I sometimes receive emails from aspiring writers asking how they can become a journalist in politics or entertainment. While I am not Michael Musto or Marc Lamont Hill, I have written for reputable outlets and I’ve interviewed some amazing people—some celebrities, some not. This is not etched in stone, but here are my humble tips.
1. No Money
Don’t expect to get paid. There are so many people who want to be writers. Therefore, magazines and web sites do not have to pay them. Only those who have a nice stack of credentials or a history with a publication will get a check. There is absolutely no money in writing in the first six months to a year. Just like singers perform at clubs for free or actors act for free, until you get a nice resume, you will have to write for free.
2. Go to School
If being a writer is something you truly want to do, it’s paramount that you attend college. Sure, there are the stories of high school dropouts becoming writers, but not as many in 2013. If you want to be a serious writer, school is a necessity—nothing can replace the demands of writing tons of papers monthly and reading several books a week for four years straight.
3. Editors Can Help You, Not Other Writers
Sure, other writers can give you tips, but it’s the editors you need to know. I get emails all the time asking me how they can write for The Advocate, but I’m the writer, not the editor. The best questions to ask is, “Do you have a contact for the editor at… ?”
4. Do You Want to be a Writer or be Famous?
Writing will not get you fame. Yes, there are the small percentages, but 95% of writers do not become a headline on TMZ. If you think writing is your avenue to becoming Oprah, it’s not. No one cares about writers except for others writers. No one reads interviews and remembers the writer’s name. You are the vessel. If you want to be famous, a personality, a gossip columnist, that is different. That said, notoriety might come with work ethnic or the content you create, but that can’t be your intention. You have to write because you love it.
5. Don’t Comprise Your Beliefs
I’ve never written a review I didn’t believe in. I may have changed my mind, but at the time those were my true thoughts. In the cases where I have been told to say something was good when it was bad or say something is bad when it was good (yep, that happens too!)—I have politely declined to do the story. Sure, you might tone things down, but don’t comprise or people won’t believe or trust you. Thankfully, when you do more objective writing your opinion doesn’t matter.
6. Don’t Take Advice From People Who Aren’t Writers
Sure, words like, “Go with your heart,” from your mama is fine. But when random people “advise” you how to do a story, how to ask a question, what you are doing right and what you need to do right—and they have never been published, don’t get paid to critique others and think they are an expert because they can form a full sentence—ignore them! Call up fellow writers and ask them. Unless they have a Master’s degree in English Literature, they are to be ignored.
7. Be Professional
No mater the publication, be professional. Meet your deadlines — Michael Musto once told me, “Half of it is meeting your deadlines and turning in properly edited work.” Don’t curse, dress appropriately and don’t get comfortable. Address people by Mr. and Ms. unless they tell you differently (Alfre Woodard once thanked me for addressing her as Ms. because the other journalists casually called her by her first name). Be aware of your social media! The days of “professional” and “personal” social media pages are extinct. Also, for those who say, “I don’t do interviews, we just have conversations!” No — unless you’re Dick Cavett or Howard Stern and you have an hour sit-down. Celebrities don’t care what you think unless they ask. They’re on their twentieth interview of the day, they want to go home, they are exhausted and you are normally only given five to ten minutes to make magic happen — what they really appreciate is an original question. There is an art to interviewing. Acting like you are sisters since the river was young can sometimes be about your ego because you’re making the interview about you and not them.
8. Take a Risk
Ask the edgy questions, the questions you would want to know — always with respect. If you’re a gossip columnist, your angle might be different but if you want to be a respected interviewer, be creative and fresh with your questions, which requires research and brainstorming. You can ask the edgiest of questions but if you frame it respectful enough, the person might open up. Nonetheless, know your boundaries.
9. Study the Greats
Larry King (king of quick, clean, three-second questions), Dick Cavett (one of few who conducted the “conversational” interview), Oprah Winfrey (queen of the emotional interview), Diane Sawyer (hardball, fearless questions), Wendy Williams (not just the hot topics lady, she’ll pull out the truth like the lasso of truth is in her hands), Ed Bradley (stone-cold journalist style, no one did it better), Howard Stern (the king of all media for a reason — raw, knowledgable and trusted) and Barbara Walters (the master of interviewing in any format or any person).
10. Take All Advice with a Grain of Kosher Salt — Including Mine!
There is no formula. There is no perfect way to do things, go with your gut and you’ll still make mistakes. Writing, journalism or creating any type of creative content is all about growing and endless editing. The great thing about being a writer — you can always revise.
Good luck to all of the up and coming writers!