Is J-school worth it for someone looking to switch careers?

I am currently a freelance writer/former textbook and literary editor and I spent a good portion of my career in and out of book publishing, bookstores, and contributing pieces to various print/web magazines. After spending a year editing viral content for advertisers, social influencers, and publishers (yuck), I realized my original passion stems from being a journalist and I am considering attending graduate school for journalism within the next two to there years. I initially went to college to study journalism and music and, after realizing how my writing desperately needed improvement, I switched to writing-intensive majors (i.e. English and History).

So after reading about your journeys as a writer and journalist -- and especially since I would be enrolling in my early 40s -- the main question I want to pose is whether attending j school worth it these days, especially since I have a lot of friends who leave the industry for careers that generate a much higher ROI (i.e. fields like advertising, marketing, etc). Also there seems to be such a huge emphasis for journalists to be multifaceted (I.e. multimedia) in their approach so I wanted to get your take.

The short answer is: It depends. Both the person and the j-school. Most of the people I know who came to journalism after a career doing other things did so by freelancing or blogging occasionally, and then slowly gaining more contacts and experience in the field. Certain types of publications, mostly those that are breaking-news focused, do look for reporters with multimedia skills. Not all publications or jobs require multimedia abilities. I think multimedia skills are mostly useful not because you'll use them all simultaneously on the job, but because they expand the number of journalism jobs that you're qualified for. Some journalism schools offer basic web development and audio/video training, but not all. 

Truthfully, early in your journalism career, I think who you know matters more than which multimedia skills you have. Some journalism schools are pretty good at connecting their students with industry contacts, whereas others are not. In your situation, I would approach this question as a reporter, actually: Find some graduates of the program you're thinking about attending (look at bylines from previous years of the student paper, or look back at the university's website to see which graduates they've written up), and get in touch with them. People are pretty easy to find on Facebook these days. Ask them about their experience in the program -- where are they working now? what did they learn? would they do it again? Sure, you can talk to the admissions office, too. But if you want to be a journalist, this is a good place to start: Report (just for yourself!) on the j-school you want to attend. Reporting, at its most basic level, is just emailing or calling people, asking them questions, and writing down their responses. Trust me when I say that even an amateur can do it.

I'll say this, though: If ROI is your metric, I'm not sure journalism is the right field. This is a highly unstable, difficult-to-break-into profession, where even very accomplished reporters are dramatically underpaid and struggle to hang on to their staff jobs, which are increasingly concentrated in expensive coastal cities. You probably know this. Most of the people that make a career out of journalism these days are either wealthy and super-connected from the outset (I wasn't!) or just can't picture themselves doing anything else (that's me). I don't say this to discourage you-- I say it because most j-school admissions departments will not. 

I want to go from staff to freelance, but my pitches aren't getting accepted.

I am a Freelance Journalist who works part time as an Information Director and is also about to graduate with my master’s in New Media Journalism next week. I am reaching out to you because I would like to find out how you were able to transition into a full-time freelance journalist after working for a publication. I know your story about your previous place of employment and how after you were let go you decided to do freelancing full time. Currently, I am about to be at the stage in my life where I will be reaching out to publications//news outlets who are hiring. This will be my second time doing this. My first time was when I graduated with my B.A in Communication. Honestly, after having a boss already and having the opportunity to write my own pieces during my master’s program, I just want to be my own boss and write for different publications as a full-time freelance writer. Would you be able to provide me with any tips or advice on how to make this transition? 

Also, I have been trying to sell some of the pieces I wrote to a couple of publications but I have not had any luck yet. I feel the article s I’ve pitched are good enough to get published. Do you have any suggestions on how I can get this done?

The most important thing for me was building relationships with editors. So even when they reject pitches, I always follow up and ask if there's a topic or an angle they are looking to assign a story about. I try to be really pleasant and easy to work with, and recognize that my words aren't super precious-- that they have a job to do in making every article fit their editorial tone and vision.

