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Here’s How I Got Published on Forbes, TIME, and Newsweek Before I Turned 21

In fall 2012, I arrived at college and was convinced I was going to be President of the United States. I spent all four years of high school believing that becoming a politician was my destiny, and arriving on campus meant the start of what I assumed would be a storied political career (HAAAA).

However, life has a very hilarious way of pivoting in an instant. I joined student government and realized within weeks that it was totally not my thing and never would be. I sat there dejected because a dream I’d spent all of my teen years up until that point concocting vanished in a puff of patriotic smoke.

And suddenly, like many college students before me, I had no idea where I was going.

Around the same time, I started writing for Wesleying, Wesleyan’s irreverent campus blog founded back in 2006. It was the start of a career I didn’t even know I wanted to go into (and to be honest, didn’t even know really existed).

Three and a half years later, my byline is on a number of publications, including (but not limited to):

  • Forbes
  • TIME
  • Newsweek
  • Inc.
  • Business Insider
  • Mashable
  • USA TODAY
  • Cosmopolitan
  • Elle
  • Good Housekeeping
  • Woman’s Day

I’ve also gotten to interview some interesting people, including (but not limited to):

  • Singer Nich Lachey
  • MSNBC’s Political Correspondent Kasie Hunt
  • Surfer Bethany Hamilton
  • Actress Elizabeth Banks
  • Polyvore CEO Jess Lee
  • Former People StyleWatch Editor Susan Kaufman

Here’s the kicker: I did all of this before I turned 22.

Over the past couple years, I’ve gotten asked a lot about how I broke into media and did all of this writing. People expect you to be able to sum it up in a sentence and say that it happened overnight, but that’s absolutely not the case. Thus, I decided to sit down and finally write out a timeline.

I was really intimidated by the whole process as a wee college frosh, and I wish more people had been open and honest about how they got to where they are. People always say not to compare your Chapter 1 to someone’s Chapter 20, and it’s hard to avoid that without knowing the full story.

Every journey is different, but it would’ve been awesome to get a peek inside how others got where they are when I was sitting there bugging out during those first couple months of writing.

So, here it is: My journey broken down by years of college.

Image from Unsplash.

Freshman Year

So there I was, a lil’ freshman writing for a campus blog who had never considered writing or media as career options.

This was mostly due to two things:

  • I didn’t know anyone who wrote for a living or worked in media. As the old saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Writing/editing wasn’t even on my radar.
  • In high school, a not-so-great English teacher told me that I was a terrible writer. This left me always feeling doubtful about my writing abilities. At the time, it was terrible, but this has turned out to be a blessing in a disguise: Having constant imposter syndrome meant I had zero ego about my writing.

Anyway, as I began writing for Wesleying, I was soon intrigued by the world of media. How does the writing process work? And more importantly, how the hell do people break into the field?

To find out, I did what any twenty-first century human would do: I googled.

Y’all, I literally typed “college contributors wanted” into a search engine to see what popped up. That’s how an entire writing career started. It’s neither fancy nor sexy (no one came to my door and was like, “Youngin’! Here’s a New York Times byline!”), but that’s how it happened.

I’ll be honest here: I spent hours upon hours upon hours googling and reading and researching and casually internet stalking people. Regardless of how you end up getting into writing or media, it takes so much work.

After several weeks of frantic round-the-clock research, the process led to a few very important leads that I didn’t really act on until November/December of freshman year.

Her Campus

Her Campus always holds a special place in my heart because it was the first publication (outside of Wesleying) that I ever wrote for.

I won’t lie: Some people (including some of my peers) think HC is a “sorority sister magazine” (direct quote from someone I know). Sure, you can write about your sorority all you want. But it’s one of the most robust college media platforms out there, and its National Contributor program has one of the best editing processes you can experience as an undergrad.

Thanks to Her Campus, I got a crash course in learning how to write drafts on tough deadlines, format posts based on a publication’s specifications, write in the “tone” of a publication, contact and interview sources, edit properly, and so many other things.

Additionally, the HC team really invests in people who invest in them. Obviously I didn’t know this as a freshman, but over the course of the three years I worked with Her Campus, they proved themselves time and time again to be on my side.

It’s also important to realize that I was a terrible writer when I showed up at Her Campus. My first draft ever was abhorrent, and I cried when I got feedback because I knew I’d written something so bad.

Long story short: I had a long way to go, but by the time I left Her Campus in December 2015, I’d published 150+ articles, many of which were syndicated on the Huffington Post and USA TODAY College, and 100+ of those articles were interviews with some of the coolest and most influential women in the world.

HelloFlo

You probably know HelloFlo from their hilarious videos, including “Camp Gyno,” “First Moon Party,” and “Postpartum: The Musical” (I got to be on set for “First Moon Party,” and it was truly vagical).

