Advice for a Young Writer

May 16, 2011

Readers sometimes write to me asking for advice on writing, social media or their job search. When I think that advice might be helpful to a broader audience, I like to share it here (with the inquirer’s permission).

Here’s a note that hit my inbox last week:

Hi Alexis,

I just wanted to say how excited I was to come across your site. Based on what I’ve read, I think we have a fair amount in common. I’m graduating a few days with a degree in journalism/communications/public relations and last semester I spent four months studying in Tanzania (although that was a shaky experience). Traveling is one of my passions and I cannot get enough.

I was wondering if you had any tips to share with someone like me. My ideal job would be to do outsourced media (social networking, blogs, photography, etc.) for non-profits, especially those with an international effort. Right now I’m working with a marketing company, but I know it’s not where I want to be. As a new writer I do not feel that I have as many skills as I would like to start pursuing my dream. Any advice?

Christine Brunsell

I loved receiving this note not only because Christine is a kindred spirit, but because I’m fascinated by how people set themselves up for their dream careers — whether it’s their first career or a second (or third) one later in life. Here’s my response to Christine:

Start doing what you want to do, even if you’re not getting paid for it. The only way you’ll be able to land a job in a new field is if you have experience and skills that make you marketable. Of course, there’s the Catch-22: You can’t land a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without landing a job. Except — you can get experience without the job, if you’re creative about how to get that experience.

You say you want to work in social networking, blogging and photography. What are you doing now to build those portfolios? Start taking photos and posting them on a blog. Volunteer for a non-profit organization that needs someone with your skill set. Or heck, now that bloggers and social media players are in such high demand, I bet you could get a part-time, paying gig helping a small business on those fronts, even if you don’t have much experience. Since you’re interested in the international world, look to those types of non-profits first.

Find ways to showcase your expertise. Even if you’re just gaining that expertise. Fake it till you make it — and I mean that. That’s how we all get started, by pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, by taking the plunge and just doing it. That’s how I got started with my social media business, working my butt off to do a good job for my first client, leaning heavily on the skills I did have and learning the rest along the way.

Blogs are an awesome way to showcase your expertise, even if you’re honest that this is a learning process for you (ahem, that’s what The Traveling Writer is all about — finding my way through the publishing maze). So is Twitter. And the cool thing, especially on Twitter, is that if you present yourself professionally and provide solid information and links on an interesting topic, people will regard you as an expert.

I followed one particular journalist for months, enjoying the links and insight he provided about digital journalism, and when I finally met him in person, I was shocked to see he was a 21-year-old journalism student. He didn’t even work a full-time journalism job yet! But he relayed his expertise well enough that I assumed he was an expert. But rather than feel silly about it, I realized that’s the beauty of Twitter: no matter how young or inexperienced, if you have good ideas and present them professionally, they’ll take you a long way. Jump-start your career, even.

Practice, practice, practice. You don’t specifically mention your writing skills, but I get the impression that you think those need work, too. Practice is the only thing that will get you where you need to be. If you need a reason to practice, start writing for publications that will take your work. I’m not usually an advocate of writing for free or for the pittance that some publications pay these days, but here are my two exceptions: when it serves as promotion, helping you to reach an audience for your book or another service, and when you need that experience to land a job that offers a real paycheck.

For travel writing, Matador Network is a good place to start. You might also check with your local paper — the smaller the publication, the more likely they’ll work with you even if you don’t have experience. Patch, a network of local news websites, often hires young freelancers. Figure out the type of writing you want to do — or better yet, the type that will make you a better writer — and find ways to practice.

Readers, what other suggestions do you have for Christine?

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    12 Replies to “Advice for a Young Writer”

    • Carrie says:

      Don’t rush the learning process. Remember this is a journey and not a race 🙂


      • Yes, Carrie nails it.

        I’m 32 and have been a professional writer for just more than a decade … and I still consider myself “new” in so many ways. It’s always a journey and there’s always more to learn, which really is part of the fun.

    • Sarah says:

      Alexis, I love your advice. I am coming off of years of being a public servant in one form or another, and now I am going down a different path (blogs, social media), and at first I believed that something I loved and had fun doing could not truly be “work.” My “work” in the past featured long hours filled with uninspiring spreadsheets and piles of paperwork. So I thought that was just how work worked. I did not know it could look different. Anyway, I loved reading this post because I think now is the time (especially for this young girl) to find out what she really likes to do and have fun doing it.

    • Kim Kircher says:

      Another great post Alexis. I especially like your first piece of advice, get started doing what you want to do. Taking the first step can be the hardest. But once you start, the momentum builds.

    • Andrea James says:

      Really great advice and also, a great question.

      She’s already on her way. I love that she sought you out. I would only add that she should be thankful for the people who are honest with her. No writer gets good without years of embarrassing correction, without guidance, without refinement.

      So, seek out mentors. And look for people who will critique your work and help you get better.

    • Andrea James says:

      Ooh ooh, one more point.

      Christine says she fears she doesn’t have the skills — but you do!

      Once, an editor told me to write some story on tax season and special hurricane deductions. I said, “I don’t know anything about taxes.”

      She said: “We’re not paying you to know about taxes. We’re paying you to know who to ask to find out.”

      Christine is already five steps ahead, just for reaching out to Lexi. =)

    • It’s good for Christine to reach out to you now with these questions rather than 5 years from now! Good for her, being so on top of things. I was much less focused when I had just graduated from college. I experienced the “quarter life crisis” later on, when I still hadn’t found a career that made me happy. Now of course I wish I had started building my writing portfolio earlier and getting involved with twitter. But it’s never too late, and your blog has inspired many of us to use social networking to aid our creative careers. Great advice!

    • alisha says:

      Great advice, I second it all!

      Christine, I’ll add my two bits and say that volunteering is crucial — at least it was for me. I started out in the international development non-profit sector through volunteering one evening a week. Soon a part-time, temporary role came up, which became a full-time, temporary role which became a…you know how it goes. 🙂

      I also think that, while it’s important to stay focused on what you really want to do within the non-profit field, to also recognize the skills you are learning through unlikely opportunities. For instance, in my first two years of working I did events work as part of the youth marketing team. I didn’t love events but I learned so much that translated to my next role, doing advocacy communications. One thing always leads to another and if you can learn as much as possible in the opportunities you have, you’ll always continue forward in a good direction. Another thing I’ve learned is that marketing skills ALWAYS come in handy. Even if it’s just for learning how to market yourself.

      You are definitely headed in the right direction, creating your own track. Best of luck with your next steps. 🙂

    • I wanted to thank Alexis and everyone else for their advice! It’s great being able to connect with others and hear what they have to say. Even though I just graduated college, I feel like I could use another few years to learn other skills. I’m looking forward to seeing where the road (and pen) leads.

      Thanks again! I would welcome any other advice or cautions 🙂

    • Kim says:

      Fake it ’til you make it is great advice. That’s how I got to where I am in my own career. You know you’ve got the smarts and can learn on the fly so show up with enthusiasm and pound the pavement, my friend.

    • Alyssa says:

      My advice is to think abotu how you want to define success. 1 article? 10 articles? A book deal? An e-book? Challenging yourself? Branching into new genres? Traveling the world? Writing about what you really care about and love, even if it doesn’t pay well? Thinking about these things early on–and not only that but, reevaluating them over time–is really important to feeling fulfilled 🙂

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