Unlike many wannabe hacks, I didn’t realise that I wanted to be a journalist until I left University. With my love for writing exhausted by churning out three essays a week, I foolishly spurned student media. The sense of regret hit me on graduation day.
All I wanted to do, and all I could do, was write. But it’s impossible to get even work experience on a magazine without a portfolio of published work.
And so began my quest to build a portfolio from scratch. I had half a year until Journalism Masters applications opened to prove that I could write: here’s what I learned.
Use your contacts
My first port of call was to harass my family, friends and friends-of-friends for opportunities. I found my first substantial commission through my dad’s colleague’s husband. It was a two-page feature in a national organisation’s magazine in which I interviewed their Vice Chair. (Which is another tip – be open to anything and go beyond your comfort zone.) Likewise, I had recently chatted with a young fashion designer as I was browsing her new boutique, so I got hold of her email and begged an interview.
Now is not the time to be shy – remember when your ex-boyfriend’s mum mentioned that her cousin was sports editor for the local paper? Use the contact, however tenuous. Send emails, make phone calls, meet for coffee. If you can’t work nepotism to your advantage, journalism probably isn’t the industry for you.
If you’re not quite ready to go knocking at Vogue House, seek out online platforms. The first thing I did after graduating was to join Twitter and set up a blog where I could hone my wordsmithery. But my portfolio needed to have clippings from a variety of sources, if only to prove that I wasn’t the only one reading my work.
Blogs and startup online magazines are perfect for new writers. Try sending a pitch or even a draft for a guest post – many bloggers and online editors will be grateful for free content that eases their workload. If you regularly comment and contribute, you may even be able to wangle a regular feature.
Exploit your interests and hobbies
Wannabe Hacks have previously talked about using your hobbies to get work published in niche magazines. Brainstorm any interests and experiences which make you stand out and use any skills which could make your writing more marketable.
Writing feminist opinion pieces came naturally for me, having been involved in women’s rights at university (I had to do something with all the time I spent not writing for the student paper). Holidays in my mother’s homeland Trinidad helped me approach travel sites that would rather not fork out for a ticket to the Caribbean. I also dug out my SLR and turned photographer to make my articles a more appealing package for blogs.
Explore other industries
All these tips take it for granted that you’ll have to give your writing away for free – the competition among young journalists means this is standard in the industry. I had the dubious privilege of being able to take on unpaid internships and freelance with the emphasis on ‘free’ – but only up to a point. Eventually I took my as-yet meagre portfolio to some Communications departments and talked my way into a part-time paid internship at an environmental NGO.
If you’re looking to enter journalism as a graduate and need to build up a media portfolio while holding down a job, then you’d do well to think about working as a communications or PR assistant. I rapidly built a portfolio of press releases and news stories and was able to put some internationally respected names on my CV. The best byline in my portfolio – for the Guardian Life & Style – came from my communications day job. And working in environment and development NGOs allowed me to develop a new field of knowledge which is invaluable for a journalist.
Featured image by rustyjaw.