I came in contact with HelloFlo as a second-semester freshman before the company even had a website and was publicly announcing its name. Just to show you what dumb luck this was: I applied to be a campus rep via a Her Campus job listing that I stumbled upon when I bored in class. That was it; I didn’t even really know what I was signing up for but #YOLO.

Over the next three years with HelloFlo, I would take on the roles of campus rep, director of campus programs, full-time summer intern, social media manager, and finally managing editor, where I oversee the publication of 50 articles per week. I also found an amazingly inspirational mentor in Naama Bloom, HelloFlo’s founder.

Of course, my little freshman self didn’t know all of this yet. Hindsight’s 20/20, am I right?

The Prospect

During my “college contributors wanted” googling, I stumbled upon a shut down college admissions website run by several other college students. While the site was no longer in use, I did find a postmortem with an email address and a note that said, “If you’re interested in being part of a new college admissions venture, email us.”

Passionate about college access and desperately in need of low-hanging fruit writing clips, I sent an email.

This email later turned into my venture The Prospect, which became the world’s largest student-run college access organization within a year of its founding in February 2013.

To date, over one million people have visited The Prospect, and the site has had over three million page views. Our entire staff is comprised of students under the age of 22, and over 400+ students have worked on the site in the past three years, running social media, helping with marketing efforts, coordinating our variety of programs, and writing over 3,100+ articles to date. Keep in mind that this has been done with no marketing budget and money only going towards server costs and website maintenance.

Of course, back during my second semester of college, it was a rinky-dinky Wordpress blog and a Tumblr page.

Main takeaway from the year: Everyone’s gotta start somewhere, even if that means typing really basic/dumb phrases into Google. Hell, if Google had existed in Aristotle’s time, I’m sure he would’ve googled too.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and make some mistakes, especially in the beginning. Trust me, no one is paying attention, and you’ll never be expected to get everything right on the first try. If you find an opportunity you like, go for it.

Image from Unsplash.

Sophomore Year

During sophomore year, I continued the work I’d started during my freshman year, but with three important additions:

  • I started writing a weekly news roundup series called the Quad Report for USA TODAY College after being rejected from their Collegiate Correspondent program during spring of my sophomore year (I emailed their editorial director and suggested it). I also wrote a couple of news pieces and realized that I hate traditional news journalism (The team at USA TODAY College is wonderful though!). I’m glad I tried it, but it definitely wasn’t for me.
  • I became Her Campus’ How She Got There (HSGT) editor, where I interviewed amazing women in the workforce (including some whom I mentioned above), and I also took up the role of High School editor, where I edited four High School section drafts a week. Both roles were helpful (and also came with rad perks), and I held both positions for two years.
  • I began interning for The Muse back at a time when the company only had 12 employees (it’s now up to 80 or 90 or something amazing). I was one of their first entirely remote interns.

Working for The Muse was also great because the company had a plethora of incredible syndication partnerships. By the time I turned 21, I had been syndicated on TIME, Forbes, Newsweek, Inc., Business Insider, and Mashable. Not too shabby, right?

The Muse also taught me an important lesson: While finding paid work is obviously important, exposure and cred is just as crucial when you’re starting out and building a portfolio.

Suddenly, I had dozens of clips (with my byline and bio attached) on reputable websites to show off, which became increasingly important when I started pitching editors and asking people to make it rain dolla billzzz in exchange for my writing as a college sophomore.

Main takeaway from the year: Earning some cred in the beginning is important if you want to make money from writing. No one will give you their money simply because you say, “Take my word for it.” If you have the clips to back up your claims, it makes life a lot easier.

Image from Unsplash.

Junior Year

Junior year was a time of grinding away, continuing work with these different organizations and publications, and freelancing and ghostwriting for other publications and people.

Additionally, however, I started taking on more work and new roles to expand my skill set:

  • HelloFlo relaunched its blog as an actual publication in January 2015, and I spearheaded content strategy, editing, and contributor management from the beginning in addition to writing 2–3 pieces per week. At the time, the blog published 4–5 articles per week; now it’s at 50 (yes, 5–0!).
  • I started working on The Muse’s social media (particularly their Twitter) and took over their Best Of The Web newsletter, which gave me real experience in content curation.

Another important update that really gave me some cred: I was named one of Glamour’s Top 10 College Women for my work on The Prospect, which came with a cash prize, a photo spread in the magazine’s April 2015 issue, an all-expense paid trip to New York, and some other cool perks.

Winning included filling out a lengthy application, interviewing for three months, and sending lots and lots of emails, but if anything, it showed me how to persevere when I thought I had a 1% chance of getting something.

Main takeaway from the year: Always be looking for ways to expand your skill set and create new opportunities. It’s easy to get complacent and convince yourself that you’re fine where you are. Find interesting ways to push yourself, try new things, and gain new experiences, even if they’re ridiculously uncomfortable.

