I enjoyed speaking to a Freelance Writing class at Lehigh University. It was fun to feast my eyes on the next generation of Jane Pauleys, Jimmy Breslins, and Dave Barrys. I also enjoyed retelling some of my college experiences, such as seeing my first front-page story, selling my first newspaper article, and learning the ropes in publishing and the music industry. I am certain that I bored the class to tears with my monotone and for using parenting articles in a pregnancy magazine as samples of my work. Believe me, being a mother was not on my radar when I was in my early twenties, either!
Here's a little recap about what I know now that I wish I'd known when I was in college:
- Believe in your writing and your own "voice." For a long time I doubted whether I should even pursue a writing career, since I'd never be as talented as my mentor, Paul Good. Over time I realized that there is a place for my writing and my writing voice. Just as there is a place for your writing in the world. There is a great demand for people who can communicate--find what you love and what demands to be written, and keep plugging away. You will find your comfort zone!
- There really is no job security. Some people hesitate to jump into a freelancer's life because there are no biweekly checks sent to direct deposit, and because itemized taxes are a bother. But the first lesson I learned as an intern at Ms. magazine was to always be ready to switch jobs if you have to or if a better offer comes along. When a publication is sold or downsized, you could be out looking in without a warning. Holds true in any industry, particularly in our culture.
- Writing "what you know" is relative. Some writing experts say you should pick a niche or three and then stick to them. But heck, I'm interested in far too many things to be hemmed in by a rule like that. Don't be afraid to branch out; just be aware of the time commitment (that is: research) required in doing so.
- Join a writers' group. At first it feels great when Grandma says you're so talented you should write a book, or when crazy Cousin Marilyn wants you to turn her life story into a memoir, but after a while you realize that you need support from people in the industry. Join a professional writers' group, like the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group or Pennwriters. Many of the members will be hobbyists, dabblers, and the like. But many of them will be career writers who are willing to share their experience with you.
- Go to writers' conferences. Writing is often a solitary endeavor, so I can't emphasize enough how important networking is in this industry. How else are you going to learn and improve your craft, discover some great story ideas, find out the best (and the worst) editors to work for, and get a crucial hand up when you need it? After approaching a magazine editor at The Write Stuff conference, I got the go-ahead to send a query about PA German holiday traditions. In the end, it was published in two publications at the same time, and now I'm free to market it elsewhere as a reprint.
Then by getting involved in the planning of a conference (rather than just attending it), I made crucial face-to-face contacts with local editors (such as John Moore at the Eastern PA Business Journal) that turned into lucrative writing opportunities and, even more important, a professional friendship. Plus I'm having great e-mail conversations with the author of Kicking and Screaming (Susan Korman), novelist and writing teacher Diane Ayres, National Poetry Award winner Lee Upton, and two-time National Magazine Award winner Stephen Fried.
Like any other business, writing is about relationship building. The best place to do that is at a conference. Don't wait till you graduate college to find out what these great events have to offer.