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Category Archives: General advice

The perfect work experience application

Part of my job as staff writer at Music Week magazine is to recruit and manage work experience people. And while some applications are good, most are pretty bad. That initial contact is the first impression a potential employer has of you and if you don’t impress, you’ve failed before you’ve even started. A half arsed two-line email is not good enough. And while Twitter is a great medium for asking questions, if you can’t work out someone’s work email address through a bit of Googling the vital research skills needed for journalism are seriously lacking.

I’ve got quite a lot of facets to my job – as does everyone these days – so it massively helps and impresses me if you put all the vital information (and not much more) in that initial email. Today I received THE greatest application ever from Sam Dix. I’m going to use it for this step-by-step guide that shows you how to do the same.

– First things first, who are you? What are you doing?

Dear Rhian

I am a 3rd year student at the University of Birmingham wishing to pursue a career in journalism.

Good, I now know you are a worthy candidate.

– Secondly, what work experience have you done? Do you have the skills to help us out?

I have attached my CV, my most recent published piece (an interview for the Birmingham Mail with Editors) and my most recent article (on militant feminist Robin Thicke).

Aside from this I will be returning to the Birmingham Mail next week and have a weeks work experience with Esquire in December.

Excellent news. Also worth mentioning here that Sam tailored his CV starting with, “Enthusiastic and creative 3rd year Political Science student with strong communication and organisation skills seeking journalism work experience at Music Week.” Nice touch – shows us you actually have an interest in the publication and are therefore likely to make the most of the opportunity.

– So when can you be available?

I am available w/c 30th Dec or 6th Jan. I am aware these are quite specific dates, if these are not possible I am also available through April, though that does seem an awful long way away!

This takes away another few emails going back and forth, saving me lots of time.

And that’s all you need.

Here’s some advice on how to make the most of that placement once you’ve bagged it.


Think before you print

Hey, you’re a journalist! You can go around saying WHATEVER you want as long as it’s the truth. Who CARES if you piss anyone off? You’re just doing your job!! Right? Wrong. Journalism is all about relationships.

Imagine this: you work for a magazine/newspaper that’s yes, funded by readers buying it (although ever decreasingly so), but primarily – your salary is paid for by advertisers. Big powerful companies who control artists you might interview, products you might review, or have news that you may report on. So you interview that artist, review that product, or report that news at whatever angle you chose to take. The angle you take happens to make a fool of the artist, criticises the product, or unveils some inside information that shows up the company for their immoral ways. And BAM, big fat £££££’s of advertising pulled, relationship severed and you can kiss goodbye to your Christmas bonus.

Here’s a couple of stories for you:

One journo was once telephoned by the UK chief of a large Swiss watch conglomerate who was threatening to withdraw several million quid of advertising – after the paper printed something that displeased him. Turns out with wristwatches, the makers have such control that they expect to be able to nominate the journalists who write about their products.

Or the local newspaper employee who considered running a story about an estate agents that was unflattering in a minor way. The paper holds the advertising for all of the local houses for sale and if the advertising was lost, the newspaper would go under. Needless to say, the story got spiked.

However, it doesn’t just stop at advertisers. Social networking has brought what previously were private conversations in the pub, or texts between friends into the public eye. And it’s very easy to forget that the tweet you just sent, can be read by anyone.

What about the throwaway comment, calling out the demise in quality of a particular publication for example – its editor happens to stumble across it. What happens if somewhere down the line, you want to pitch an article, or apply for a job at said publication? Or even another one that the same editor has now gone on to work at? If they remember your name (they will), chances are you won’t get a look in. Or fancy having an online rant about how ANGRY you are because a sub has edited your work and you don’t like it? Sub sees it: relationships in the office are strained (and they don’t do you any favours when editing your copy in future). Editor sees it: you look extremely unprofessional and immature. Managing Director sees it: you face a potential sacking for defamation.

Sometimes it’s just not worth it. Think before you print.

Why can’t I write good yet?

I really want to be a good writer. Like really, really good. I want to be able to put words to page that make people laugh, make people cry, make people think yeah, she’s quite good. And every time I write creatively I think: this is it. This is going to be the best thing I’ve ever, ever written. It is most definitely going to be amazing. But all the time, it’s not. I have yet to read any of my printed features in full, because I’m dying of embarrassment within the first paragraph: I know it’s not good, and I’m gutted.

But over the course of my journalism journey so far, the most important lesson I’ve learnt is that writing takes years of practice.

Watch this:

Just keep at it.

