I get a lot of emails. Okay, so most of these are from Net-a-Porter, showing me beautiful things I can’t afford – but occasionally I get emails from young women who follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat (@rosemarymaccabe) or Instagram telling me that they would like to be a journalist – and asking how to go about it.
I try to always write back – my thinking is, if someone asked me a question on the street, I’d never just ignore them, right? – but at this stage I think it’s time to write my definitive guide: how to be a journalist. The mandatory disclaimer portion of this post should state that, like anything in life, there are different routes you can take to get there. This is, of course, based on how I got into journalism and the information that I’ve gleaned from that journey.
A bit of background
I’ve wanted to write ever since I was small; I used to start novels, and when I would quickly tire of my self-centred female protagonists (not even remotely autobiographical, I swear), I’d end my opus with a swift car accident, or a fall off a cliff. I had no staying power, you see, but writing was what I loved.
It was in secondary school that I realised that I could write for a living without ever finishing a novel; I’d be a journalist! I shared this ambition with a good friend of my mum’s, Marian Finucane, who gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever received (at least as far as career is concerned). She told me that, in order to be a good journalist, I’d have to have something to write about – and she recommended doing an Arts degree as a way of getting some good learnin’ under my belt.
So I did my BA in English and Italian and, after that, went on to do an MA in International Journalism in DIT. While I was doing my MA, a friend of my cousin’s told her that The Irish Times was on the hunt for sub editors, and asked if she knew anyone. She told her that I was doing an MA, and I was asked to come in for a trial day. That turned into two days, into three… and before long, I was doing two days a week of sub editing while I finished my MA.
I got my foot in the door, you see, the good old-fashioned Irish way: I knew someone who knew someone. But from there, it became a harder graft – I didn’t want to be a sub editor. I wanted to write – and that was a little bit tougher. So I’m going to share how I moved from production to press, and give you some tips on how to do the same.
While I was at the Times, I tried to make friends with everyone. This wasn’t a hugely cynical ploy – I’m a pretty friendly person anyway – but since then, I’ve been astonished by the number of interns I’ve seen coming in and out of publications without so much as introducing themselves to their superiors. I said hi in the lunch queue; I went out of my way to chat to people whose writing interested me, or whose position I’d like to be in.
Remember – you’re not important
I always offered to help – if something needed to be done (and provided I thought I could do it), I raised my hand. I’d been at the Times maybe six months when I offered to write a piece for a supplement we were putting together; after that, I asked if I could write another. I tried to make myself as indispensable as possible, and that is so, so important.
I’ve seen a lot of young people whose attitudes – especially to internships, which I know are problematic in and of themselves – seem to be somewhere around the “let’s see what I can learn here” mark. Yes, you’re here to learn, but you know what else? You’re here to work. Show what you can do, and prove why you should be kept on. If no one knows your name (see point above), you will never move on from being an intern to being a full-time employee.
Related: nobody cares about you
The number one thing everyone wants to write about? Themselves. But guess what? Unless you have a public profile, are a star athlete or have recovered from a life-threatening illness, you will not make your living from writing first-person pieces. There are notable exceptions to this rule, but that’s all they are: exceptions.
No exaggeration, 99% of the pitches I’ve seen – while at the Times and, more recently, at STELLAR – are from people who want to write about themselves. “I think it would be really interesting to show a single girl’s perspective!” they’ll chirp. Or: “I’ve grown up in a rural town and since moved to a big city, and I’d love to write about…” Seriously? Nobody cares.
In order to be a good journalist, you need to focus on what you’d like to read – interesting stories about interesting people, sure, but you need to recognise that you are not the story. If you’re the most interesting person in your life, you’re not getting out enough.
Read, read, read
So many of my best features ideas have come from reading something else – whether that’s a novel, a newspaper or a magazine. If you want to be a journalist but you never read the paper, there’s something seriously wrong with this picture. What is it about journalism that even appeals to you? Is it the glamorous SATC-style column-writing you’re after? The chances of making a living from writing one first-person column a week are so incredibly minuscule – unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy, in which case, y’know, God speed.
But journalism is, first and foremost, about ideas – and, secondly, about turning those ideas into pieces of writing that are well written, engaging and in some way emotive. So you find something interesting, you write about it well – and you find that point at which the reader and the subject have a connection, where you make your reader feel something (even if it’s not positive).
Pick up the phone
Blame social media for this, but the art of cold calling is swiftly dying out – and it’s an underestimated skill when it comes to journalism. Want to get a quote for something? Pick up the phone and make a call. And look: no one likes it. It still fills me with a kind of cold dread when I have to call someone to interview them – and I have no idea why. I’m 30 years of age, and I would still rather have an ice bath than chat to someone I don’t know on the phone.
It’s the one aspect of my job that I truly dislike, but I accept that I have to do it. Aside from anything else, email interviews always read like email interviews. It’s only when you talk to someone that you can really get to the nitty gritty details – and that is just as true if you’re interviewing a nail technician about the new trends in polish as it is talking to a Women’s Aid representative about increased rates of domestic violence.
Perfect the pitch
This is, quite possibly, the most important part of being a journalist – unless you are lucky enough to land a staff job straight out of college, which is about as likely as being able to afford a wardrobe of Manolos on one column a week.
When you work as a freelancer, your days are not spent writing; they’re spent coming up with ideas and approaching editors with said ideas, in the hopes that they will bite and commission you to write about them for their publication. And there’s an art to pitching – one that doesn’t come with a CV attached.
A pitch should be succinct and persuasive; here’s your chance to tell someone what you want to write about, why it’s interesting and how you would propose doing it. So, for example, I recently wrote a feature on homeless women for STELLAR magazine. As a freelance pitch, that would’ve gone something like:
I had an idea for a two-page feature that I think would work really well in STELLAR. Recent research by Dublin Simon Community has shown that up to one-third of people living on the streets are women. I would interview two women about their experiences sleeping rough; what are the challenges specifically faced by homeless women?
I’d include a sidebar of statistics on homeless women and an intro with quotes from a representative of Focus Ireland, about the structures in place for Ireland’s homeless, and what can be done.
This would be supported by a short online feature on stellar.ie detailing how readers can help.
Let me know if you’d be interested – I think it would really resonate with your readers.
What you don’t want to do is talk about yourself – “I’m a recent graduate from NUI Maynooth” – or include your CV; don’t ramble; and don’t attach the piece. It’s very rare that any magazine editor will open an attachment in an unsolicited email, and frankly, it’s just a waste of your time.
Questions? Drop ’em below – or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always happy to answer people’s queries and, if nothing else, they give me ideas for blog posts!
PS I’m nominated in the Gossies as Best Snapchat Star, and I’d like to not come last, so if you have 10 seconds, please, drop me a vote.