I don't know whether you've ever taken a workshop on pitching or whether your masters program covered it thoroughly, but that's something I would look into, too. It's a real art, and there are a handful of writers and editors (and places like MediaBistro) that offer quick courses to help you get better at it. I suggest this because most editors wouldn't be eager to assign something that's already been written in full-- they like to be pitched, and to shape the article themselves. So sending links to complete work is something that many magazine editors won't be very receptive to. 

And finally, it takes a long time to build up the contacts an experience to be full-time freelance and not starve. I worked for almost 10 years as an editor before I went freelance, and I rely on those years of staff experience (and the contacts I met during that time) every day. So recognize that you might have to work up to your self-employment goals incrementally. 

[Email from an overconfident white dude]

I have next-to-no experience as a journalist, but won't let that stop me from becoming one. I've tapped into two national stories that, so far, seem to be receiving only local coverage. I see them both on [MAJOR NATIONAL OUTLET]. Is there any way for a newbie like me to pitch at that level?

[I didn't reply to this email. Just putting it here because of the stark tonal contrast with every single email I've ever received from a young woman. If you're struggling with imposter syndrome, please remember that this guy isn't, and channel some of his chutzpah.]

How did you promote your podcast?

I'm hosting a new podcast that will be launched in the next few months. Virtual high-five from one lady boss to the next! Was wondering if you had any advice on the podcast world? I know it's basically the wild wild west (partly why I love it so much), but if you learned anything along the way - or wish you could go back and tell yourself something from when you were starting out - I'd love to tap into that knowledge. 

Did you have a specific game plan / PR plan when launching? Did you tout the series before you actually launched? Should I set up a website to collect email addresses and then blast them once the pilot is ready? Any ideas or tidbits you could share would be greatly appreciated, whenever you have a chance to respond.

This is a Really Big Question that's pretty tough to answer. Especially because CYG had several unfair advantages and lucky breaks. Amina and I both have a lot of friends in media, so they were eager to cover us. We also had the fortune of launching about 6 months before Serial got big, so we were all set up and ready for new listeners when people branched out from Serial to look for other podcasts. 

For podcasts that are launching from scratch today, I think the most successful ones have a partnership with an existing media brand so that platform helps them launch. I think of Another Round being linked to Buzzfeed, or 2 Dope Queens being on WNYC-- etc. Not sure about the email strategy, because we didn't start our newsletter until after CYG was quite big. 

Can I pitch a story I've already posted to my personal blog?

To get more experience, I maintain a personal blog with the intent of freelancing in the future. I'm only just beginning to submit digital articles for review. My question: In the interim between pitching a story or essay and waiting for a response, is it considered poor form to post the pitched story to your personal site?

I wouldn't post anything in full that I hoped to publish for payment elsewhere. 

Should I publish for free?

I hope that you can give me some advice on getting articles published. My pitches seem to end up in black holes - along with my self confidence :( However, I still want to get my stories out there, because these are stories I want to tell. On the road to hopefully becoming a paid writer, do you think it is worthwhile to, in the meantime, publish for free online, for example on a site like Medium?

Early in my career I wrote for free quite a bit, but mostly for outlets that I helped run or create, such as a blog called Feministing. If you're writing for a professional outlet that's making money off of your words (either in the form of ads or grants), think it's important to insist on being paid, even if it's just a little bit. Medium is a bit of a gray area, but if you have absolutely no published clips and want to get some work samples out there, it's not the worst place to be publishing. Many outlets now republish work from Medium.

My best advice to you is to keep pitching, and to pitch specific articles, not broad topics. 

When should a journalist go full-time freelance?

I know you wrote about this subject for CJR in 2012, but I'm wondering if there are, like, any specific boxes to check, other than knowing more than 5 editors who will respond to me. 

I'm currently an associate editor at a dead-end print magazine, and I make several thousand a month from freelancing on the side. I feel like I could make more if I quit, but I'm also terrified of losing that security (tried freelancing a few years ago and had to get another job). Financially, I'm stable and don't have too much debt, though I don't have a ton of savings set aside (still waiting for all those checks to come in).

Thanks for any help you're able to offer!

Well, I think the next question is: What are those 5 editors you know able to pay per piece? What kind of savings do you have—and are you willing to eat into it? And how much income do you need? Do some math, and you'll figure out how much you need to write per week/month in order to make it work in the best-case scenario with your existing contacts. If you can't make the math work in even a best-case scenario, you know it's probably too soon to go freelance without a part-time job on the side.

