One thing that’s become a constant in my life since I began writing online — even before I was doing it professionally — is a constant stream of questions from young women in the position I once found myself: Young, passionate, suddenly made unconfident by the tense job market, and looking for a sense of direction in a world that had always provided one up to that point. Every day, I get about 5 to 10 questions of a similar nature, and I’ve long wanted to do a FAQ with the answers I have for a lot of these problems. But I realized, over time, that even though many people were asking me about getting into writing specifically, the issue at hand is much more general, and can apply to a huge variety of industries.
When we are thrust out of the cocoon of education — where so many of us excel — and are put into a world where it’s every (wo)man for herself, we are often left looking for answers in any place we can find them. Nearly three years into my career, I don’t feel equipped to give advice for all women in the workplace, but for young women in their 20s who are just starting out and not sure what the right moves might be (like the ones who come to my email or message boxes to get advice), there are certain mistakes that I have made so that you don’t have to.
Here, a few of the most pertinent questions and their answers, both about writing and work in general:
Q: What should you send to potential employers?
A: There are obviously different answers for different fields, and there are some which have a rigorous system of exams and apprenticeships that are required to enter. (I wouldn’t want my surgeon to have gotten his position through networking alone, I would hope he had gone to med school.) But for many industries, like the media industry, where I currently work, there is a huge value placed on what you can show. I used to spend nights agonizing over how to put my resume and cover letters into the most sparkling working order — which is difficult, when you didn’t graduate college and had zero professional experience — only to realize that the people I was talking to weren’t even going to ask for those things. People want to see what you are passionate about, what you have created already, and what kind of a presence you have online. Is your LinkedIn good? Do you have a lot of Twitter followers? The internet matters, and not always in the “One beer-in-hand photo on Facebook will be the end of you” kind of way. You have a whole history that speaks for you when someone Googles your name, and not having anything of interest come up is one of the most dangerous outcomes. Taking the time to work on projects and see them through (even pro bono, even as a student) will mean that when someone searches you, you will stick in their mind.
Note: For those just starting out, who are thinking of working in the online realm and have an extremely common name, consider using a pen name or a modification of your real one. My full name is Chelsea Fagan Hunt, but I went with Chelsea Fagan (first and middle) mostly because it made things that much easier for people who might be looking for me.
Q: How do you network?
A: In general, people can tell when you’re working them. They’re not as stupid as we think we are (except the ones who are, but you don’t really want to network with them anyway). When you go to mixers or business events, it’s always a better idea to have a genuine conversation with someone about things unrelated to work than it is to start playing mental Battleship with them until you’ve figured out what they can potentially do for your career. And if you feel that you want to invite someone out for a coffee to pick their brain about the industry, do it! And be up-front with it. Most people are very nice and giving when it comes to helping someone that’s just starting out, and if you are up-front with wanting to learn what they have to say, they will likely be more flattered than anything else, and go into it feeling like it’s low-pressure. The best connections are often made just by two people having a nice conversation over a coffee or a drink and realizing that the other one is worth following up with.
Q: How do you self-promote your work or your brand?
A: At the end of the day, the cream floats to the top, so to speak. When it comes to promotion, the things that people are interested in will do almost all of the work themselves. You always get the ball rolling by making something available — a project, a song, an article — and you don’t inundate people with information or about it. You don’t have to beg them to attend this, or donate to that, because if they want to, they will. The things that end up making a name for you are often not the things you expect or predict, and if something isn’t catching fire by itself, pushing it on your followers or friends will likely only irritate them. Self-promotion is a fine art, and none of us ever get it right, but the best way to go about it is to support the things that are taking off on their own, and give everything a chance to go viral at least once.
Q: How do you become a writer?
A: Although I began receiving this question — by far the most common one — long before I became a professional writer, I assume that these questions mostly refer to the act of getting paid to be a writer, because anyone who writes is, by definition, a writer. And even the act of getting paid to be a writer is something that exists on a very wide spectrum. From the moment I got paid for my first freelance article, to the moment I became a salaried staff writer, to the moment I signed a book deal, there was a pretty large expanse of time and work. For me, and I think for most people, there is often a tedious process of building a name and a portfolio that must be accomplished before one can expect to make a full-fledged career of writing, but it’s one that is more navigable than most people think.
First and foremost, as cliché as it sounds, you have to write. You have to write consistently, and topically, and about things that other people want to read (which in itself can take a while to figure out). But you have to force yourself, even when you’re not getting paid, to sit down and write things that are finished to completion. We all have that first third of a novel sitting in some back folder that we abandoned but which gave us some flickering hope of someday being a writer, but that is a prestigious step of the career that takes a long time to get to. There are the occasional prodigies who write their best-selling debut work of fiction in their early 20s, but it is best for everyone involved if you don’t bank on that being your case.
Once you’ve gotten the actual writing aspect of it down, everything else is and always will be a business. Writing is a lot of fighting above your weight class, and going for things that you think you’re not ready to go for yet. It’s about contacting people, putting pitches out there, and accepting the fact that you will face a lot of rejection before you get something through. Whether you are working in print publishing or online articles, every world is going to seem incredibly intimidating when you first get involved with it, but it’s important to remember that everyone is figuring it out as they go in many ways. Not being afraid to ask, either for money or for an opportunity, is the biggest hurdle that many of us have to get over, but which is crucial to making anything happen. The only way to ensure that your work is going to be published and compensated is to follow up on it yourself.
Q: What is the hardest thing to do in a professional job?
A: I think in most jobs that you consider a “career,” the most difficult thing is going to be accepting and embracing the fact that you are not the center of the universe. Ultimately, a company is there to make money, and you are part of that money-making agenda (if you’re lucky). Understanding that you don’t always get to do exactly what you want to do, or that you may have to compromise some of your goals to reach a common goal, is difficult at first but eventually becomes somewhat liberating and empowering. Working as a team, and working towards a common goal, is actually much more awesome than it sounds. There are many people who go into their careers feeling very entitled to do only the kind of work they want to do, but the truth is that we’re all lucky to have jobs, and it’s more about proving our worth than the other way around. While some idealism can be good going into a job, no one needs you to sing “I Believe In You” from How To Succeed in the bathroom mirror every morning.
Q: What are some things that women can do to get ahead?
A: I’m going to sound like an inspirational coffee mug at this juncture, but so be it: Believe in yourself. There is nothing more simple, and yet we are often far too modest when it comes to what we’re capable of or what we have accomplished. Even when we’ve done things that we have every right to be proud of, we’re inclined to couch things in disclaimers or to dismiss it entirely. The biggest obstacle to getting what you want in the professional sphere — no matter the industry — is being your biggest advocate and not being afraid to know what you are worth and to ask for it. Being proud of your strengths and achievements, asking the tough questions that need to be asked, and speaking up when you have a good idea, are not things that make you less of a lady. There is no part of being a businessperson and a woman that is mutually exclusive, and learning to stand your ground for what you work for is the most important thing you can do. While there should always be good work behind your attitude to back you up, walk into any situation with an air of “I am competent, I am together, and I can handle this.” Because ultimately, if you’re not going to believe that you are the best choice for a job, no one is going to do it for you.