so you’d like to be a writer, yeah?

Since I get asked this a lot – how did you become a writer? – I thought I’d answer in a jaunty post.

The short answer is: I started writing. From a young age. In journals. For the uni newspaper. And I kept going.

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The longer one: I started writing and when I saw opportunities I jumped at them. I did work experience at Sunday Magazine while I was studying a Grad Dip in Professional Writing at RMIT (I also have a BA, in philosophy, half a law degree and did a political internship at Parliament House. Plus a year studying on scholarship at University of Santa Cruz, California – philosophy and women’s studies!). The editor asked what I liked/didn’t like about the magazine. I suggested the food pages needed more oomph. She said, Oh, is that so, perhaps you’d like to suggest some changes? Over the weekend I learned Quark from a manual (this was pre-Google and email) and redid the pages, complete with my own food and wine reviews. I presented my ideas Monday morning. She gave me the job as restaurant reviewer on the spot. From there I started writing more for the magazine – volunteering to do the extra work in my own time. Eventually she gave me a fulltime position as a features writer.

I had no idea what I was doing. So. I studied writers whose work I admired. I poured over their opening paragraphs, analysed the structure of their feature, reflected on what made their writing sing!!  You become a good writer by being a student of good writing.

I did a newspaper cadetship with the Herald Sun, at the same time as writing for Sunday Magazine (same company, same building). Which was invaluable. To be honest, it’s the only way to get a newspaper gig, and, increasingly to get a magazine gig. These aren’t easy to score. I was lucky. You apply for them directly with newspapers each year. You get paid to study/work. Just. Base wages in this game are grim. I was on $22K a year at the time. I doubt it’s too much more than that even now.

I sent in some opinion columns to the newspaper’s editor. I think they were about homeless people. And yuppies. They ran them. I didn’t ask to be paid. They then asked me to write a weekly column. And paid me. My column ran alongside Andrew Bolt’s on a Friday. I filled a niche. No one was writing for young women… and it was young women they were trying to attract to the paper. I like to say I was the token left-wing feminist on the paper.

The publisher at Cosmopolitan magazine noticed my opinion columns and asked to meet me. I visited her several times when I went to Sydney – I kept a conversation going. Eventually she offered me the job of editor of Cosmopolitan. I’d never read the magazine, never edited and never led a team of writers. Why did I get the gig? I was doing what I loved and I was noticed. This is possibly the best advice I can give anyone wanting to get ahead in this game.

I’m still learning to write. My mentor at Sunday Magazine told me, “Sarah, the day you stop fretting over your first paragraph is the day you stop being a good writer”. I say the same to you. Writing never gets easy as such. Nor should it. It’s in the struggle to find our true words that the truth is shared. We have to burrow down deep to find the right words. And burrowing isn’t always pleasant.

Oh, and I know I’m going to be asked this. What’s the best way to get into writing? There’s isn’t one easy answer. And there’s no easy way to get into this industry (if you do get in, you’ve then got to get ahead). Just write. Stuff comes to you when you’re doing your best work (I used to look for new Cosmo writers by scouring student newspapers and blogs… which is how I came across Gala Darling. I gave her a column shortly before I left the magazine).  I don’t think I would be sitting here as a writer now if I hadn’t put my hand up to write – for free – for the student paper all those years ago.

I guess it’s about finding a balance between being present with your expression…while also being proactive and visible. Hustling and being smart and on the ball.

“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” Abraham Lincoln

Hustle for gigs, but make sure you have a portfolio of writing to show once you get an interview. Or a blog.  A blog is mandatory, really. If I was starting out now, I’d be blogging myself crazy. It’s good writing practice. But it’s a forum for garnering a following. A following has leverage.

Magazine and newspaper writing is a very different game today. In the old days you worked as a reporter for a media outlet. You got paid. You went home. Now, that’s not enough. The successful players are good writers who also have informed, specialist knowledge and sometimes opinion which they communicate across a variety of media – online, print, radio etc. Think Annabel Crabb, Mark Colvin, Mia Freedman, David Brookes, Leigh Sales, Marieke Hardy. (You’ll note: women and ABC employees are particularly good at this new dance).

They’re not just reporters or editors. They’re now specialists of sorts with something to say (which comes from working hard at what they do for a long time). And they can communicate what they know as required. The medium isn’t as important as the message, mostly because the power of individual media outlets is diluted now. In addition successful writers have followers, who follow them not because they’re popular, but because their knowledge is trusted. Annabel Crabbe is an example. She was poached over to the ABC because she had a huge Twitter/online following that had grown organically.

I love that this is the state of play. It means people with something to say and who can communicate well ie are good writers rise to the top. Good, sound journalism is more important than ever before. Deep knowledge + honed writing skills = trust = following = success.

What’s this mean for you? All kinds of things. Learn, garner deep knowledge, specialize a little, be thorough, keep writing, spin several plates at once, have something to say. And say it.

Hopefully this helps. Write on!




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