Creative careers in the spotlight – so you want to be a features writer?

Starting out in the working world and looking for an exciting career path? Or fed up with your 9 – 5 job and after a change of pace? Wherever you are, and whatever experience you have, we’re running a series of blog posts for people looking to go into creative fields. Each week, we’ll bring in an expert, or panel of experts, go explain the skills, qualifications and frame of mind needed for each creative job! Enjoy, and if there’s a career path you’re particularly interested in, leave some suggestions in the comment box!

This week, I’ll be kicking things off with advice on breaking into the world of features writing!


What is it like to be a features writer?

From an outside perspective, features writing looks like the most glamorous, incredible job in the world. However, be warned – features writing is not always the must lucrative career. You need to be tough enough to fight it out for the paid jobs, to believe in your work (and yourself) and to know that this is really what you want to do.

What kind of full-time features jobs are there?

For the fortunate few, there are full-time editorial jobs with various online and offline publications. There are many, many more opportunities in the worlds of PR, but let go of your byline, because they are mostly ghost-writing jobs. Both have value and both have their drawbacks, but we’ll explore this in more detail.

Should I go freelance?

That depends on the type of person you are. It can be a lot harder to make money as a freelancer, but if you have a few steady clients who are willing to pay you (this can be the hardest part) then this can be a really satisfying route. I would never recommend going freelance until you’ve racked up some relevant experience and contacts.

always the intern

How do I get started?

There are many routes in to features writing. You could go through the educational route, a relevant degree (English or journalism) or an MA if you would like to change focus. You could do an internship, if you can afford to not be paid (or not be paid well) for a while. You could start your own blog as a portfolio and make contacts that way, you could work in PR (you’ll find the two worlds can be easily interchangeable) or you could knock on a lot of doors – although that approach is not for the easily discouraged.

What skills do I need?

You’ll need to know your your from your you’re, there from their and they’re. You’ll need to understand how an apostrophe works, when to use it and when to give it a miss. But most importantly, you’ll need to understand how to change your tone of voice to suit a publication, how to write for a specific audience, how to make your point and make it well. Your writing has to be razor sharp, it can’t be vague or wishy washy, it can’t be self-indulgent or random. You need to always be ab ble to write with your reader and platform in mind – and that includes knowing the difference between writing for the web and print. If you go down the PR route, you’ll need the additional skill of writing in the style of your client. It’s not as easy as writing about pretty things and getting published.


What are the biggest challenges?

Getting paid writing work is probably the single biggest challenge. To get a full-time job, prepare to do internships. For freelance work, prepare to be told that there’s no budget to pay you. I can’t count the amount of emails I’ve had that read “Dear Sara, we LOVE your work and we’d love to publish it – but we have no budget”. It can be discouraging, but don’t give up. On the question of whether or not to do freebies, I can’t answer that for you. All I’ll say is that, if you do, make sure there’s something in it for you – publicity for your own venture and so on.

What can you do to stand out?

Find your niche – and make sure it’s something you’re interested in. I spent an excruciatingly boring year working for a wonderful company that specialised in something absolutely snoozeworthy. It didn’t matter how great my colleagues were or how well I was doing, the subject matter put me to sleep. It’s hard to motivate yourself when you’re nodding off.

Start a blog – and use it regularly. That can be a great entry point into the world of journalism. Speak in your own, unique voice, update your portfolio regularly and keep at it.

find your niche

Why is it worth it?

OK, I know a lot of this post has sounded quite negative, but you need to be able to take some tough love if you’re going to be a writer. People will edit your work to smithereens, reject it out of hand, ignore you and refuse to pay you. It’s a tough industry out there.

BUT it’s totally worth it. Once you find those paying clients, once you start seeing your words in print, once you buy that first magazine with your face sitting proudly in the front, you’ll get what I mean. It’s tough for a reason – you get a platform to share your thoughts, feelings and ideas! You get to change the world for the better, even in a small way – the pen is pretty damn powerful. And, most importantly, you get to have a creative outlet – for a living. Now that’s pretty awesome!

In the words of the magnificent Floella Benjamin at my University of Exeter graduation: “go out and change the world”. Are you a features writer? Do you have any tips for aspiring journos? Or are you looking to get into the field and have some questions? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box.

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