Starting your writing career: A few insider tips for internships

OK, college students, I’ll try not to sound like your mother, but the fact is I have a son in his twenties, so I may not be able to help myself. I want you to launch your writing career in the best way possible and I believe that at least one internship is the way to go. As a manager and editor at the local newspaper I have hired dozens of interns over the years and have turned away three times that many. So here are few ideas to help you avoid that application black hole that may translate into another summer babysitting and mowing lawns.

 

The résumé — your first writing assignment

This is your chance to sell yourself to a potential employer. If you have no authentic work experience, you can highlight other qualities that show your enthusiasm and suitability for the position. Perhaps you have kept a journal since you were 10? Taught Twitter to your family? Organized and edited all of the emails from your volunteer group? Scored an A+ on a sociology paper?

Don’t overlook your social media experience. Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest needs are often filled with eager interns. Without paid writing experience, you probably won’t land a job penning features, but you might be just right as an editorial assistant. Many a career has been launched answering phones and reader mail. With this experience, you will be perfectly positioned to step up for the next internship. Yes, you should pursue another internship. I’ve known aspiring writers who graduated with four or more internships and those guys are your competition for entry level jobs.

In addition to your one-page paper resume, you will want to provide links to your writing samples. Many people create a professional online portfolio. Keep it separate from your personal site. And remember, hiring managers know how to search for you on Google and Facebook.

 

What to do now that your resume is ready?

When should you start looking for an internship? Right away! I urge you to start applying for internships in your freshman year at college. There are plenty of internship resources on college campuses. Do not turn up your nose at a non-paying/credit-only job. The experience will more than pay for itself when you move to the front of the line on the “real” job interview.

Now, for one of my pet peeves. Answer your phone and check your voicemail regularly! Few employers will make the effort to keep calling you. If you’re difficult to reach, another candidate can easily fill your spot. When I offer you the internship, make sure that you understand the time commitment and other expectations. You may need to work nights, weekends, holidays, or be on call. Welcome to the real world! Employers know you are a student and will negotiate a schedule. But they are not so understanding when you tell them on Wednesday that you are planning a four-day weekend. (Or if you call from the airport instead of showing up for your shift. Yes, this actually happened.)

 

Now what?

Here are some good questions to ask at the beginning of your internship:
  • What is appropriate dress code?
  • How will I know if I am meeting your expectations? How will I know if I’m not?
  • Will I be able to write for publication? Can I write more than what is assigned to me?
  • Can you point out some common mistakes that I should avoid?
  • How else can I help you?

 

One last note

You may not consider your internship very glamorous, but remember, all forward movement is good for your portfolio. Even if you have been assigned to compile the June gardening calendar or fact check a list of birthing center phone numbers, treat the job professionally. Build trust, show credibility and you may get to write that feature profile after all.

Extra Credit

Always look for opportunities to contribute beyond your assignment. Once that gardening calendar is finished (on deadline and without errors), ask the boss if you can file a story from the Eco-Friendly Tomato Borer Eradication workshop. If no one else is  clamoring for a specific assignment, it’s just another opportunity for you.

After you submit your assignment, listen to what your editor says about the piece. She may love it in its entirety, want to use half of it, ask for a rewrite or tell you it won’t be published. You can learn from all of these situations. For the worst case scenario, ask: What I can do better next time? Then follow through. Don’t give up. Good writers never stop learning. Being critiqued will improve your writing, and that is what this process is all about. Finally, keep asking questions. Attend networking events, talk to writers, editors, photographers and anyone else who will talk back. Make the most of your access to professionals.

 

Resources: Where to look for an internship?

Internship Fairs
InternInAustin Internship Fair, Sunday, April 29, 2:30 – 5 p.m. Free for students. As many as 150 Austin employers are expected.
This event is co-hosted by the City of Austin, the office of the mayor and campus2careers.
Registration required.

Your school can help
The University of Texas Communications Career Services office, for example, publishes an extensive list of internships at HireStandards.

Just ask
Pick up the phone and call. A good place to identify media companies that hire interns is this list compiled by the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Google it
You can find a half dozen employment search engines, including Journalismjobs.com and Simplyhired.com. A search for “Austin” and “internship” will help you get started.

There’s a lot of controversy over the free internship. Did you ever work for free? Tell us what you think.


Sandra Kleinsasser, PWA May guest blog editor, loves bringing order from chaos as an editor and organizer. She managed content and people as Executive News Editor at the Austin American-Statesman through many periods of rapid change, pounding deadlines and breaking news. She is now available as a communications consultant and problem solver. Learn more about her at www.sandrakleinsasser.com or email [email protected]

All PWA blog posts in April 2012 are edited by guest editor Cameron Lindsay.