Headlines: how to write your icing

Witty headlines. How do editors seemingly whip them out of clean air, sprinkling the perfect words on top of a news story like icing on a cake? Everybody Was Kung Fuel Fighting. Genius! Naming Private Ryan. Amazing! Where do they come from? There are certainly none in my brain.

Well actually, there are. But only found after….a little prompt shall we say. As I’ve discovered, there are a few (sort of) cheaters ways of constructing a headline.

First of all, take a word from your story – the key word, what it is will depend on the piece. If it’s a celebrity profile feature, either their first name or surname. If it’s a news story, use the subject, i.e. fuel from above example.

Type it into here, and bingo! You should get loads of ideas.

Second way: again, take the same word and type it here. Pick a word from the list, type it in here and keep doing it with different words until you come up with the perfect headline – by replacing the rhyming word with the original word.

I did this for a recent Annie Mac (VERY cool Radio 1 DJ) interview. I typed in Mac (important word), picked Jack from the list of rhyming words, typed it into the idioms function and came up with…drum roll please…Mac Of All Trades. For an interview in which she talks about the million things she’s done throughout her career. I know, I know. Genius. Amazing. See?

One more. Consider words that are similar to the important word, but don’t rhyme: i.e. Common as Mac (muck).

Of course, use your brain and initiative first of all – because you might come up with something stellar with any contextual/historical/well-known information about the particular subject or person that the story focuses on. But if nothing springs to mind, cheat, cheat, and cheat some more. Editors: you’ve been rumbled.

Don’t be a stranger

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If I had a pound for the amount of times I’ve heard that a journalists address book is their most important tool, I’d have at least enough for a (modest) Topshop spending spree. Want your job application considered, article pitch read or find that lead for a story? It’s not about what you know; it’s about who you know.

Before I started my journalism apprenticeship, the journalism industry felt like a member’s only club. And the only way to get in was if your dad/auntie/cousin had a fully-fledged-gold-plated-VIP membership. But as it turns out, this club isn’t as exclusive as I feared. And after months of coffee meetings, networking events and some good old tweeting I feel my membership is almost secured.

So a contact isn’t necessarily someone you’ve declared your Best Friend Forever after a few martinis. It’s actually far simpler than that. They could start off as someone you sparked up a conversation with at an event or exchanged a few tweets with over twitter.

The way my freelance boss went from being ignored to gracing the pages of national newspapers was to take the editors out for coffee who hadn’t been replying to her pitches, ask where she was going wrong and get some advice. Another journo said if he wanted to work for a specific magazine or newspaper, he’d find out where the staff go for drinks after work, go down and get talking to some of them.

From my experience, a face is always better than an email. Journalists are busy and rarely have time to reply to out of the blue emails from people they’ve never met. So meet them. Go to events and conferences and get talking to people. Join a journalism forum, interact with users and go along to drinks.

It’s not weird to meet work contacts online (although I would advise public meeting places…just in case). Generally, journalists are very sociable and meeting strangers is an everyday occurrence. Most of them came into the profession because they like talking to new people.

Work experience is another perfect opportunity to make contacts. Keep in touch with the people you worked with (this is very easily done over twitter).  Or gone for an interview and got turned down? Ask for feedback afterwards to find out how you can improve and stay in touch with the interviewer, if you’re still on their radar you’re far more likely to be considered for opportunities that may arise in the future than someone who isn’t.

Journalists rely on each other for favours whether it’s being recommended to a friend’s editor for a job, getting some legal information from an expert or even proof reading each others work so knowing other journos is really important.

But it is all about tit for tat. If a journalist has helped you out with an article, pitch or contact perhaps you could use social networking to share their work with people you know or offer to buy them lunch. And if you seem approachable and willing to give people help who ask for it, you’ll find it much easier to get.

But most importantly, remember that it is okay to ask for things, one day they might need you for something. If you don’t ask you don’t get and there really is nothing to be scared of. What’s the worst that can happen? No reply? Don’t take it personally.

The ability to network and make contacts is a journalistic skill that runs alongside being able to write and interview well, so the more you practice the easier (and less awkward) it will get. It’s what will make your potential as a journalist first class so start NOW.

Why haven’t you got a blog?

The amount of twitter handles for wannabe journos I’ve seen recently without links to a website/blog has sparked off this post.

Why don’t you have a blog? Why don’t you have a website?

These things are not an option for aspiring journalists, they are a necessity.