Image from Unsplash.

Senior Year

A summary of things that happened during senior year: I increased the number of publications I freelanced for, upped my rates (which everyone should do!), and worked on diversifying my bylines.

One of these opportunities was the ability to join The Mix, Hearst’s contributor network, which has thus far helped me publish a piece about ASMR on Cosmopolitan, Elle, Good Housekeeping, and Dr. Oz The Good Life as well as a piece about my bike trip across America on Woman’s Day.

Another freelancing opportunity with the wonderful people at Skillcrush started with a simple tweet and has led to me freelancing monthly. That gig led to me being about to work with Motto, TIME’s latest venture.

As I’ve learned during the three years prior, opportunities compound on one another, and it’s cool to see what it’s leading to almost four years from when I started.

Main takeaway from the year: Beware of the career rut. Once you build your skill sets and writing, make sure you’re looking for new ways to use ’em instead of doing more of the same.

Image from Unsplash.

Looking back at my experience with writing in college as it’s coming to an end, there are several key takeaways that I didn’t realize the importance of until now:

Stick with publications as long as possible.

People always want team members who are reliable, hard-working, and committed. If you prove yourself to be one of those types, people will move heaven and earth to help you out.

I’ve seen a lot of college writers job-hop from publication to publication every couple of months, and while that can build you some clips quickly, it doesn’t build you great relationships (and often, the clips are subpar, too).

Obviously, if a publication is offering you nothing (in terms of compensation and/or experience) or entirely misrepresented itself and/or your responsibilities, it’s okay to leave. Doing so comes with consequences, so make sure you can accept those.

Also, this goes without saying, but go for quality over quantity when it comes to who you write for now and long-term.

Always look for new opportunities.

Squeeze every single drop out of any opportunity you can take on. Again, people will go to bat for you if you prove that you’re willing and excited to learn and can do things without having someone look over your shoulder.

Additionally, new opportunities can be found in places where you already work; you just have to be the one to step forward and say, “Hey I want to take on responsibilities x, y, and z, and here’s how I’m going to do it.”

Turn stuff in on time.

I have many flaws. I could probably dedicate an entire Medium publication to writing about the infinite number of flaws I have. The one thing that I do have going for me, however, is that I turn stuff in before deadlines.

I didn’t realize how few people turn things in on time until I started working as an editor. It’s a huge problem, and people come up with all sorts of creative excuses for why they can’t be timely.

Thus, if you’re looking to distinguish yourself in the world of writing, here’s a piece of incredibly low-hanging fruit: Turn your work in on time every time.

Writing is about a whole lot more than writing.

I have issues with a lot of journalism and communications programs for this reason. Nowadays, people who work in editorial are not just expected to know how to write and edit but also how to:

  • Understand photo strategy
  • Use Photoshop, InDesign, and similar programs
  • Say words like “HTML” and “CSS” and actually know what those mean
  • Curate content
  • Utilize all the social media platforms
  • Know how to create and follow through on content strategy
  • Keep up with content trends
  • Interpret and apply data analytics

The sooner you’re able to bring more skills and abilities to the table than simply your writing, the better off you’ll be in terms of job/opportunity prospects, job performance, and promotion.

Drop the ego.

You’re a college student. No task is too small for you, and your writing needs a lot of work. Your fourth grade teacher might’ve praised your wordsmithing, but you can always improve ten-fold at the very least.

I’ve seen a lot of promising college writers and journalists undone by the “But my high school newspaper advisor told me I was brilliant” mentality when it comes to feedback. These same people also believe they should get paid $1,000 for writing four sentences.

Yes, you should not be writing for free forever. But also understand that when you start out (especially as a young person with little to no work experience), you’re going to have to do some unpaid (and/or not well-paid) work.

The sooner you incorporate feedback, improve your writing, gain other skill sets, hustle, and show that you’re a reliable asset, the easier it is for people to take you seriously and pay you that C@$H M0N3Y.

Want hip bylines and big bucks? Hasta la vista, ego.

Image from Unsplash.

So, now that I’m about to graduate in May, how do I feel about my journey now?

I’ve had plenty of missteps, believe me. Like, I mess up all the time. However, I’m happy with the path I’ve chosen and the decisions I’ve made along the way.

As for post-grad plans, I was able to nail down an offer as the managing editor of a startup’s growing blog content back in October/November, which is incredibly rare. I start in the summer, so we’ll see how it all goes (but I’m ridiculously excited!).

If this really long post has scared you, there’s no reason to be. As someone once told me, “Embrace the panic, and enjoy the ride.”

***

I’m a writer, editor, social media manager, and entrepreneur. In recent months, I’ve been published on TIME, Newsweek, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Elle, and Mashable. Check out my personal website here and follow me on a Twitter here.

Say hey to me:

http://www.lilyherman.com/

https://www.twitter.com/lkherman