How do I get editors to send me out on assignment?

I've always dreamed of being the kind of journalist who gets sent on assignments and travels to get the story. How do you get these type of assignments where a publication sends you to get the scoop? 

The short answer is that you have to be pretty established. At the very least, you need to be well-known by the editors: You typically need to have written several things for them before, or have written many things that they've read elsewhere, in order for them to think of you when they have an assignment to fill.

In the meantime, the best way to get there is to pitch them good ideas that are tailored to their specific publication.

I'm 23 and I want to do exactly what you do someday. How?

I’ve been reading The Cut with fervor since I was 15. I'm now 23, inching up to an uncertain 24. I’m an editorial assistant at [REDACTED ACADEMIC PRESS], but I’m trying to figure out how - and if I should - get myself mired in journalism. 

I've been in this predicament for a long time. My parents are journalists, and I adamantly avoided the trajectory toward that career path in college, all the way up until my graduation in 2014. Journalism major? Crazy competitive internships? School newspaper editor fueled by shitty coffee into the wee hours of morning? No. English major? Scholarly papers? Possibly a PhD in literary theory, impracticality be damned? All the way.

But as it turns out (and not entirely to my chagrin), I feel like this is what I really want - to write like you all, and for the same audience.

I hope this doesn't come on too strong, or too long, but I think I would regret it more if I never sent this. Maybe I'm that crazy chick who thinks bloggers are her friends - but I suspect that maybe you'll understand where I'm coming from.

First off, I gotta tell you that being 23 is hard! I'm pretty sure that was the worst year of my life. I had a nonprofit job I hated, a self-absorbed boyfriend, and I felt like I wouldn't ever be able to do anything of importance. I was dead broke but I was trying to save up money so I could spend a few months as a barely-paid intern and break into journalism. I ended up applying for and getting an internship at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco, which was the impetus I needed to dump the boyfriend and leave New York. 

In some ways, journalism was totally different then (2005). Blogs were brand new and there was no twitter and Facebook was still kinda for ivy league college students. Essentially the whole internet was ignored by prestigious higher-up editors, which meant that it was a much easier place to start off. I started blogging with a group of women I knew, and I wrote for Mother Jones' website. Those were my first real footholds in journalism, I think, even though I'd gone to j-school and had newspaper internships. (Much of my newspaper experience didn't really translate to the magazine-style work that I do now and wanted to do then.)

Anyway, not sure how helpful this is in 2016 now that things have changed so dramatically. But I do think there are a few things that carry over: The fact that I created something, with friends for accountability, that gave me an outlet for my work and something to show to potential future bosses and editors. And the fact that I had to do kinda-shitty jobs in journalism for years and years before I knew enough people and had enough experience to do work that I love. In other words, you have to be patient but you also have to KEEP WORKING in the meantime. You're not a writer if you aren't writing. So you have to keep at it, even if you don't think anyone's paying attention or willing to pay you for it.

That was a real ramble. But if you love the Cut, for example, a good place to start is thinking about what topics/articles might make sense there that we aren't covering. Try to come up with ideas that are similar to the Cut's tone and style, but maybe offer a new perspective or angle. Make a blog or something where you post that stuff-- it doesn't have to be public and you don't have to promote it. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that, if you have a specific type of writing in mind, you can definitely try to start honing the skills you want to someday be paid for doing it. Apply to jobs and internships that seem closer to the type of journalism work you want to do, but don't wait for someone to offer you the perfect opportunity to get started writing.

You're not crazy. Sending emails like this is good! I wish I'd done more of this when I was younger-- I was always too scared to reach out to writers I admired. 

How should I get started with an email newsletter?

I’m planning to launch a newsletter this year and am interested in learning more about what it takes to make a successful newsletter. Understanding that there is tons of info online about this, I have been crafting a master plan.

After reading about what you do and have done, I thought you’d be the an excellent resource to help me learn more about the medium. Would you mind giving me a few nuggets of advice for someone getting started?

