You gotta start somewhere.
As a professional writer, typically that means writing for free. If you’re writing for yourself, just keep a diary and be done with it. For the rest of you, understand that writing is a business. Like any business, if people are gonna sign checks for a writer, they want to get the best possible deal for their money. Sometimes that means hiring a fresh, talented voice. Most times that means hiring someone with experience. And that’s where it seems like a Catch 22, but unlike the film acting industry where you can’t get a paying gig without being SAG and you can’t be SAG without being in a paying gig, the writing industry comes with its own loophole built in. It’s called: Writing for Experience! In short, employers want to know that someone else thought you were good enough to publish your work. I’m telling you, the power of someone else’s opinion is powerful indeed.
Before we jump into that, let me just say that, depending on what kind of writing you want to make a living with, there are many ways to build your portfolio. If you’re a creative writer, you can try submitting your work to journals or magazines and hope it catches an editor’s eye. The problem there is that the work that tickles an editor’s fancy can vary from day to day, so your chances of getting published over the next Joe with something to say become a crap shoot. That’s why I followed more of a journalistic path. Entertainment journalism kept me close to a creative industry. It was non-fiction, my forte. And there were no bones about what the editor wanted, for the most part anyway. I’m sure we can all agree that movie reviews have more in common with each other than short stories or poems.
With that said, it’s easy enough to find a regional, small time rag that just needs content to fill the blank spots around the advertising that will no doubt swallow your article. BUT! It’s a tearsheet any way you look at it. It’s something you can put on a résumé. It’s experience.
Obviously, in this fragile state, you are a target that can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous publications. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory at that stage. The best you can do in those situations is salvage a byline.
Last year, I met up with my power-player photog friend. He’s growing big and fast in the Hollywood industry, holding photo shoots of A-list talent all the time. Photog introduced me to the Editor-in-Chief of bello Magazine during an industry party/birthday. Chief seemed like a square G and said he’d be interested in reading some samples. Since I’d been building my portfolio, I had plenty to show him. They tested me out with some ghostwriting. Chief liked my work so he gave me a battlefield promotion to copy editor. On top of that, he had me write a couple of features under my own name for Issue 171. I was pretty stoked. One thing we didn’t talk about, however, was payment.
This, of course, is a problem for obvious reasons, but I figured, “Hell, Photog works with this guy. No way would I get screwed.” Yes, these are the assurances you tell yourself when you feel like you’ve finally made a breakthrough. Throw caution to the wind! So for the next couple of weeks, I worked side by side with Chief, driving out to LA to meet with the layout designer. Or I’d stay home and they’d email me PDFs of the page to proofread. I knew something was up though when we were nearing completion and I started to bring up money. Chief said we’d have dinner so he could pay me and then kept pushing back the date. Or he’d say that we’d meet at such and such a restaurant, but never tell me the time and then tell me that he waited for me and finally left. Eventually, he’d stop taking my calls altogether. Photog, unfortunately, was equally dodgy, spinning tales about how the publisher was withholding funding to pay the staff and how Chief would eventually pay me out of pocket and then break it off with the publisher.
Nine months later and I have not seen a dime. Moreover, the issue I worked on is riddled with egregious errors on parts that were never shown to me. Of course, no one will know that. All they’ll see is my name sandwiched between the title Copy Editor and a porn ad. Best of all, the newest issue was released today.
So much for walking away from the publisher.