Monday, July 26, 2004


(by Oliver)

"What's Good Oliver,

My name is Mike *** and I'm emailing you asking for some advice. I'm an aspiring Hip-Hop Journalist and what to ask you what's the best way to go about getting into it either full-time or as a freelancer? Could formal training like a Master's in Journalism be profitable to pursue on top of whatever your undergraduate degree is? I currently write for a Hip-Hop magazine called ***, so that gig among others is helping build up my portfolio as I continue to strengthen my craft. Any help and or advice would really be appreciated.

Just to give a little background, I field questions like this at least once every few months and I realized that after retyping the same response every time, creating a posting would be a little more permanent. Keep in mind: this is just based on my experience which is limited at best. I don't claim to be an expert (I just act like one!) so just take this all with a grain of salt and always seek out other opinions too. If some of my colleagues out there want to chime in, please do. With that said...

    Thanks for writing. To answer your questions out of order, a degree from J-School can't hurt. At the very least, it will give you good training and practice to write often. I'm of the firm belief that constant practice is essential to writing better so if a course forces you to do so, that will help. BUT, J-School isn't a prerequisite to becoming a music critic: in fact, none of the writers I know (myself included) ever went to J-School and that hasn't seemed to limit any of us. Most editors in the music publications world could probably care less if you had formal training. J-School is better suited to working at a daily newspaper and the ways in which they teach you to write efficiently and economically are great skills but writing for magazines or other publications outside of the daily realm will require other skill-sets that journalism classes won't necessarily teach you. Short answer: it won't hurt you but you don't need it to write.

    As for "how do you become a freelancer"? You're doing it already, you have the right things in mind, starting with building a clip portfolio. The "stature" of the publication isn't exactly irrelevant, but in my opinion, at this stage of your career, a clip is a clip and it's all useful for you to build your pitches. When it comes time to approach a new publication, be it print or internet or whatever, just remember to be persistent but not nagging.

    Editors are not god-like figures, sitting behind a golden desk, dispensing assignments like blessings. They're like you or me: harried, stressed, and most of all: forgetful. I used to think my editor had a grudge against me if I didn't hear back from them within, like, an hour of sending a pitch via email. Then I became an editor and learned the truth: I got other things to do than be on my writer's schedule. But if someone carefully reminds me, I'll be more likely to remember their pitch and more likely to assign it to them. Like I said, I can't speak for every editor out there: many of them operate in ways that make no logical sense to me and I'm sure I've come off just as cryptically to my writers.

    Here's the main advice I give every aspiring writer who asks: just ask for an opportunity. When I first started out freelancing, back in the mid-90s, I probably got around 80-90% of my gigs simply by asking for a chance. This won't work everywhere: it's probably not that easy to cold call Rolling Stone and try to get the lead review for the next issue, but you'd be surprised how far a good pitch and a little bit of persistence will get you. I had the fear, early in my career, that I "wasn't ready" and therefore, shouldn't pitch some places until I had more clips but I realize, in hindsight, those opportunities would have been available to me if I had simply made the effort to ask. Remember: in this game, people NEED your content - the turnover among freelancers is enormous so if you're just willing to slug it out, you'll do ok.

    As for being ready, sometimes, there's nothing to it but to do it. The sink or swim challenge isn't easy but it's effective in terms of pushing yourself to improve. It's better to take the chance then waiting in the wings. The desire to want to write is as important as the ability to write.