Breaking into writing: a few thoughts

Should you write for free? How do you get noticed if you want to write for a magazine or website? A few thoughts right here...

I had two driving instructors before I finally passed my driving test. The first was straightforward: he taught me the skills, the basics of driving a car, and that was that. Perfectly efficient, job done.

The second, though, showed me more. He not only taught me how to drive, he also went through things like changing a tyre, how to put petrol in, making sure the oil levels were right. He didn’t just give me the basics of getting a car from A to B, he gave me a broader picture.

I’ve been employing freelance writers now for the best part of 20 years, and I can’t help but think that many people are running excellent courses on how to write well, but barely scratch how to go about the realities of getting work noticed. That lots of people have the talent to write, but struggle to break through and sell their work.

That’s what I’m going to try and address in this piece. I don’t proclaim to be an expert, and people know more about this than me. But conversely, I don’t see some of the things I’m talking about being given too much prominence, and I wanted to do something about that.

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Where it began

The catalyst is a colleague of mine. She got invited to talk to her old university late last year, about the realities of writing for a living. She’s built up a really good writing career, and landed a full-time writing position 18 months ago. She’s worked bloody hard for it, and I’m genuinely thrilled for her.

But back to the story: she was invited to stand in front of first-year students to talk about her experiences. The first thing to note was that it was first year university students, of whom she said barely anyone paid any attention. That’s good news for those of you who do: you can get a head start.

Crucially, my colleague differs from most of the people who seem to stand in front of said students, because she peppered what she said with a reality, and a sense of fairness.

That’s something of a contrast, because as it turns out lots of students are now, based on what several have told me, being actively told to write for places for free. Almost as a default position. That people are coming in and giving careers talks, and just urging them to send their work away with no apparent value. To give away their work, their ideas, their intellectual property, their words, for not a jot in return.

Furthermore, this isn’t just to small publications, where it’s easier to reconcile. But to large newspapers, magazines and websites, that seem to manage to pay other people, and find the personnel to stick fund-raising adverts around the donated words.

I think people need to go into this with their eyes open.

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Let’s do cards on the table, as there’s an element of double standards here. I write for a few places for free still, and have done many times across my ‘career’.

Furthermore, Den Of Geek, for the first half of its existence, utilised writers who contributed articles who did not get payment for their work. As soon as we could, we moved to a strict policy of paying everyone (not much, but something), yet still, I’m conscious there are people Den Of Geek owes a debt too, a debt I’m attempting to repay. There’s an element of the reformed sinner here, and it’s right I acknowledge that.

That noted, there’s still one big piece of advice I’d give to new writers: put a value on your work.

If you want to write for a living, that’s your trade. A car manufacturer doesn’t give away cars for nothing in return, and nor should you. There’s a small subset of people who are good enough to write for a living, just as there’s a small subset of people who are good enough to be car mechanics. But in creative industries in particular, the increasingly reliance on free work I’d suggest is now doing longer term damage. Certainly I know that people trying to pay the bills mid-way into their career are under threat from the many people trying to get a break by writing for nothing.

And one day, that could be you.

That said, this article is being written from planet Earth rather than my usual pie in the sky, and I am a realist. When I say put a value on your work, that doesn’t always mean a monetary value (although ideally, it should). It means that you know what you are getting in return.

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What should you ask for? Well, early in your career, writing for free is mainly about getting exposure, and exposing your work to a wider audience, and getting your name known. I did it. I’d do it again, in truth. But conversely, I’d want more for it.

Thus, if you have a blog, ask for a link back to that. If you have a Twitter account that’s one you wouldn’t mind people looking at, ask for a link to that. Ask that you get due credit, and perhaps even a callout on social media. Get something in return.

If you don’t get anything in return though, and just want to see your name on a large website, then go in with your eyes open. Don’t kid yourself for one minute that the outlet concerned is getting nothing out of it, or is doing you a favour.

Can you, for instance, at least get a five minute chat with a commissioning editor in return, to get some career tips, or contacts? Can the outlet concerned get you an interview, or access to something or someone you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get? Could you get some work experience in their office, if indeed they have one?

Also: if you’re posting your words for free, why not put them on your own blog? Put a link to your own blog at the bottom of your correspondence, and in your Twitter bio and such like. People do read them, perhaps more than you may think.


Paradoxically, it’s my belief that the barriers to getting your work published have never been lower. But the barriers to getting paid for it have never been higher.

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One more thing, while I’ve got you. Don’t worry about CVs. Very few people read CVs. I can’t remember the last one I read in truth. Even when recruiting for full time staff (very rarely these days), I barely skim read a CV. They’re dull.

Instead, treasure the thing that you have that nobody else does: your brain.

Trust your brain. Pitch ideas, and make that the thrust of any initial correspondence. That’s what editors crave. Good ideas. Note that ten people a week are already pitching 10 reasons that Batman V Superman will be awesome/will suck. Have a think: what’s your angle on it? What can you bring to it that others can’t? Once you’ve worked that out, pitch that.

And then? Prepare to be ignored.

Bear with me on this, because however it feels, it’s not as harsh as it seems. The simple truth here is that most websites, this one included, give the perception of having far more staff than they actually do. Finding time to read all the mails that come in, yet alone respond to them, would mean you end up with nothing to read on the site itself. This is common across many outlets, and the reason why most pitches don’t get replied to.

Don’t take this personally, however much it hurts. Just go back the next week with another couple of ideas, and copy your others in at the bottom. Then the week after. Then the week after. Part of breaking into writing, no matter how talented you are, is the sheer determination to bash down the wall. You may try hundreds of places, or hundreds of pitches, before you get a break. Most people give up. If you genuinely believe in yourself, be the one who keeps going.

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Freelance life, and that’s what a lot of entry level positions are, is as much about selling yourself sometimes as it is about the work itself. If you do get a commission from an editor, do it well, and don’t cut corners. If you have a deadline, keep it. If you get a brief, follow it. Send in picture suggestions, because lots of people don’t do that. Proof read your work. Make it easier for someone to think of you when the next writing assignment comes up. Sounds simple? It is. But, in my experience, 90% of people don’t do this.

But let me end by reiterating the bottom line here: if you are getting absolutely nothing for, or out of, writing an article for an outlet, you shouldn’t do it.

If you’re being told, incidentally, that “we don’t have a budget for writing” or “we don’t have a budget for music”, then your bullshit detector should rightly be going off the scale. The actual answer you should be getting is “we’ve spent the budget”, or “we’ve allocated the budget elsewhere”. That’s the truth.

Remember: your words, your thoughts, and your work are exclusive to you. They are absolutely worth something. And so are you.

(I’m happy to take questions on this piece in the comments, incidentally, and I’ll check in as often as I can and answer them. But bear with me!)

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