Getting Your Feet Wet and Making a Splash
Showcase interviews reporter Michael Smit
Michael Smit always had his eye on career writing, yet his first attempts at job hunting met with the constant refrain, “We can’t consider you for an assignment until you show us published samples, and you won’t have published samples until you get assignments.” So he made his own path – with a detour through South Korea – and today he’s a reporter for The Daily Independent in Ridgecrest, CA.
Showcase: When did you first decide you wanted to write professionally?
Mike: I’ve considered myself a writer as long as I can remember. In the second grade, I wrote a little story about talking animals that did kung fu. It was popular with my classmates, so I milked the fame and turned it into a trilogy. Writing in journals since high school helped keep me sane and develop my writing style.
As far as writing professionally, I got serious about it some time in 2014. I was stuck working as an English language teacher. I started to make an escape plan, and realized there are a few things I’m good at and there are a few things I care about, but writing is the only one in both categories. I decided to double down on making a career of writing, even though I didn’t know how to make money with it yet. Looking around my apartment, I guess I still don’t, but I’m working on it.
Showcase: What brought you to South Korea?
Mike: I wanted to travel after college, but I didn’t have money. My dad knew some people who taught English in South Korea, so he suggested it to me.
Showcase: How do you see that helping you down the road?
Mike: I learned to be comfortable outside of my element.
Showcase: What has journalism taught you?
Mike: Most obvious is just the technical skill of getting words on paper. There’s no asking for extensions, you either finish those articles or the city doesn’t get a newspaper tomorrow morning. Another thing is to find what the heart of a story is.
Showcase: You’ve also freelanced. What tips do you have for aspiring writers who’d like to try that?
Mike: For a good while, I was writing completely for free. But even when I got my first writing gigs, it was a bunch of guys in India paying me virtually nothing. India was outsourcing labor to me. Honestly though, that’s how you have to do it. The only way to break into the circle is to volunteer for the bottom-feeder jobs, then work your way up. If that sounds like hell, then it’s a career you’d only grow to hate over the years. Abandon ship now and you still have time to swim to another boat.
However, if you love writing, you’ll find some joy in slogging through the gauntlet of building a portfolio. If you’re interested, I have two pieces of advice.
Apply to everything and say yes to everything. At first, I wrote articles on clothing lines, wastewater management, off-road bikes, and so much more. I didn’t know about any of these things when I accepted the job, but I knew how to research and I knew how to write.
Secondly, as you’re saying yes to everything and your portfolio starts to build, begin to push it towards a field of expertise. Being able to prove that you know what you’re talking about in a field helps you stand out from the crowd.
Showcase: Any other suggestions?
Mike: Get published. Anywhere. If you’re in college, publish in the college newspaper. I constantly beat myself up about not having done that, because I set my career back nearly a decade. Even starting a blog can look good on a portfolio. But if you blog, write about something outside of yourself. Yes, your mom and your best friend may care about your blog where you talk about your dreams and your feelings, but no employer will. There are more people that have walked on the moon than there are people with successful blogs about their daily lives.