When I speak to aspiring writers and students, I'm often asked how a beginning writer gets her first clip(s) when most publications want clips before an editor will assign a story. My first clips were earned in junior high school, writing for my school paper and yearbook. Those clips were used to apply to journalism school, and my J-school clips were used to query professional publications like the New York Daily News, where I earned my first freelance check of $250.
Here are a few tips:
- Gratis work can pay off. Be prepared to earn your stripes the same way I did--by writing for free. You won't have to do it for very long, and you can get an extra bang for your buck by writing about a topic that you love or, if you like research, want to learn more about. [I wrote free pieces for my local Museum of Indian Culture that helped me learn more about my family tree and put me in contact with a new network of friends and contacts.]
- Start with small papers and nonprofits. Try covering a school board or township meeting for your local paper; write a good-news piece for a free neighborhood paper. There's also the Op-Ed page. The pay may be next to nothing, but it may get your foot in the door. Or pick a local nonprofit and offer to do a story for their newsletter in exchange for a free membership or event admission, or some other information you'd like to learn. [Remember that nonprofits are always looking for volunteers. The Indian museum paid for me to attend a grant-writing class in return for a promise to write at least one grant proposal. And guess what? We got the grant!]
- Look for guest columns and "back-of-book" essay opps. You'll need to send a complete manuscript for these columns, but if you have the writing skill, you don't have to have clips to get published this way. For example, Newsweek has a "My Turn" column that's written about a different topic, by a different contributor, every week. Lots of parenting publications have "What I wish every parent knew" type columns.
- Consider Internet options. For a couple years I wrote a monthly column about my favorite singer/songwriter, Sting, and the Police. The pay was nominal--and these days I believe it's nonexistent at this site--but the experience was worthwhile. It kept me in writing practice, provided me with consistent deadlines, and earned me some name recognition within the Sting/Police official fan club and Internet fan base. Those fans were often great interview subjects.
Remember, writing may seem like such a solitary endeavor, but it's really all about networking. You never know where an opportunity is going to take you, so think carefully whether an article is going to get you closer to your goals--you know it's not about money; there aren't that many rich writers--but be open to the unexpected.