1. The content of your newsletter should make more sense in email than anywhere else online. In other words, if you could just as easily put that info in a tweet, on a website, on tumblr, on instagram, etc. then it's probably not a great email newsletter. Why would someone want your newsletter in their inbox? Give them a reason to want it there.

2. Be consistent. Decide when and how often you're sending, and then stick to that schedule. Even if you only have 50 subscribers and you don't think anyone will notice.

3. Use your personality. People connect with other people, not with "brands" or third-person editorial voices.

4. Create something you want to subscribe to and think is missing. 

I want to write about politics. How do I land my second, step-up job?

If you are up for it, I’d really like to hear how you landed your first and second jobs, and how you knew it was time to move on. I would also love to hear your perspective on whether or not the feminist/female-oriented writing space is saturated and how you figured out what you like to write about. (As they say, write what you know… but I really do want to be useful and employed.) 

I’d love to get some tips on how to fake it till you make it in terms of writing about politics. I am interested in writing about policy and political issues (not so much candidates), but I don’t have any formal education or experience in the arena. 

As for your politics (but not campaigns) question, there are a few writers I think do a really good job of this. You can learn a lot by reading the work of writers who cover policy and politics the way you want to. I like Jamelle Bouie a lot-- who tends to take a more historical/political science view of things, and Bryce Covert, who often has a policy emphasis. Both of them are not campaign-oriented (though they do some interviews and cover campaigns) and more about reading reports, talking to academics and experts, and drawing on books and historical accounts to inform their opinions. If you start to follow the work of writers you admire, ask yourself questions about where certain facts/insights came from. Do they quote a policy expert? Do they cite a report? Etc. Sometimes articles are surprisingly easy to pick apart and figure out the sourcing. It's definitely a special skill to talk to people who take the long view-- academic types and authors-- and figure out how their expertise applies to the current political moment. But it's a skill you can learn, for sure.

I'd also encourage you to use your questions to your advantage. If you see a news article about cuts to food stamps and you're like, "how many people are on food stamps, anyway? Were they always stigmatized? I don't even know the history!" Start there, with your questions. Figure out which expert might be able to walk you through it, or what book might explain the history. And once you do an interview or give that book a close read, you'll probably gain some insight into the current moment that just might make a good angle for an article or opinion piece.

As for my first/second/third jobs, here is the truth: 

1. Internship, Mother Jones - my first "job" in journalism. I cold-applied and was accepted.

2. Managing editor at a political website - creepy older-dude boss hired me even though my resume wasn't very deep. I lasted just 2 months.

3. Web editor, American Prospect-- my then-boyfriend landed me this job because he wanted me to move to DC. Seriously. He was also a journalist and he applied to it, and then, at the last minute, told them he didn't want the job but they should hire me. And they did. SERIOUSLY. 

So the answer is: My second and third jobs are a direct result of dudes. Sexism is real. It's shameful. There is no good advice for you to be found here. But I'm being honest.

BUT after I got in the door at the Prospect, I rose through the ranks because I worked my ass off-- it actually helped me to stick around internally and be promoted rather than move to a new publication where I would have had to start over. I stayed 4 years. And all my jobs since have not been due to dudes, but to my own merits. It gets better.

Help I'm 22 and I feel stuck.

I'm so frustrated and feeling stuck. There aren't many opportunities where I'm from for fashion or even fashion publications. Ideally, I'd love to work for someone like The Gentlewoman or I-D. I'm only 22 and I feel this enormous weight of not being where I want to be just yet or not feeling like I've made enough substantial progress. Is this normal? Will I ever feel like my work is enough? How can I find opportunities when it feels like there aren't any around? What do you do to feel better and get out of what seems like an impossible rut?

Being 22 is HARD. I remember basically feeling stuck and underappreciated for most of my twenties. It's frustrating waiting for your years of experience to stack up so your resume reflects what you already know you're capable of now.

