months to make a nudge into the business. I spent that time largely reading various books on “how to become a freelance writer” and pitching article ideas to editors. Two things were critical to my success:

  1. Being confident that YES I AM a writer and
  2. Capitalising on my strengths to get the gig

My writing website: the marketing machine!

The funny thing about being a writer is that it’s pretty easy to become one. It’s really just a matter of declaring yourself a writer, being confident in that declaration and showing off a few pieces that prove this declaration is true. To make this declaration “digitally”, I created a website, something that contained some writing samples and told the world that I’m a professional writer and I take my career seriously.

I had to get creative about what to put in my writing portfolio as I hadn’t really been published anywhere yet, and have written about this previously here: Writing samples: What if I haven’t been published?

Get over the dream to get closer to the dream

In my dream world, I would like to get paid to write about food, health and fitness (and I’ve made a lot of headway into this arena already, but that’s another story). At the start, try as I might to pitch to food and fitness publications, I found it super challenging to make any headway because I had no clips whatsoever. I soon realised that I needed to capitalise on my strengths: I have a math and science background and am capable of writing technical stuff in a non-technical way. So I decided to put the food stuff aside for a moment and seek out a science-angle for my first paid commission.

Give them something they can’t get anywhere else

I like to keep an eye on Science Daily, and stumbled across a press release about a research study into endorphins and runners high. This appealed to my interest in health and fitness, but also had a strong science angle that I felt I could explore with authority. It was also timely as the London Marathon was coming up.

I decided to contact the lead researcher cited in the article and ask if he’d submit to an interview. He did (most people are very happy to give an interview, especially scientists who are just thrilled to bits when someone is interested in their work). I then used that interview as grounds for a pitch to a few national papers. In the end, The Daily Telegraph bit, but it took a little work to seal the deal.

First, I had to follow up. A few times. When I mentioned that the work was starting to get press in other papers, I got a response. Guess what the editor asked:

“Have you any examples of what you have written before I could look at?”

So I sent a link to my website and this is what I got back:

“Get me 500 words by Fri first thing.”

Boom!

Back to dreaming

After that, getting new commissions got easier, and they get easier all the time now that I have a good collection of writing samples under my belt. It’s not all rock star writing – in fact, a good bulk of my work is in copywriting and content writing for small businesses. But it IS rock star writing because I’m doing it as a sole trader and have total control over who I work with and the jobs I choose to do. Now, over five years later I’m still a freelance writer. I’m also a freelance social media consultant, the owner and founder of Writer’s Residence and an Associate Lecturer at the Open University. I do it using many of the same tactics I used to get that first gig: be creative, be persistent and, perhaps most critically, present yourself as a professional who’s confident in what they do and takes their work seriously.

Suffice to say, I’ve never looked back at the bank… or its ridiculous outfits.

I would love to hear more writers tell their story about how they got their first gig. If you’d like to tell your story and have it featured on our blog, please get in touch!

3 Responses to “How I got my first writing gig”

  1. Carmen Sisson Says:

    Timing is everything. So many young journalists ask how I broke into big papers, and they’re always disappointed when I tell them it came down to timing, good fortune, and naivete.

    I wrote my first story for Christian Science Monitor in 2006, when a series of church fires swept across Alabama.

    As I watched the national coverage, I was appalled. Everyone was missing the deeper story. They didn’t understand the South, they didn’t understand the role of faith in daily life, and they were too focused on the specifics to put the fires into a broader context. I sent an impassioned pitch that eventually became a portion of the published story’s lede.

    I wrote about no red light towns and simple country people for whom church was not just a symbol of faith but a part of the social fabric of the town. They relied on it for daycare, community classes, elderly assistance, maintaining family connections, and even entertainment. The arsonists had not just burned a church, they had violated the heart of the community, destroying the foundation of residents’ daily lives.

    There was another issue, too. Because these were black churches nestled within mostly white communities, many wondered if the fires were hate crimes. But again, while the national media focused on the “whodunnit” aspect, they didn’t understand the emotional impact.

    These were aging congregations, and the fires brought back bad memories of the 1960s racial tension, when church burnings were an almost daily event. People were sad, yes, but they were also afraid. Angry. Confused. The fires opened wounds that had never healed and revealed both the progress the South has made and the work that remains.

    That story began a relationship with the Monitor that continues today.

    With TIME Magazine, it all came down to, well, time. Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, and as the first major hurricane since Katrina to threaten the area, it was a big deal. I was in Mobile, Ala., and offered to go to Gulfport, Miss. to cover the preparations and aftermath.

    That pitch was successful, and my relationship with TIME has been successful as well.

    It didn’t occur to me that I was an unknown. That few people break into higher publications this way. I simply cared deeply about the South and its people. I pitched because I saw things I thought needed to be illuminated, heard people whose voices were not being heard, understood the subtext beneath the headlines.

    Looking back, I realize I have been extraordinarily blessed by the editors who have placed their trust in me. It’s been a good life. But it wasn’t my head that earned the bylines. It was my heart.

  2. monica Says:

    My stars. What a wonderful, inspiring story. I think the last line says it all. It makes you realise that breaking into the mainstream isn’t purely about who you know, or luck. Mainstream publications ARE looking for those stories from the heart. And most of us have a real hard time writing that way. It’s easy to get so obsessed with “getting published” that you forget to just write because you love it. But you also have to pursue the story, and I think that’s another big lesson here. You have to want to write something so bad that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to do it. It’s not always as hard as it sounds – sometimes it’s just a matter of picking up the phone.

    Thank you again for sharing, Carmen. I hope that other readers will be as inspired as I am by your passion and tenacity.

    Monica

  3. Carmen Sisson Says:

    🙂 Thank you.