Student journalism is where many people begin their career as a writer. As well as providing those all-important first bylines, a university publication offers other benefits: a taste of the newsroom environment, a chance to generate story ideas and write regularly, and experience of meeting deadlines and developing work. These are all important skills in the world of professional journalism – but what about tackling the transition from student to non-student writing? Here are five key tips for navigating the landscape of professional journalism.
Read like a champion
For any budding journalist, familiarity with your target publication, both its sections and its content, is the most important first step towards writing for them. You need to regularly read the magazine, newspaper or website you want to contribute to, and get a firm grasp of its audience, how it tells stories and what kind of stories it chooses to tell. You also need to understand where it sits in the media marketplace. In other words, what makes this publication distinct from the other competing outlets?
Learn to spot stories
On a student newspaper, you’ll often end up writing about things that have already been covered by other outlets. It’s a different ballgame when you’re working with national or even international publications. Train yourself to notice and explore anything that could be a story, and spend time researching what’s already been written about the subject. Stories and angles have to be unique and unexplored for an editor to take notice. If a topic or interview subject has already received wide media coverage, you’ll need a totally fresh take to get your story commissioned.
Master the art of pitching
Pitching, in many ways, is more important than the writing itself. If you can’t make it past the pitching stage, you may never have the opportunity to write anything – so invest your time in understanding this vital part of the freelance journalism process. The reality is you probably won’t hear back from the editors you pitch when you’re first starting out. But don’t give up because your pitches go unanswered. Instead, pitch harder and pitch better. Pitching is a skill like any other: the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
Make sure you can deliver
It’s easy to overestimate your skills when you’re first starting out. If you’re the superstar of your student newspaper, you may think you already know all about producing a good story to brief and to deadline. But most of the time, student publications are voluntary-run by fellow students, meaning the standards are lower than in real-world journalism, and you’ll need to spend time developing your work before it goes public. Make sure you’re realistic about your deadline and your abilities, and be prepared to go back and forth with some edits on your first few assignments.
Build relationships with editors
When you get your first commission, make the most of the opportunity! This is your chance to impress an editor and build a relationship for regular work their publication. Make sure you already have an idea for your next story, so you can pitch again while your writing is fresh in an editor’s mind. Throughout the process of working with editors, make sure they know that you appreciate their time, attention and expertise. Always be professional but friendly – after all, editors are just people too.
Your university years are the best time to start freelancing professionally and building your career in journalism. It may be a tough job at first, but don’t let that deter you. Is anything that’s worth having easy?
Lauren Razavi will be running a workshop called “Kickstart your career in freelance journalism” at The Guardian offices in London on September 9th. For more information, view the course page here.