What I ended up doing was writing for a blog that was founded by a few friends of mine, and that became my primary creative/professional outlet for the first five years of my career. All of those collaborators-- we wrote for a blog called Feministing-- have gone on to do awesome stuff as we aged out of the blog and into cooler jobs. But even in the short term, it really helped me showcase what I was capable of. It was an outlet for my writing and a way to professionally collaborate on equal footing-- not as somebody's assistant but as part of a cooperative group of young women making something together. I'd really encourage you to find a few friends or similarly frustrated young colleagues, and get a side project going. A publication, a zine, a live event series, a podcast, WHATEVER. Because then, even though it's going to take your day job a few years to get great, you'll have a way to express your awesome ideas in the meantime. And those unpaid side gigs ended up being great on my resume, too. Unintended upside.

I love setting goals like your aim to be in the Gentlewoman. But, again, I also have to ask you what you're writing in the meantime. The great thing about wanting to be a writer is that no one has to give you permission. The awful thing about wanting to be a writer is that no one is going to give you permission. If you want to write about awesome women, you can do that now. If you want to write essays, you can do that now. Maybe you won't find a public outlet for them just yet, but you can be honing your writing skills in the meantime. You're not a writer if you just aspire to write. You have to actually write stuff. Practice. Maybe you are already! In which case, awesome. But again, I just wish someone would have drilled that into me when I was 22. I spent a lot of time waiting for an assignment or permission rather than just disciplining myself to actually write on my own time.

I'm freelance-curious. What do I need to know? What is it really like?

I'm a reporter at [REDACTED]. I'm also someone who has been thinking seriously about going freelance pretty soon. 

At this point I'm grappling more with those creeping doubts about not being established enough in my career to go my own way, and admittedly, feeling some embarrassment in telling myself I'll quit my full-time reporting gig with benefits to test the turbulent freelance waters. On the other hand, I'm ready for some new challenges, have been curious about freelancing for a long time, and most of all, I'm finding for various reasons that I may not be able to grow as a longform writer (my goal) or pursue ambitious stories while in my current job. And, as some of my freelancing friends like to tell me, come on in, the water's fine!

Let me know what you think? Any advice for building up a personal brand? Do you use any particular software to track/manage expenses/taxes/receipts? What about project management?

Off the top of my head, here's the beginning of a Before You Go Freelance checklist:

  • be able to name 5 editors who will eagerly open your email
  • have a good idea of what those 5 editors are able to pay 
  • save 6 months' rent. seriously, i think it took me about 6 months until checks were rolling in regularly and i was making anything close to a salary-- partly because there's a ramp-up period, and partly because there's such a lag time in payment.
  • start establishing relationships with more editors NOW. invest in a trip to new york and try to land a few lunches/coffees to talk about ideas in person. there is nothing like an in-person meeting to bolster your relationship with an editor and show them that you are a font of excellent ideas
  • incorporate early and pay quarterly tax estimates so you don't get slammed with an end-of-year mega-bill. freelancing is a business, and i really wish someone had encouraged me to form an S-CORP and submit estimated quarterly payments right away rather than futz around as a sole proprietorship for 2 years. to figure this stuff out, you need to consult an accountant. Advantages and disadvantages vary based on your personal income and what state you live in. I believe if you're making over $50k in California, an SCORP is a better financial bet, but it really depends and you should get an accountant to advise. For me the biggest thing was just getting incorporated so I could open a business bank account, which has really helped me track which things I'm writing off.
  • do your very best to land a column or other recurring gig. you do this by building relationships with editors, by pitching them week in and week out. this is what's saved my ass: editors who expect something from me every single week.
  • make sure your personal website is in great shape, with updated links to you work and a very easy-to-find email address

I think if you go through that checklist and can check off every item, or most of them, you're ready.

As for your "brand" (ugh), make time to write/make stuff that is only connected with you, not with a publication. Most of my "brand building" has been personal projects:  GIF blogs and the newsletter and the podcast and that sort of thing. It's hard to develop a following for you if you're only hewing to established publications' tone and guidelines.

I use an Excel document to track my assignments, invoices, income, and expenses in one place. I tried QuickBooks and was like, this is no easier than Excel and they want to charge me for it. I'm sure I could get better at tracking this stuff, though, and I'm sure other people prefer QuickBooks or project management software, which I find unnecessarily complicated for a team of 1.

