5 Tips For Breaking Into Niche Writing In 2020
It’s been difficult to find the motivation to blog. As quarantine wears on, my role as a primary caregiver has continued on as the most important and time-consuming part of my life. The traditional gender roles I conveyed in my May post have only become more stark as John’s career gets demanding while I continue to drop work I no longer have time or energy to do.
“It’s awful,” I said to my sister about my quarantine life with an increasingly mobile toddler. “All we do is eat, nap, and play with blocks all day. I’m losing my mind.”
“That sounds like fun actually,” she pointed out. Maybe complaining about all-day playtime to a very busy and in-demand employment lawyer wasn’t my smartest move.
Since that conversation, I’ve tried to embrace my new life as a storybook reader, block stacker, and nursery rhyme singer. Like everything else about this quarantine, it feels like it’s gone on forever. So when, every now and then, I get a request for advice, it jolts me back into who I used to be—a niche journalist with ten years of experience reporting on anime, tech, and fandom.
Like I say on my about page, “my favorite part of [this blog] is getting to connect with students and give them the advice I wish I had received.” That’s truer now than it has ever been. As somebody who launched my own career against the gloomy backdrop of the 2009 recession, my heart goes out to anyone getting their start during such a bleak time.
I ought to permanently affix “Sorry for the late reply” as a heading to all of my quarantine correspondence, but I have slowly been offering advice to students and young professionals who ask. With their permission, I’ve included some of it here:
1) Get Gigs By Giving Editors Ideas
Not only is it a tough time to break into the field, it’s a tough time to be in the field. Though online ad revenue is down, more people are stuck at home and reading news outlets than ever, so clicks are way up and editors need stories for people to read. Just from hanging out on Twitter, I’ve seen requests from places like Crunchyroll News, Funimation, and Anime News Network that are putting out calls for story pitches because they need new content.
If I were looking for gigs, I’d be reaching out to these places with story ideas I’d be ready to write for them ASAP. In a cold email, I don’t even think a portfolio of samples is as important as a well-written email with an interesting pitch and the intent to back it up with quick, solid work. It’s less about researching what makes a good story pitch in general, and more about studying previous stories at those outlets and suggesting a story you can write for them that’s both in their wheelhouse and not something they’ve covered in the past.
2) Pitch The Stories You Want To Read
Is there anything in your preferred beat that you think isn’t getting good coverage? Do you think you have an interesting idea for an in-depth piece that’s not about immediate breaking news? Better yet, can you make a case for an article that only you could write, involving a personal angle or anecdotal experience? Best of all, can you tie an article idea to what’s going on in the world right now? These are all ways you could get your idea to pique an editor’s interest.
I would write to a couple of your favorite niche outlets with one or two ideas (I’d go for quality over quantity, you really only need a single good idea) and see if anyone responds. And if nobody does, I would try smaller organizations next. In the videogame sphere, a good example would be that you’d pitch to, instead of Polygon, someplace like Rock Paper Shotgun. They’re actually a great place for this because their contributor guidelines (always read those first) say that you don’t need to have published work to pitch to them, just an example of prior writing.
3) Find Experts To Guide Your Niche Reporting
If you look at my career over the last ten years, it looks like I’ve covered a huge variety of topics. But actually, those topics all occurred in clumps. I’d be assigned a beat and I’d immerse myself in it. For example, when I was at ReadWrite, my editor came to me and said, “Lauren, I want you to become our Pinterest expert.” So I did. I signed up for an account when they went live, I went to their headquarters, I followed a lot of Pinterest influencers and kept tabs on them. This also happened with robots and smart homes at different times.
These days, my beats are informed by my own interests. I write about anime and Magic: The Gathering for Forbes because I like that stuff and already know a lot of background. But any time I’m entering into something I know nothing about, I do a lot of research. For example, when I wrote about quantum computing, I first found and interviewed a quantum physicist. Look for guides in a new beat: people who know the topic way better than you do and can keep you from looking stupid. I don’t want to make insiders roll their eyes at something I write the same way I roll my eyes whenever a reporter writes “Sailor Moon: The Anime Nobody Has Heard Of.”
4) You Can Skip The Unpaid Work Step
Let’s talk about privilege for a moment. My parents paid for me to go to college, and my grandmother paid for me to go to grad school. (I also had scholarships for both but they would not have paid for all of my tuition, my books, etc.) This gave me more choices than the average student. So when I wanted to intern at Kotaku for no money, that was an option. When I wanted to intern at the Newseum for no money, I could do that. Kotaku, in particular, was huge for helping me build contacts in the games/pop culture writing space. But the world has changed. The Newseum closed and Kotaku now pays their interns. It used to be that you would “pay your dues” by working for free, but now that’s just called “being taken advantage of.”
Today, I suggest jumping right into freelance work instead of interning. Even though freelance gigs are frequently one-time, you can turn that into recurring work if you deliver good, consistent writing. And even if not, you can get big publication names in your portfolio.
5) Never Stop Learning
I’ve always been interested in web design since middle school, though it started as a hobby. Then, when I got my Master’s in Journalism, technical training was a required part of the coursework. Even back then there was an understanding that journalism alone wasn’t going to pay the bills in the future, and journalists needed to be well-rounded. Of course you don’t need to go to grad school for this. You can use Lynda.com (I have a free membership with my library card and you might, too). One suggestion for honing your skills might be to set a productive goal: you could build your own website and use YouTube videos to help you along the way.
Over the years, I’ve worked on improving my skills whenever my justification for doing something a certain way was “This is how I’ve always done it.” That’s a bad reason. That’s when it’s time to start with a Google search and see how people are, for example, doing web security audits these days, and see if I need to get with the times.
Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash