A little-known fact is that most Australian publications are open to unsolicited pitches. That means that emerging writers can find themselves in the same magazines and journals as big-name writers such as Benjamin Law. And you don’t need to sacrifice your whole life for it, either; you can build industry connections, find a niche of your own, and create a published portfolio while still working or studying full time.
Of course, the whole industry can be a daunting place for someone just starting out, with no understanding of the industry. This is a gentle, step-by-step guide on building connections, a portfolio, and a career.
1. Get reading!
It’s amazing how many people dream of writing and hardly read. Think of reading as an apprenticeship for writing; it’s a way for you to see how and why successful writers are successful! And think of it as market research.
Get your hands on as many publications as you can, and search for online journals. Great Australian magazines and journals that accept submissions include The Lifted Brow, Seizure, Voiceworks (which only accepts submissions from people under the age of 25, and provides editorial feedback for every submission including those not published), Frankie, and Meanjin. Look for small magazines and journals that are created locally near you, as well as ones in your niche. If you’re not sure, ask your state writers centre for recommendations.
Once you have an idea of the marketplace, you’ll also have an idea of the places that your work might be appropriate for. Look at the contents page of the publication, and if it doesn’t say that they don’t accept unsolicited articles, you’re fine to pitch. It is always a good idea to have read at least a couple of issues of a publication you want to submit to, so that you can understand the editor’s intentions and taste. You don’t want to waste their time (and yours) on a piece that just isn’t viable for that publication.
2. Build a portfolio.
It will help you in the long run if you start to build a portfolio of published work. This can be in blog form, or a website with links to online articles, or through building a publication history in smaller publications. Of course you can go ahead and start pitching to the big magazines right away, but if you can show examples of your work, it will certainly give your pitch an edge against the competition.
Remember that when you’re just starting out, you may need to work for free before finding paid gigs. Publications that can’t afford to pay their writers are usually run by passionate people because they love it, and often these publications are in the centre of a local (or online) writing community. The literary community, especially in Australia, is incredibly small and you never know where people will end up – writing for free can be a great exercise in networking.
There are lots of awesome indie publications that are constantly on the lookout for writers, and if you can get your work into one of them, you’ll have an article to add to your portfolio, and an editor that can vouch for your work. As much as the big magazines want to know you can write, they also want to know that you’re professional and easy to work with, and having someone in the business to vouch for you can make a huge difference.
3. Get networking.
As mentioned above, the literary community is much smaller than you think it is, but it’s also much more accessible than it appears. Magazine editors and prominent writers are generally just a tweet away, and they are almost always incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. If there’s someone you admire, reach out to them and ask them if they have any advice for you.
Also make sure that you go to literary events in the community. There are often free (or very cheap) events run by publications, literary collectives or writers centres, and the people who attend these can be valuable connections when building your career. In the literary community, everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows the person who could make or break your career.
For this reason, it can be useful to have an online blog or portfolio that you can direct people to so they can see your work and offer advice to move into the next stage in your career. This is also a great way to keep abreast of opportunities to get more involved with the writing community.
If you have social media accounts, also make sure to share the work of other writers you admire. Often they will notice and tweet back, and they will always appreciate the extra exposure. Be generous and it will flow back to you tenfold.
4. Work your way up.
While it is easier to start by submitting to smaller publications, you can certainly work your way up to submitting to the big guys. Often magazines will have submission pages on their websites, with an idea of the content they are looking for. If they don’t have an online submissions page, find the editor’s email (and if it is a large publication with multiple editors, look for the relevant editor’s details), and send them a polite email with your pitch.
Read through a couple of issues of the magazine so that you can identify which sections are written by regular contributors, and which ones might be appropriate for you to submit to. Learn these sections by name and include them in your cover letter, along with a paragraph about your writing experience and publication history (and a link to your online portfolio, if appropriate).
Make sure to read through the submission guidelines carefully, and follow them exactly. If you don’t care enough to format your work appropriately, why should they care enough to publish it? Some publications will want you to send in completed articles, but most will want to you to pitch an idea (or seven). This is why having a publication history/portfolio is so important; you can show that you have the ability to follow through on what you’re promising.
5. Don’t forget the admin.
As a freelance writer, you are self-employed. This means that you may need an Australian Business Number, and once you earn a certain amount of money each year, you will need to register to pay GST. You will need to keep track of your expenses and tax deductions, send invoices to organisations that will pay you, and keep records of where you are submitting each piece.
If you check the submission guidelines page of a publication’s website, it will often say how long they will take to get back to you. If this amount of time passes, or this information is not there and a few weeks have passed, send a polite follow up email. Also, if you are submitting pre-written pieces, be careful not to submit the same piece to more than one place at the same time unless they allow simultaneous submissions. Don’t waste anyone’s time with a piece they may not get to publish.
Make sure to keep an eye on all possible opportunities that you can enter! Don’t limit yourself to submitting to one kind of magazine. Enter competitions and submit to blogs with multiple contributors and ejournals as well. Make sure to research each avenue, of course, to ensure that they are reputable (especially if you are paying an entry fee).