Big stuff to consider: I love being a freelancer, but I think it's really hard if you aren't a fast writer. Longform alone won't pay the bills because it takes so much time, and sometimes you have to be nimble and say yes to a short-term assignment during an already-packed week. Can you write at least one 700-1000-word piece per day? (I don't write that much every day, but I do have some weeks where that's my output.) Also, how do you feel about working alone, or setting your own schedule? Psychologically, how do you handle financial instability? What do you think you'll be able to accomplish as a freelancer that you won't be able to do on staff? 

How do I get known for something when no one wants to publish me?

I'm currently in the soul-destroying process of trying to get some humor pieces I've composed published, either on-line or in print.  Unfortunately, a lot of my writing experience and contacts come from the TV/Film space, and my relationships to editors are extremely limited.  In an effort to further my cause, I'm attaching a comedy piece I wrote. It seems like something you might find amusing.   

Thank you so very much in advance for taking a look.  I am humbly (and delusionally?) hoping that with your experience, you might have some suggestions on places where I could submit it. 

Humor writing is not my area of expertise, but I can tell you that the two places I go to read it are McSweeney's and The Toast [UPDATE: R.I.P.]. The Toast is pretty open about their submission policies-- so you should definitely try them. Not sure about McSweeneys, but I would assume they also have a submissions email. Sometimes when I want to pitch a place I'm not connected to, I also just do things like google "humor editor mcsweeneys" and try to find a direct contact.

I also think that the best way to get known for doing something is to keep doing it. If editors turn it down, I'd self-publish on your own site or on Medium or something. And keep publishing consistently. I made pie charts for years, one per week, before anyone paid me to make them or associated me with them. The trick is not to get one piece published in a big place. If you really want to get into humor writing, the trick (which is not really at trick at all) is to keep doing it consistently and trust your voice. 

I'm 25 and living with my parents, and I feel lost.

To put it bluntly: How do I navigate through my life when I feel lost all the time?

Backstory: I'm 25 and I live indefinitely with my parents (shoot me). The past year has been a nightmare: my grandfather died, I was dumped twice, and I've had zero job prospects. In fact, I've been doing the same admissions job I had in college and grad school. I had a killer editorial internship at [REDACTED PUBLISHER] in NYC in the fall, but when a job opened up, I didn't have enough nepotism to seal the deal. Also, like you, I kind of hate New York. Bummer, since that's where all my jobs are. So, it's not like I'm dying to up and move there. 

All my friends have either moved away or are heavily invested in romance, so I feel pretty alone. I find comfort in your writing and your podcast with Amina. You both really seem to have your lives together. And I don't mean that they're heavily polished and "adult" -- but that you both just seem happy. I really look up to you and just wish I could be as content. I have no idea where to go from here. I just know what I want professionally, but it isn't really helping much. 

This is a really hard email to answer because it is so big and broad. The things that have worked for me, and made me happy, and led me to a job and a life I like? I have no idea how to translate them to someone else, or even what I'd tell my younger self to do if I could go back in time. What I can say is that when I read your email, I noticed you didn't say anything about what you do have going on. I know you don't love all of your friends, but who are the important people in your life who influence your thinking? What sort of work are you doing right now, in your own time? 

Stop dwelling on what's gone wrong and what you don't have, and start doing and making things. Even if they seem small. That's the only way I've ever gotten unstuck. Editing is a hard expertise to develop on your own-- that's true. But you can experiment with writing and curating and learning more about the publishing world. My friend who is a broke MFA-photography grad is starting her own photo-book imprint. I was rejected from every entry level journalism job I applied for, so I took a shitty day job and started blogging at a feminist group blog. Amina and I didn't earn a single penny from Call Your Girlfriend for months and months but we did it twice a month anyway. I know several cool women who have started zines that have gone on to become more professional publications and, eventually, real résumé-builders. 

The stuff that has made my career and my life great is not nepotism or getting hired or having a good boyfriend-- I've had some of those things at different times, and they've helped. But the biggest leaps forward in my life have come when I haven't asked anyone's permission and just made or done something. I'm not suggesting you just give your work away to sites like Medium or HuffPo for free, but I do think you need to work on a self-started project as soon as possible, and stop focusing so much on what seems out of reach. Even if it's just a blog about living with your parents again. Whatever. Just give yourself permission to start doing something.

