How I became a writer

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This is a guest blog by Helena Baker, a social media and content assistant at MedicAnimal. She graduated in 2014 with a degree in French and History from the University of Royal Holloway. She is currently based in North West London, has her own website and blog, and is a contributor for the Huffington Post. You can find her tweeting @HelenamBaker


Growing up I always wanted to be a writer, and from my earliest days I can specifically remember the many creative writing tasks I enjoyed. Unless I am getting my memories muddled, I’m pretty sure I wrote a rather impressive dystopian story when I was in Year 4. Spurred on by my prematurely twisted mind I continued to write imaginatively throughout my school years.

Extracurricular activities weren’t the done thing in my school. This unfortunately meant there was no school newspaper to encourage my writing dream, nor was I adventurous enough to join the ‘Alternative Scene’ in Manchester. This was a group that spent its weekends hanging out in the city centre, writing sad poetry about the many struggles inherent in a middle-class upbringing. This is a problem many students face – a limited (or embarrassing) range of possibilities to grow their skills in a job market that requires them to do so as early as possible.

My aspirations of becoming a writer were further limited by general attitudes towards the industry. Parents, peers and teachers all were basically of one mind – being a journalist was not an aspirational goal. Everyone wants to be one and far too many fail, and whilst being a writer would make a lovely Twitter bio, I doubted its ability to pay the bills or provide much career progression.

So my writing remain confined to random word documents (and as I became more tech savvy) expanded to a very private Google Drive romantically entitled “my writing.” Whilst at one earlyish age I remember harbouring a fantasy of winning a Pulitzer, this was quickly superseded by my hope of becoming an employment lawyer (a decision accompanied by a radical feminist phase – I had short hair and it rather comes with the territory.) I wanted to enable women to smash the glass ceiling, and you know, fight the patriarchy. I still am passionate about this and I know that newspapers like their journalists to have: a certain apathy towards something in society, and a fieriness to combat it.

But I didn’t know this at the time and, from around the age of 14, I swung wildly from one employment possibility to another. These generally depended on what television show happened to be airing. So on any given day I wanted to be a detective, doctor or forensic anthropologist. Looking back, these fantasises had far more to do with an aspirational lifestyle than a realistic career, but undeterred I would proudly proclaim my future plans for a good two weeks before the inevitable cycle of change ran its course.

The only thing that really remained steady during those complicated teenage years was an obsession with books. Growing up an only child without Sky there wasn’t much to do except read. So I read scores of fiction and non-fiction books. It became not only an escape, but also the way I learned about the birds and the bees, love and romance, hope and life. Reading as much as possible is a great way of becoming comfortable with different writing styles and growing your vocabulary.

vintage-technology-keyboard-old-largeIt’s good to channel your strongest emotions into writing whenever you have them. Indeed, it was my first (and very unrequited) love that inspired me to write. Hurt, confused and feeling very much like Taylor Swift before writing her latest hit, I took to the keyboard to vent and pontificate. My level of emotional investment certainly boosted the quality of writing. Also, getting things own on paper (or pixels) helped me to think more deeply about the event and my feelings, so I came to many interesting realisations.

Because of my love of books, words and writing I decided to study French and History at one of the best universities in the country (because I was rejected from Cambridge.) I didn’t study a vocational degree because I was told they weren’t very respected, and this was supported by the fact that many of the best institutions don’t offer courses in digital marketing or journalism.

Looking back, I strongly disagree with this advice. If you want to enter journalism or media then study a relevant course. Do what you love and immerse yourself in your subject. Had I done journalism I would have ended up undertaking internships, building a solid portfolio and gaining far more insight into the industry than I currently have. It would have prepared me more than 16th century French syntax ever could.

There is a great deal of snobbery about Universities in this country, but let me dispel it. Everyone says that only students from the best universities will stand a chance in the world of work, but nothing is a match for hard work, determination and talent. Employers care far less about the name of your university than the amount of work experience on your CV. And although the biggest graduate employers do tend to target only the Russell universities, the vast majority of the UK’s employers are SMEs (small to medium sized enterprises), which are spread all over the country and seek graduates from their local universities. So it’s not just the Russell graduates who have the best opportunities.

Your personality and ability to network are also essential to your employment prospects. It’s not what you know, but who you know. Especially in the field of media, where followers on Twitter will provide you with far more opportunities than a first in Latin from Cambridge. (This radical statement is based only marginally on bitterness.) I tweet about what I love and try to engage as much as possible, free of the fears I had in school about appearing nerdy to classmates.

In 2010 I started at Durham University and, guided by some remnant of hope for a writing career, I signed up to the university newspaper and attended their first meeting. There, I was surrounded by scores of undergraduates all hoping to get their names in print. A few were older, many were smarter and all seemed to be immensely more confident than me. And here was where I made my first mistake – I gave up at the first hurdle. I submitted a couple of articles that were promptly rejected and served to validate the theory that I would never succeed.

In reality, being a journalist is about repeatedly putting pen to paper, experimenting with different ideas and seeing what works. Having a good grasp of grammar, a wide range of vocabulary and an intimate knowledge of syntax will not make a great writer, in much the same way that discussing these topics at a party will make you the least popular person there. Instead it’s about being bold with your ideas, arguments and metaphors. I needed to write, but I was scared of further rejection and lost the battle without ever putting up a fight.

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But in this day and age who really needs to be published? You can start your own blog and reach an audience as large as that of any University periodical. I would encourage reading up on the basic rules of SEO before creating a domain name, as mine (OvereducatedandOverdressed) is basically redundant in terms of google ratings. Then you should take the plunge and write about anything. The aim is to find your voice, to take a more disciplined approach to your writing and to get some constructive feedback.

Be warned haters are always going to hate – so any general rude comments, obscenities or profanities should and must fade like the tide. Conversely, listening and adapting is tremendously important (however much the truth hurts.) I had a friend who commented that my articles could lean towards the self-deprecating, and that to build a readership there was no need to belittle myself. It is something I am now aware of and his advice was extremely useful. Learn to sort the wheat from the chaff and you will become a far better writer.

And of course twitter. I am a bit late to this party, but it’s massively important that you tweet, follow, engage and maintain an active presence on social media. If you have lots of followers, every article published or blog uploaded will get far more readers than if your followers are limited to a group of High School friends, some random course mates and your overly enthusiastic great uncle whom with all the best intentions in the world cannot get your work a massive readership.

Finally, my last piece of advice is on internships – something I wish I had done during my time at University. During your summer break – find a start-up, a small company or any local firm that needs a blogger or content writer. Search local job boards both online and off. Getting paid to be a trainee writer is not easy, but companies are clamouring for free workers.

As a student you may have the luxury of being able to work for free, by relying on your maintenance loan – so take it. When it comes to actual job applications you will find it far easier to persuade people to pay you if you have some examples of when you’ve added value to other companies and gained vital transferrable skills in the process.

So my three steps to becoming a writer are blogging, tweeting and interning. In my current job as a social media and content assistant, I’m more of a marketer than a journalist, but I still have the dream of becoming the latter. Yet for MedicAnimal, I’m writing every day, and I love it. For any more guidance or humorous (without being too self-deprecating) posts, check out my blog or my website and you can find me on twitter @helenambaker.

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About Author

Jacob is a History and Spanish student at University College London, who is passionate about writing, marketing, tutoring and travel.

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