Before You Ever Put Your Fingers on a Keyboard: Some Advice for Getting Started
The best way to prepare to do arts journalism is to read arts journalism-lots of it. In addition to your daily newspapers, there are online media outlets, literary magazines and those free arts and culture ‘zines and alt weeklies you find at the neighborhood coffee shop. If you want to write on the arts, you’re likely already reading some of these publications. Now, read them critically-figure out how each one is distinct. Who do these different publications seem aimed at? Which ones have the articles you enjoy reading most? If you can isolate those elements you, as a reader, find most appealing about the arts writing you read-you have a much better shot at incorporating them into your own writing.
Your pitch to write an article for a publication or website will be much more persuasive if you’re conversant both with the larger arts writing context in our region and with the kind of material that media outlet runs. If you have a feel for the audience, the voice of a publication, and for the kind of writing they typically run, you’ll be able to tailor your ideas for articles directly to the needs of that media outlet.
Be clear on your strengths before you approach an editor with an idea. What are your interests and specific areas of expertise? If you have published writing on the arts before-have links to those clips handy.
Even if you don’t have strong expertise on a particular discipline in the arts, you can still write on it-just stay away from criticism and be creative about your approach. Is there something interesting going on in your neighborhood-say, a children’s art program your family has participated in? Write on that-interview the program organizers, ask some attendees why they’re participating and what they’re getting out of it. You don’t need to be an expert to do a bit of reportage about something close to home.
If you haven’t had your writing published before, you should be realistic about the publications/media outlets you seek out at first. There are lots of opportunities for publication for emerging writers and citizen journalists-little publications and community-based websites provide lots of ways for you to get your voice out there (Twin Cities Daily Planet, for example, has excellent citizen journalism resources and platforms). Don’t be afraid to write for small ‘zines and websites, or to try your hand at blogging; like anything else, you need to learn the ropes before you can expect to get paid well for your writing. You may find that it’s worth your while to do some writing without pay-for practice, to hone your skills, to get used working with an editor, and to give yourself time to gather some published clips and writing samples you can share with an editor you’re pitching later.
NO WRITER IS AN ISLAND
Writing is a collaborative process, and you’ll need to be prepared for some give and take during the editorial process. A sympathetic editor can work wonders to help you smooth out rough patches, and (s)he understands the larger context your work will need to fit to best reach his/her publication’s audience. Be prepared to compromise on points of style and grammar; but don’t be afraid to advocate for your argument if you feel an editor has misconstrued a point you’re trying to make or has changed something in error. In addition to cleaning up your grammar and syntax, editors will occasionally change your phrasing, move whole sections around, or ask you to elaborate on a point that’s unclear to him/her. A good editor will make sure you have a chance to see and approve any substantial changes before your work is published, but sometimes smaller, more cosmetic things will simply be changed as the piece goes to print if the deadline is tight. If you bring a generous, collaborative spirit to this editorial process, and if you show a willingness to compromise to get the best piece for the publication-your chances of writing again for that editor improve exponentially.