An editor chopped my article down to nothing. Can I publish it in full elsewhere?

I'm just starting out as a freelance writer and photographer. I just had my first (paying!!!$$!) photo essay published in an online magazine of some repute. I'm super excited about it. The only thing is, the narrative accompaniment I spent sleepless nights on got thoroughly chopped and screwed. One paragraph remains intact on the live piece.

Now, I'll take what I can get because at this point, it's a big step for me to be published at all. However, I'm attached to what I wrote-- I think it's good and added dimension to the piece.

My question is- can I pitch it or self publish it elsewhere without compromising my relationship with the mag that published the revised version? We didn't discuss exclusivity, but because I'm a small fish, I want to know if there are unwritten rules I should be privy to.

Do you have a contract? Read the contract. It should tell you that you're in the clear to publish the material they cut.

If you don't have a contract, that's a problem! In the future, ask for one. It's how you know your rights. In the absence of a contract, I would say that any material they did not choose to publish is yours to publish elsewhere, either on your own site or at a different publication.

ALWAYS get a contract! If they refuse, ask them to confirm the rate, deadline, reprint rights, kill fees, etc. in your email exchange so you have a record. 

Can I sell the same article to several different magazines?

If you are trying to get several magazines to publish a short story or article and say three of the magazines want to pay you for the story, can you sell to all three? Is it legal? Even if you were receiving no money, cay more than one magazine publish the writing?

It's not illegal to send the exact same article to several magazines, but it's VERY poor form. You need to tell each editor that you have also sent the piece to other publications, and let them make the call. Most will not publish something that has been published or accepted for publication elsewhere.

How do I approach the entry-level job hunt? Do I have to move to New York?

I’m finishing up a summer program and I’ve been applying to a lot of jobs with no luck. I know this is no unique story given the state of the industry, but I was wondering if you had any advice about job-hunting at entry level. 

I originally thought I was set on New York, but I’ve recently been much more open-minded and have been looking seriously at LA and other cities. I know I can’t afford to be picky about location at this point in my career. 

I wish I had some silver-bullet piece of advice to help you. The truth is that it was hard for me to find a full-time job when I graduated from journalism school more than 10 years ago (TEN YEARS. I am a dinosaur!), and it’s harder now. Right out of college, I took a job at a nonprofit rather than an unpaid magazine internship that I couldn’t afford. The job was kind of mind-numbing, but I started contributing to a group blog in my spare time, and it ended up being those blog posts—not my school newspaper or internship clips—that got me a low-paid internship at Mother Jones and, later, an entry-level web editing job. I have two general pieces of advice for you. 

1) Meet as many journalists as you can, and stay in touch with as many of those as you can. Think about all of your friends from the student newspaper who’ve gone on to full-time journalism (or even journalism-peripheral) jobs. Think about all the people you met at your various internships—not just higher-up editors, but people from your class of interns. Where are all of those people now? I bet each of them knows at least one person in journalism that they’d be willing to introduce you to. Ask. Ask them for intros! Follow all of your existing contacts on twitter, and interact with them there. (I’m talking about the people you’ve worked with before, not total stranger journalists, though you can obviously follow and interact with those people, too). Think of your network as your security blanket. You’ve got to stitch this thing together, and you need to start with the people you already know, and add from there. Entry-level jobs are always flooded with applicants, so you’re going to need a friend to either tip you off that a position is about to open up, or to slide your resume to the top of the pile. Not to mention that knowing other journalists is going to make you better at your job and be important for the rest of your career, not just now.

2) Do a project. A blog. A kickstarted, journalism-gimmicky thing, if you have to. While you work that shitty nonprofit job or wait tables or whatever you’re doing to pay the bills, it’s ok to do journalism work for free. But do it on your own terms, in a space you control. Do it with friends who are journalists too, if possible. The point is to make stuff that you can put on your resume. That blog, called, was an unknown site when I started writing for it, and it eventually became a known entity. I didn’t make any money from it, but it did give me a place to start from when no magazines or newspapers would pay me. At other points in my career, self-directed journo-projects have really helped me advance, too. I made that silly GIF blog “Real Talk from Your Editor” on a whim, and it ended up getting me noticed by lots of editors I didn’t previously know. I made pie charts for free for two full years before anyone paid me to make one. It takes time for people to notice, but you need to stay creative and stay productive. 

