When I was in my early twenties and starting out as a writer, I received assorted bits of advice, some good, some bad.
The good: a journalist at Newsday—where I had an internship as a reporter on the arts desk the summer of 1986—told me not to waste my time or go into debt pursuing a Masters in Journalism. “You’ll learn much more on the job, and you’ll get paid while you’re doing it,” she told me. I think this remains sound. While journalism has gotten way more competitive since then, I know too many writers who took on massive loans for “J-school,” only to have difficulty finding jobs with high enough salaries to pay those loans back—if they can find jobs at all.
The bad: a woman named Helen, who ran an editorial employment agency through which I sought jobs after college, told me that when I went on interviews at magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses, I should leave at home the fairly impressive clips I’d garnered at Newsday and elsewhere before graduation. Otherwise, she cautioned, I’d seem too ambitious and unwilling to do the kind of grunt work that came with entry-level positions.
In hindsight, it’s probably no surprise that hiding my achievements didn’t help me land the kinds of jobs I wanted. I mean, how counterintuitive was that advice? Please do highlight your achievements when applying to jobs! And don’t listen to anyone who suggests otherwise. What Helen suggested next, though, had an even bigger negative impact on my career path: that I give up on trying to write for consumer publications (mainstream periodicals read by regular people) for the foreseeable future, and instead get a job writing for a trade publication (a business periodical aimed at people who worked in a particular field).
She said that sometimes the best way into the work you wanted was through a side door—taking jobs that weren’t quite the ones you wanted, but adjacent to them. From there, you could finagle your way into better positions. She added that if I really loved writing, I should love doing it about any subject, for any audience. That might be okay to do early, early in your writing career, before you’ve gotten any experience and are trying to get your feet wet. But I had come to her with some solid clips. Even if you don’t, I’m not sure I’d advise doing only that for too long if you’re trying to write creatively. You might find yourself burned out and sidelined, the way I was, in such a way that it’s difficult to pivot back to the kind of writing you’d prefer to do.
Link to the rest at Substack