Everyone has a story to tell. You just have to listen.
I wasn’t picky.
That’s what it came down to in the end, the 1,000+ articles I wrote over 15 years as a full-time journalist and the hundreds of newsletters and blog posts I wrote on the side for fun.
I wanted to write. That’s all I’d ever wanted to do and if someone, anyone, would pay me to do it, I would.
That’s how I ended up writing and publishing 100 articles in my first year as a writer. That’s how I ended up taking that experience and translating it to a career that spanned four continents, half a dozen countries, and bylines in The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, BBC, and almost every women’s magazine known to womankind.
I was hungry to be read, I had no delusions about any talent I might have, and I was young and broke enough that every $5 counted.
So that first year while I was still in college, I wrote for anyone who’d let me. I cashed that first $5 check (this was 2002), paid almost all of it in bank fees (this was India), and learned my first very important lesson:
The more you write, the faster you’ll discover your unique voice and style.
I couldn’t have it known it then, but the unique voice that I developed during that first year of writing over a hundred pieces—casual, funny, self-deprecating—is what led me to writing a blog about my experiences as a female journalist in India, and this would eventually lead to thousands of readers to my daily email newsletter, almost a dozen books, and a business that supports my family.
But I had to write—and a lot—in a variety of different styles and voices to discover what came naturally to me and what would end up being uniquely me.
My challenges are by no means over and I continue to learn more every year on this exciting journey of writing and entrepreneurship, but I hope my lessons will help you along your own career path.
1. Write fast, fail faster
Most writers will, eventually, after a lot of hand wringing and wine drinking, figure out that there is no such thing as perfection. The more you write, the better you get. I’d heard successful writers say that you needed to write 100,000 words of crap before you ever got to anything meaningful. This was an important lesson.
You can take five years to reach that 100,000-word milestone. Or you can do it in a year.
I did it in three months.
I did more of everything. I wrote thousands of words a day. I sent twenty-five pitches a week. I taught myself coding so that I’d be able to design my own website and build my readership. All of it sucked initially. I failed a lot in those early days. But I improved quickly because I was failing faster. Which meant that I was also, eventually, succeeding faster.
The fact is, you will get better. You will look back on work you’ve done and feel embarrassed about how absolutely terrible you were. Don’t. This is what progression looks like. Be proud of the distance you’ve covered.
I lucked into a lesson that can sometimes take people years to discover, which is that not every story is meant to be a masterpiece. Every now and again you will write something that will create a change in the world or difference in policy, but you’ll also write things that entertain, things that educate, things that make readers laugh, and those are important to write, too.
I have written stories that have won awards and led to changes in government policy, I have written stories that went viral, I have written stories that got me death and rape threats, and I’ve written stories that have faded away without a trace.
You will rarely be able to predict which stories will win people’s hearts and which won’t. Focus on your job, which is to tell the story; leave the rest to the readers.
2. Get used to discomfort
My husband, who is also a journalist, often tells the story of being a child out with his dad for an ice-cream when a loud bang startled everyone around him. A fire broke out and as everyone rushed away from the scene, my husband’s instinct was to run towards it (as his stunned father pulled him away.) No one was surprised when he turned to journalism as a career choice.
You don’t necessarily need to have a death wish to be a journalist, but curiosity will get you everywhere. And truth be told, when everyone is rushing away from a fire, an earthquake, the scene of a crime, your editors will be pushing you towards it (if you haven’t already run there yourself, that is). You will be put in uncomfortable situations, both during the reporting as well as after the story is published and anonymous bloggers are discussing the different ways in which you deserve to be killed (true story).
Basically, you’re going to feel anxiety when no one reads your story and anxiety when everyone does. Anxiety when you have no assignments and anxiety when you have too many. Anxiety when you can’t write a single word and anxiety when they’re coming so fast you can’t keep up.
Find ways to manage the anxiety that comes from the day-to-day of living your career out in public. Your successes are for everyone to see; your failures are too. That can be taxing as hell.
And let’s not forget the actual process of writing itself. I’ve been doing this for almost two decades. Even so, each time I sit down to write a new story, I doubt myself and wonder if this is the one that will make my obvious lack of talent apparent to everyone.
