Recently I passed a personal milestone and finished my 1,000th blog entry for the Houston Press over the course of a four-year career. When you throw in print work I do here and for other publications, the total number of articles I've had published ranks closer to 1,200. It's a lot, and I collected a paycheck for every single one of them.
A lot of people ask me how I got into this gig, and I tell them the truth: bullshitted my way in. And while that is 100 percent how it went down, I've learned a lot at the hands of people who really do know what they're doing, and I thought this article might be helpful to aspiring writers who want to break into the world of monetary compensation for writing. At the very least, it will cut down the number of times I get asked this question.
1. Write something: It sounds basic, but a lot of the people who tell me they want to write have absolutely nothing to start from. Write a review of a movie you just saw, or your thoughts on a news story you read. I started with my submission in an essay contest to open for the Misfits. It was good enough for my first gig. Editors want samples to get an idea of your voice and how good you are.
2. Find a place to showcase your writing: You're not likely to walk right into a paying gig. I started off doing CD reviews for Space City Rock, which doesn't pay but netted me lots of free CDs and free tickets to shows. It's easier to break into places that don't pay because they have a hard time finding people. So if you want to be a food critic, find a food blog and ask to guest-spot, or if you're a political junkie, see if one of the millions of political blogs will let you take a stab at something. These are great places to build up a repertoire, and I owe at least some of my current position to a glowing recommendation letter from SCR's Jeremy Hart.
3. Learn your audience: Once you've found a place to write, spend a fair amount of time looking at other articles, especially ones that get lots of comments or otherwise flag as top-viewed pieces. Maybe your site gets a lot of gun owners, or metal heads, or Yankees fans, or people that are really into Batman. It doesn't matter so long as you see what people who visit the site are interested in.
4. Proofread out loud: So you've found a gig, discovered a passion for Christian rap music in your audience and you blast off "Top 5 Christian Rappers." Here's a little editing tip: Be sure you read the the thing to yourself out loud. For instance, did you notice I used "the" twice in the last sentence? Reading out loud helps you catch mistakes...especially ones that word processors autocorrect incorrectly.
5. Reaching out: One of the most important keys in getting page views is reposts. Whenever I mention a band in an article, I always try and find a manager's e-mail address and send him or her the link while asking for a repost on Facebook or Twitter. Rachel Maddow once linked to a playlist I did on songs about pi and it made the story a top-viewed entry. I've sent her every quirky playlist ever since. Opening a relationship with people who will help spread your stories is vital, and it never hurts to ask. Remember that any place that pays you to write is looking for page views. You want to be the writer that supplies them.
6. Know your endurance: Like I said, I've done something like 1,200 articles over the course of four years. Know how many I did the first two? Less than 50. Sure, now I can rattle off three full articles a day, seven days a week, but I had to work up to that. Counting research, proofing, finding photos, fact-checking, etc., you're talking something like a minute per written word to complete a piece. That's a lot, so make sure you don't bite off more than you can chew. Consistent output is the goal, so let your strength grow slowly and surely.
7. Be willing to learn: Criticism is hard to take, no matter how valid it is. That's because we're hardwired to defend ourselves as being right, which is why you should never, ever listen to political radio shows. I've gotten at least two e-mails from editors that sent me into the bathroom to cry, and I'm thankful for each one. They taught me objectivity in journalism, to not just repeat a press release, to dig deeper, to have a clearer voice and to try to fit my work better into the greater narrative of the publication. Most editors are lovely people who are frantically overworked. Try and make their jobs easier by being better at yours and they will make sure you're rewarded, because a consistent producer is their favorite thing in the world.
8: Grow a backbone and a thick skin: You are going to be hated by someone no matter what you write about. Bands will cry libel for you hating their albums, pie-enthusiasts will arm themselves for your sneer at blueberry pie, foreskin restorationists will seek out your comments on contraptions used for that purpose, and don't even get me started on the real-life vampyres that show up in the True Blood report. It happens, and though you should always be on the lookout for a consistent complaint by multiple unrelated commenters, it's usually best to just ignore them and get on with your life.
9. No one will stand up for you if you don't: This applies to many fields, but in freelance writing it's essential that you learn when it's time to stand your ground. An editor may want to kill an aspect of your story, or the story itself, and if you don't believe in it enough to defend it, then it deserves to go down. Most times a compromise can be worked out. Just think of yourself as a lawyer and your story as a client.
Also in this category is the thorny problem of getting paid. This is something you are going to have to stay on top of every time you turn in work on a per-submission basis. You are at the mercy of busy editors, bizarre pay schedules and easily tripped up systems. Be prepared to create your own method of keeping track of what you're owed because you are going to need it, and no one will do it for you. Likewise, never be afraid to ask for more money on a piece if you can prove that extra work has gone into it. Be polite, but firm, when it comes to your livelihood.
One final note, kids: I get free video games in the mail, I never pay for a concert, I meet heroes of art and I collect a check for it. Go into writing. No other career even comes close. I hope this has helped you get started.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.