Why you need a blog

– Writing like a journalist takes practice. A lot of practice. Your blog is the perfect way to do this: treat it as a learning project, look back on your first post in a month or two and see how you’ve improved. If people are reading it you get a bigger incentive to write, so you’re more likely to keep it up – it’s the same buzz you get when seeing your name in print

– It’s really fun. Take advantage of the fact that you are in control, you can write about whatever you want and know it’s not going to get cut to shreds by a sub-editor. Enjoy it while you can

– Remember that thing I wrote about being a PR person and creating your brand? Your blog is an essential part of that brand

Forget – ‘I’ll sort it out when I’ve finished studying’ – you need to do it now. When you are applying for jobs if you have only just started your blog, the employer will know and you’ll look far less determined and credible than that other applicant who’s blogged their way through university. No guesses for who’s going to get an interview and who isn’t.

How to start a blog

–        WordPress is a great platform as is tumblr, they are very self explanatory and easy to use. Go to the help pages if you get stuck

–        Chose a main focus. Pick one thing to write about that you enjoy and that you can get plenty of material from. Make it useful for your readers, writing about what you got up to with your friends isn’t going to be very entertaining for anyone other than you or your friends. Do you have specialist knowledge about something? Write about that. Or make it entertaining: what do you have a lot to say about? If you are going to write about people, they don’t have to be famous – is your mum funny? I really want to start a blog about my mum (she’s a character to say the least)

–        Keep at it. You don’t have to write lengthy entries every day, mix it up with videos, photos, long posts and short posts but most importantly keep it going.  You can also schedule your posts, write a few when you’ve got time and save them to be released once a day or a few times a week

–        Interact. Follow other bloggers and leave comments on their posts which link back to your own blog. Follow people on twitter who might be interested in what you are writing about. My twitter handle says this: Are you a wannabe journo? Read my blog and I spend a bit of time every night finding wannabe journos to follow on twitter, who then usually follow me back and read my blog

–        Promote your blog through Twitter, Facebook, your website (because you do have one..don’t you..?) and LinkedIn. Make sure the link is very clearly displayed on all of your online signatures. No one should ever have to ask you if you’ve got one or how to find it

I’ve come into contact with quite a few editors and journalists over the last few months, and after telling them how I’ll be looking for a job when my apprenticeship ends the one thing they all have asked me is: have you got a blog? At the time I didn’t have a proper one. So I quickly pulled my finger out and started one.

Please do the same.

How to WORK work experience

If you’re a wannabe journalist, chances are you’ll be doing a fair few work experience placements. Spending a week or two in a newspaper/magazine office is an ideal way to make editors remember you for the right reasons, making you a strong contender for future jobs, not to mention the importance of getting a great reference.

So seeing as journalism is so COMPETITIVE and there are SO MANY other people trying to make it just like you, you need to make sure you stand out from the HUNDREDS AND THOUSANDS of other work experience people.

Here are the ways to do it.


Bring value to the workplace. Yes it’s a learning experience and you will need to be taught a few things, but once you have mastered the tasks make it your mission to really impress them. Be better than the last intern; how much work can you get done in a day? Take initiative and offer your ideas: make sure they know how good you are. It’s a chance to sell yourself and prove you’ve got something to give.

Be confident

Speak up when spoken too, say hello to the big boss even if he is slightly scary. If you hear someone struggling with something that you are an expert in, go over and offer to help. And if you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help.


For that period of time, you should pretty much live and breathe the placement. Yes, you might have to get up at 6.30am every morning for two weeks and you might miss Eastenders but it’s good practice for the real world. Put that job before anything else. If you need to, have something to motivate you to look forward to at the end.


If you are going to be late or sick, ring your boss as soon as you know. People don’t get pissed off because you’re ill and can’t come in, they get pissed off because you didn’t bother to tell them and ringing in sick is far more believable when you don’t do it at 4pm. They are not going to shout; they’ll say ‘thanks for letting me know, hope you feel better soon, let me know how you are tomorrow’. Easy.

Be social

This one is really really important. No matter how hard you work, if you don’t make a positive contribution to the office atmosphere, you won’t impress.

–        Never make yourself a drink without asking anyone else if they want one and offer to help if someone is given orders from the entire office

–        Is there a big group that go for lunch together? Go with them

–        Always accept drinks after work invitations

–        Join in with banter. You are far more likely to be liked for being a bit of a div than for being the one that doesn’t speak

Keep in touch

Follow your colleagues on Twitter and reply to a tweet every now and again. You never know when knowing them might come in handy in future so make sure they remember who you are. Or even better, is there anything you could carry on doing for the company after the placement is up, perhaps a few blog entries or editing work? If you think you could help make sure they know, and don’t be afraid to ask to get paid (although if it is blog type stuff probably better to accept a byline and experience rather than money).