I did newspaper internships throughout college, too, and I think it can be an especially tough transition from them to digital media. I know it’s not easy! It’s gonna take time. But keep making connections with people and making cool things on your own, and I really think that it’ll pay off eventually.

What is the typical editing process like?

How often do freelancers “get it right the first time”? How can you tell what a typical editing process is like at a publication if you’re on the outside? It seems to vary so wildly (for example, at [REDACTED PUBLICATION] I get barely any editing, not necessarily a plus either). But AT [DIFFERENT PUBLICATION] the various go-rounds are making me worry I’m a high-maintenance edit and they’ll decide they won’t have time for me in the future. I really want to be a dream freelancer for editors, and I think I’ve been pleasant, punctual with deadlines and open to suggestions and criticism thus far. But I also know how this works and if they have to spend too much time editing me and sending pieces back several times to further hone arguments, it’s not a good deal for them, no matter how pleasant I am. Are a lot of go-rounds ever normal? How can I maintain a good relationship when I didn’t hit this one piece I’m currently working on out of the park on the first (erm, and second) try?

Every editor is different and so is every publication. Some editors love my first draft and just publish it as-is. (When I was an editor, we used to call this a “code ‘n’ load.”) Other times, I do six or seven rewrites (true story– this is often the case at super-mainstream magazines where their editorial “tone” seems totally clear to the editors and totally opaque to me, even if I’ve read the magazine dozens of times). That being said, I still think the best way to prepare yourself is to READ the place you’re writing for. If I’m extra unsure, I’ll send a thesis graf or even a rough outline to the editor to ask if I’m on the right track. I also try to ask up front if an editor can send me a few recent examples of things they’ve published that I can use as a point of reference for the thing I’m writing. You can sort of break it down from there– ok, they like pieces that begin with the news hook, then come in strong with the argument, then reference the online conversation around this issue…. whatever.

But it’s still no guarantee. Sometimes the editing process is… a process. And it’s really hard to know what that process is going to be like before you’ve been through it before at a particular publication. Sometimes a lower-level editor is like, “it’s perfect!” then sends it back to you for a total rewrite after her boss takes a look at it. 

Nothing bothers me more than when an editor has prodded my argument into submission and totally changed my tone, then comes back with an editing comment like, “We need more of your voice in here!” Like, I want to throw my laptop across the room. Never do that– MacBooks are expensive. And also never reply with something snotty or angry. Wait a few hours or days and send a friendly, level-headed, accommodating reply. And take it under consideration before you accept the next assignment from this particular editor.

If you write more than four or five pieces with the same editor at the same outlet and you feel like you aren’t getting it right– ask for some macro-level feedback. The editor has as much interest as you do in making your words work! And if they’ve come back to you that many times, you’re obviously doing something right.

I think lots of communication–except for when you’re angry and frustrated and haven’t cooled off yet– is the key to being a dream freelancer. It’s always tough to find a balance between your own voice and opinions and preferences and the editorial mandate of the publication you’re working for, and good editors understand that.

How long do I wait to follow up on a pitch?

I have a question about a timely pitch I just submitted last night. The head editor cc’d me as he passed it on to the foreign desk for review. My questions are: How long do I wait to follow up? And do I let them know I want to pitch it elsewhere? (Or are these things assumed? And if I don’t hear by mid-day today, should I assume they have passed?) 

Reply right away and say thanks, and that you’ll need an answer by [DATE/TIME]. That date/time should be just before you think the piece will “expire"—and give you enough time to send it elsewhere. You can be up front with the editor and say that if you don’t get a reply by DATE/TIME, you’ll have to take the piece elsewhere because the hook is going to disappear. 

I think editors generally appreciate an up-front convo about these things. It’ll help him push the foreign desk for a faster answer, too.