I’ve had a lot of you emailing and tweeting me asking for tips on how to become a journalist.
First thing’s first, journalism is like a drug. It is highly addictive and your work will constantly be swarming round your brain even when it shouldn’t be – like when it’s 1am and you just want to sleep, or when a child is murdered or when you’re having sex. Your brain will automatically leap to new ideas and stories that could be written, even at times when it should be thinking about something else.
Secondly, there’s a lot of alcohol involved, so be prepared.
I never woke up one morning wanting to be a journalist, I wanted to be a glamour model and an archaeologist, sure. But never a journalist. I think it was just a degree that I handpicked out of the UCAS index book, along with child psychologist and interior designer.
Somehow I got into Kingston University, despite spending most of my time at sixth form living out of my car, drinking vodka and working at JJB Sports. That, my dear friends, is no joke. I once cried because my boss told me my JJB size 10 top was too short and I assumed she was calling me fat.
Naturally, I did no work in the first year of uni. I cried because I missed my friends, I never made it to lectures before midday and I went for a lot of midnight runs (I’m 100% lucky I wasn’t raped by the side of the road if I’m honest).
In second year things picked up – I was shit at essays, my ‘who gives a fuck about why newspapers reported the way they did in 1900?!’ attitude landing me a few nice Cs and Ds. But my love of actual writing, news stories and features and all that got me noticed.
My first work experience was for a website that has since closed down. I worked for two weeks for Empora.co.uk, a website that was basically like ASOS but nowhere near as glossy and fun, and was sadly destined for failure. I’d write captions about what Kylie Minogue had worn to the Radio 1 studios and find matching items from the brands that worked with them.
By the time I finished third year in 2011, I’d done 10 days as a beauty intern at InStyle and had been nominated for 3 awards at Kingston University’s journalism Oscars because of my work with the student newspaper.
I left uni, went to Magaluf and got really sunburnt and really drunk and threw up in KFC and came home to Sussex as a former shell of myself with no idea what to do next.
I had an interview for a glamourised intern role at Red magazine but they turned me down. I applied for jobs in their hundreds, but no-one wanted the graduate with less than a month’s work experience under her belt. You’re so prepared on how to apply for a job, but not on how to build up a portfolio that will actually get you a job. I was coming into the midst of the recession with essentially nothing but a good few years of waitressing and sales experience.
So I did the natural thing, I told journalism to go and fuck itself and I became an estate agent. In Richmond. Where I knew nobody. And earned £16,000 a year.
Quite the learning curve.
After six weeks, a parking ticket, a trip to the doctors in tears, a £70 a month gym membership and a stern talking to from my parents about how I was using them for money, I came home and started again.
That’s the thing after uni, nobody wants to hire you. At least not in jobs you actually want to do. You appear lazy, but actually you’re incredibly confused and incredibly disheartened. This isn’t what you’ve just landed yourself £25,000 in debt for is it?
My Dad got really ill and I spent 62% of my time doing the food shopping, cooking and buying Christmas presents.
I wrote blog posts for a start-up company for £6 a post, and did a month-long stint at a media database company.
What I’m trying to say is that nothing was glamorous. Nothing was particularly fun and nothing was entirely linked to where I wanted to be in the future. I was muddling along, hoping that something would turn up.
But I knew I couldn’t give up and try something other than journalism because I’d tried that and it had been utterly soul-destroying.
Eventually I was picked up full-time by the start-up company I was blogging for, at minimum wage. I commuted three days a week into London and spent the other two days working in my pyjamas, eating chocolate biscuits and taking lunchtime naps.
The job made me want to cry by the end – that’s always been my way of knowing its time to leave a job, when the tears start rolling and I’d honestly rather be back in my too-short JJB top. (It was maroon too, just so you get a nice bit of imagery going on).
I’d learnt some basic SEO, at the point when most journalists still didn’t really have a clue what it meant, and that’s how I got my interview for Online Assistant at LOOK. I applied after seeing a tweet – a tweet that was deleted an hour later due to the number of applicants, a job that was never advertised anywhere else.
At my interview I told my soon-to-be boss Kate Stephens that I was currently cat-sitting for my brother’s pets and being paid for the ‘chore’ in Topshop vouchers. This is true, and this is a life highlight. I am still available for cat-sitting and would like to be paid in Zara or Topshop or McDonalds vouchers.
My life changed on 10th April 2012 and I became a real journalist at a real publication people had heard of, and I know that I am one of the lucky few.
Getting that job is like being the person who actually wins the free Mini on McDonalds Monopoly, and it set me up for a dream career.
Two years and two months on and I’ve been promoted to Acting Deputy Online Editor at LOOK, and Digital Content Editor across LOOK, Marie Claire and InStyle – and now am at my most exciting role yet, Senior Reporter at Metro.co.uk.
It might not sound as ‘fashion’ and Instagram-worthy, but I get to write. Not make galleries of Blake Lively’s best outfits or plan wedding guest dress features, but actually write – the witty, honest and damn right silly stuff I’ve always been good at.
I say always, my first forays into writing were on my mum’s typewriter and were ALWAYS about Victorian children who rode about on a pony trap. Seriously, WTF was wrong with me?
This is a long post, probably tiresome and dull in places – but it’s a true account of how I got to where I am now.
And where I am is pretty good. Tomorrow Ben & Jerry’s are sending me all their ice cream flavours so I can rank them in a list, next week I’m going to try out an ice room and the week after that I’m going to a posh house party in Shropshire with my boyfriend at a stately home to sample their 5-course summer menu and afternoon tea. Life has been a lot worse.
I’ve never worked late and I’ve never worked for more than a fortnight of work for free. I’ve simply kept writing as much as I could and done any work that could be regarded as ‘media’ so I could stick it on my CV.
I’ve followed as many people in the industry as I could on Twitter and I’ve sent a lot of emails. I’ve always been polite, I’ve always made tea and I’ve always been obsessed with analytics – looking at what brings traffic into a website and what doesn’t.
And it seems to have worked.
There are days when I wish I was doing something more worthwhile – being a doctor, or being an investigative journalist – but then there will always be days when having to use the internet and social media every day will bring you down and drain you.
My advice? Just keep going. Keep reading, keep writing, keep bettering yourself and take any work you can get to begin with, because it might not be exactly what you’ll want to do in the long run, but working somewhere unknown for minimum wage will teach you so much more than working at your favourite brand unpaid in the fashion cupboard will. Trust me.