I used to see this as a character failing, but really, it’s just part of the process. The challenges never go away completely, but it does get easier because like me, you have a mini-freak-out, clean the kitchen, vacuum the entire house for the first time in three weeks and then remember that you have done this hundreds of times before and you will do it hundreds of times again. You have experience doing this. So you laugh at yourself, eventually get too close to the deadline, and then have no choice but to get on with it.
3. Treat deadlines as sacred
Speaking of deadlines, don’t miss them. Seriously, don’t do it.
You can get away with missing a deadline or two when writing for magazines, but do it with a newspaper deadline and you’re unlikely to work with that editor again. I’ve had one-hour deadlines for news stories, dictated a story from the back of a taxi because typing it would have taken too much time, and chased down four sources over two hours for a story that needed to be published in three. I’ve had editors email at 10pm with edits for a story that’s being published at 6am.
This is not always the pace at which you’ll work, but it happens and it happens frequently. When editors are working with these timelines and stories that are breaking, they need to know that the journalist they’re working with will come through.
Making sure you meet your deadlines gets you hired again; missing them doesn’t.
Again, you won’t always be working on stories like this, and you can, of course, choose not to. But regardless of whether you have a four-hour deadline or a four-week one, it’s likely that you will just about meet it. It’s human nature, really, and more so when it comes to journalists—we’re often the personality types that procrastinate until the last minute and then scramble to get it done. If that’s you, work with your personality instead of fighting against it.
Understand, however, that there’s a cost to this. There is no structure to your day. A new assignment, a last-minute call with a source, a sudden burst of inspiration, are all things that can derail a well-planned afternoon. With little structure in your day, it becomes even more important that you create structure and boundaries in your life. If you can, you will have better mental health, better relationships, and a better career for it.
Oh, and no matter how short the deadline, always, always, always, no matter what, always, HAND IN CLEAN COPY.
4. Know that you have a responsibility
What makes a good story is people. This is as true in journalism as it is in fiction. You are not looking for quotes, you are looking for people who have something valuable to say. Every person in your story has a purpose. Make them real, allow them to become a part of the narrative, even if all they’re contributing is a one-line summary of what the story is about.
If you’re a journalist on a deadline, you are—understandably—in no mood to let a source ramble on and on about something that has nothing to do with your story, but when you can, relax and listen. When you listen without hurrying, people often start getting comfortable with you, and that’s when some of the best quotes, anecdotes, and secrets appear.
You won’t always have the luxury of time, but when possible, take the time to get to know the people you’re speaking to.
This is even more important when you’re telling people’s stories. If someone has trusted you with their story, then you have a moral responsibility to represent it accurately, without your own agenda or bias seeping in.
Finally, on this point, journalists and writers can often get trapped in a cycle of focusing on only what’s wrong with the world. This is our job, it’s what we’re expected to do, and that’s fair enough. But for your sake and ours, also find what’s right with it.
Highlight the worst of humanity, sure. But also highlight the best of it.
5. Expect to change
Finally, it’s important to remember that everything changes. The process changes, the goal changes, even the writer changes.
You will not be the same writer after publishing 1,000 stories that you were when you wrote the very first one.
The 1,000 stories I’ve written can now be clubbed into one collective whole, but each one took me into a new world or taught me about someone else’s way of life or sent me down a rabbit hole of research on a topic I’d previously known nothing about. I witnessed some horrific things that gave me nightmares for months, but I have also been witness to extreme love, kindness, and faith.
Being a writer and a journalist has given me a golden ticket that allows me access to people, places, and worlds that I would otherwise not have known existed.
And maybe that’s the biggest lesson writing 1,000 stories in over 300 publications has taught me:
Every person has a story to tell and unique life experiences that have shaped those stories. My job is not to judge those stories, but to tell them as truthfully as I possibly can.
When I have, I’ve walked away not just with a story, but with insights into a different life, a different world, and a different perspective.
Writing these 1,000+ stories has given me the privilege of witnessing people’s life stories.
And having them shape my own.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the publisher of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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