By Stephen Thompson, MA Creative Writing: Writing the City (2014)

Ask the average person in the street to come up with a description of a professional writer and they’ll probably mention the word author. In the minds of most people, an author is someone who writes books and makes a living at it, but the unpalatable reality is that, unless you’re one of the lucky few, you’re more likely to starve than make a living from writing books. Now let me say that it’s not my intention to deter anyone who is thinking of becoming an author – the world needs authors – I’m merely pointing out that if you’re going into that line of work in the hope of making a living from it you’re probably labouring under a delusion. I know of what I speak.

When I was much younger, and unschooled in the ways of the world, I used to dream of becoming a rich and famous novelist. As the years went by I modified my ambition to simply being published. Now I’d settle for finding the time, amidst all the other things I have to do to pay the bills, just to write. Reality bites.

So what to do if, like me, you have a facility for the written word and would like to earn your living from it? Journalism has always provided a home, some might even say a refuge, for the frustrated writer. It keeps you in bread whilst giving you the opportunity to write consistently, to hone your prose skills, especially if you specialise in writing feature articles. But be warned: getting into journalism is not as straightforward as it used to be. When I trained as a journalist, back in the nineties, it was possible to pick and choose your jobs, there were so many on offer. You would get attached to a local or regional newspaper, spend a year or two there doing your apprenticeship and fattening up your clippings file, and then make the step up to the nationals.

Nowadays, the opportunities for a career in journalism have shrunk to the point where only the most determined stand a chance of getting in. Newspaper and magazine proprietors, backed into a corner by thousands of digital news outlets offering free content, have been forced to do the same, which means they have less money to hire journalists. But they do still hire journalists, and they hire them because a reputable newspaper or magazine will always need quality journalists providing quality copy. If you hope one day to become one of this elite group, there are some things you will have to do. The first is to familiarise yourself with the various routes into journalism. There are plenty of good sources out there offering tips and advice on what to do and what not to do. One of the best pieces I’ve read, featuring invaluable advice from some of the UK’s most experienced journalists, can be found here.

As the article makes clear, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to starting a career in journalism. Some of the journalists advise that you do an undergraduate degree in something other than journalism and then do an MA in journalism, focusing on the core skills such as media law. Others advise that you do a short, practical course in journalism and then get out there and practise what you’ve learned, possibly starting a blog so that you build up your expertise and portfolio. What they all suggest, and what I strongly agree with, is that whatever course you study should be recognised by the NCTJ (The National Council for the Training of Journalists), who act as quality controllers for how journalists are trained.

So, in summary, arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can before you start on your path towards a career in journalism, be as prepared as you can be, do your research and then go for it. The rewards can be tremendous if you’re willing to put in the necessary hard work. Good luck!

By Stephen Thompson, MA Creative Writing: Writing the City (2014)

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