A (very) rough guide to becoming a Features Journalist
I was born a writer. In kindergarten, while my best friend painted the classroom gerbil, I – to the loosely-disguised chagrin of my long-suffering teacher – wrote utterly unpunctuated ten-page stories. But actually making a career from my love of words never occurred to me.
My entire family, you see, are in education. Teachers of Music, Drama or Sport. Professors of Chemistry, Latin or Literature. Lecturers in Law, Biology or – in the case of one rather eccentric but indubitably brilliant uncle – Nuclear Physics. So my career path was set from an early age: to school I would go in order to, ultimately, go back into schooling.
Which I did. For several enjoyable – if exhausting – years during which I attempted to teach English to Key Stage 3. And I loved it, lesson planning and all. But what I truly adored was teaching the kids to write, constantly interrupting otherwise mundane lessons on, say, phrasal verbs, because it was about to rain; an excellent excuse for a spot of fig lang: “clouds like armies on the march”, “hellish heavens”, the onomatopoeia of rain…
And, in teaching kids to write, I was educating myself. There’s nothing that helps you see what works (and what doesn’t) than marking countless essays for punctuation, word use, sentence length, tautology…
Writing – be it creative, persuasive, descriptive or narrative – was clearly my educational forte. I loved teaching it; I loved learning about it (bedtime reading was The Queen’s English, Eats, Shoots and Leaves or Troublesome Words); I enjoyed creating worksheets far more than delivering the information. In fact, so strong was my passion that even my partner at the time was chosen – in the main – because he shared my appetite for words.
Unfortunately, where the two of us differed was in our ability to work to a deadline. Because he, bless him, was a typical I-promise-I’ll-have-it-in-by ten, eleventh-hour, news journalist. Which meant those many all-nighters during which we should have been agonisingly passionate in bed were, in fact, spent passionately agonising over the several articles due at 9 am. Cue the (word-) loving girlfriend…
MAKE THE TEA. WORK FOR FREE
I started with cups of tea to sustain his literary labours, but ended by writing the damn things for him. To give him his due, whenever I’d contributed significantly (in terms of actual authorship, rather than random beverage provision) he’d request that I, too, be by-lined. And this went on for well over a year…
Oh no, don’t think it happened overnight! Even in my fortuitous case, there was a lot of kettle-boiling, writing for free and picking up the tricks of the trade before anything happened. It just didn’t take place in an office…
GIVE IT YOUR ALL
Then, one day, there was a phone call from the editor: “A bout of flu”, “several concurrent pregnancies”, “holiday season,”… The staff had been decimated. And someone – anyone – was needed to cover an important upcoming event. Could I? Would I? Might I have the time to…. And those all-important words: “You’ll be paid, of course…”
That first solo article involved two short interviews, a spot of internet research and totalled less than 1000 words. But I spent hours – days even – getting it right.
MAKE YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES
Fortunately, the paper liked it. Because now, a decade later, I’m their Chief Features Writer, with a thriving freelance sideline. I write for publications all over the world, and I’ll write about anything (A cleaning app? I can make that fun! Wakeboarding in winter? I’ll do it!).
My boyfriend – who went on to become Head Reporter for the very same publication – is no longer my partner in crime, though we remain the best of friends, and closest of wordsmiths. But I will always be grateful to him for giving me the confidence to forsake my educationally-fated genetic path and become what I was truly born to be.
Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. In becoming a writer, you really do create your own chances: you learn, you practise, and you keep trying, no matter how long it takes you to get there. And if that means long nights, constant study, and working for free, so be it – eventually you’ll get noticed. At the end of the day, if you were born to write, then just do it. Write!
In entirely unrelated news, my best friend is now a leading make-up artist. Well done that gerbil!