A 10 Step Guide To Becoming an Automotive Journalist

A 10 Step Guide To Becoming an Automotive Journalist

You read our articles, that often involve things like trips to Barcelona where we eat truffles and iberico ham and drive Lamborghinis on race tracks. It sounds like a dream job and, in many cases, it is. In many other cases it's not, but we'll get to that later. I'm going to tell you a bit about the business side of things, and what steps you need to take to get in to it. If you're currently in school for journalism or English, fight as hard as you can to get an internship for a car magazine or the automotive department of a lifestyle mag and then be the best intern in the world; this will allow you to skip the following steps. I majored in Dance (Pedagogy) and that hasn't been helpful in this career one bit. It helps with the dance career, but not as much with the writing.

Step 1: Get a Job

I'm not talking about a job writing, I'm talking about a non-editorial job. At the minimum, your first job as an automotive writer will most likely come with pay that's usually reserved for people who are taking money under the table for picking oranges and reflexively shield their faces when you say "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement." You will most likely not survive on whatever you're being paid as a writer for some time.

Step 2: Read ALL The Car Stuff

You don't stay abreast of the state of the auto industry by just reading Jalopnik; that's how you stay abreast of Jalopnik. Read as many car sites as you can, and also read the less entertaining but often more informative outlets like Bloomberg Business, AutoNews, and The Detroit Free Press. At the very minimum you need to skim that crap. Read lots of how to and manuals and such as well; "I like cars" isn't a qualification, but "I know a lot about repairing air-cooled VeeDubs" is.

Step 3: Start Writing

No, you don't yet have anybody to write for. That said, nobody wants to hire someone who doesn't have any work to point at, so you need to start a free blog somewhere and start writing. Obviously, you'll also get better with practice, so you should probably go back and edit your earlier work at some point. You don't want people to see that.

Step 4: Read These Books

"The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition" by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, the "AP Stylebook," and "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" by Lynne Truss. The first two contain what you need to know about punctuation, grammar, and the style of pseudo-journalistic writing and the last one contains much of the same information surrounded by amusing anecdotes that will help you actually remember all this dreary information.

Step 5: Apply For Every Job, No Matter How Pathetic The Pay Is

I'll say it again: you're lucky if you catch the eye of the editor of some piddly car site in some weird corner of the internet who wants to give you $0.02 per word. As far as jobs go, that's bloody horrifying, but it's a way in to the career you're wanting to be a part of. From that point onward you need to write every article as if you're getting paid 150 times more than you are.

Step 6: Go To Driving School

There are two ways to do this. The cheap and awesome way is to convince said driving school that letting you attend for free would be worth it for them. It might be good to get in touch with a local magazine or paper for the purposes of this review, as that might be an easier sell for everyone involved. Never assume that you can handle a car on track if you haven't been taught. That's like assuming you can bust out a variation from the ballet "Flames of Paris" because you watched it on YouTube a few times.

Step 7: Write a Writing-Specific Résumé

By now you have some experience, you have some published samples to include links to, and you have some qualifications and interesting skills (driving school, aircooled VW repair) to your name. Build a new résumé that presents you as an editorial professional and automotive expert. Think about the parts of your background that have informed your writing to date in ways that you didn't expect and present it well. My degree in dance included a some art history, theory, and philosophy classes that ended up helping me interview designers and discuss the art and design of cars. If my freaking dance degree turned out to be genuinely helpful, surely whatever you studied has an application as well. Spin it.

Step 8: Find Networking Opportunities

At this point, you're nothing more than a meaningless speck of journalism in an endless sea of content. You need a job that pays for more than a six-pack of beer every week, and that means you need a new job. You need to become known in the field, and that means meeting other writers and editors. Find a regional automotive press association like MAMA or the Motor Press Guild and join it. Once you've done that, go to as many events as you can, and don't be a dick at them. Also, if they let you drive a car, don't crash it. Nobody hates a slow driver who lets other people by on track, but everybody hates the guy who wraps a car around a guard rail. If you're lucky enough to get invited to some press junkets, those are networking gold too.

Step 9: Get a Job That's Not Awful

At this point you have experience writing, experience driving, and experience doing some tangentially-related car stuff, you've summed it all up on one page (ONE PAGE!), and met some people in the field. Put out feelers with the people you know as to who might want to pick up another freelancer or two and set up alerts on every writing job board you can find for the words "automotive," "car," cars," "motoring," etc. and send that resume, along with a carefully and cleverly worded email to everyone you can. Don't neglect that cover letter/email either; if a potential writer's first contact is a poorly worded email with bad punctuation and boring sentence structure it won't impress an editor.

Stap 10: Lay Lots of Eggs and Buy Many Baskets

Let's say you got yourself a staff job at some cool magazine that pays you a fair wage and sends you on cool trips to drive supercars. First you should reflect on how lucky you are that your job often involves fast cars and top shelf booze (always in that order), and second you should start assuming that you can be downsized at a moment's notice. Real jobs in this field are always disappearing, and it's because people refuse to pay for content and are violently and religiously opposed to ever clicking on ads, even if they are genuinely interested in what's being advertised. While the state of advertising and content monetization is a topic for another day on another website, it is relevant here. Even with your nice job as a staff writer or managing editor or editor-at-large, you need to have a few outlets that you regularly freelance with. This will provide you with a baseline of income that's unlikely to vanish all at once, will keep you in the circuit that you worked so hard to get in to, and will serve as a foot in the door for another awesome staff job if something horrible should happen.

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