Hey Oppo, Will here. I’ve long considered writing up some thoughts on my first few years doing auto journalist stuff. Here it is. As the title suggests, it’s just my opinion. Could be wrong.
I’ll start by admitting that I’m not some high profile automotive journalist like Matt Farah or Doug DeMuro. But I’ve done OK, and got my start screwing around here on Oppo. Well, I started way back in 2004 with my own site called “Factory Fast”. Spinelli even posted my stuff to the FP back before that was a thing. I ended up starting a few more sites and worked my way through the “automotive forum” era falling deeper in to the car enthusiast world.
I think I ended up here at Oppo, which was a game changer, after chatting with another DC-based dude, Juan Barnett. We’re both in the same picture below, I’m the bald dude on the end, he’s the guy with the Hooniverse shirt standing by the guy who looks like Patrick George.
Anyway, Juan mentioned that a lot of aspiring writers like myself were contributing to something called Opposite Lock. So I checked it out, probably how I ended up in the picture above. This is probably the one of the first things I wrote for Oppo, something I called the “Ten minute test” where I drove 3 cars back to back and wrote about it. One of the cars was my own, the other two belonged to friends who I would eventually start writing with over at Right Foot Down.
Which is where I ended up writing regularly several months later, my first article was about the Mazda Cosmo which we cross-posted to Oppo and I think made it to the FP. I’ve written 173 articles at RFD since then and edited (and occasionally re-written) dozens more. Which is about 4 articles a month over 3.5 years/42 months. Not a ton, but I also have a day job like many others of us trying to build our resume.
Since joining RFD, I became the defacto Editor-in-Chief, and started to dabble a bit with contributing to other sites including Jalopnik, and now I’ve got a pretty regular gig with Doug over at Oversteer by Autotrader. I’ve worked with a lot of cool people over the years, and a lot of people who “worked for me” (or rather with me) at RFD are now doing cool things at other sites, again including Jalopnik and The Drive.
But you didn’t come here to hear about me; as the title implies, I’ve probably learned a thing or two, and at the risk of creating more competition for myself, I figured I would pass it along.
Lesson One - Content, content content! Write. A lot. As often as you can. You can’t be out there if you’re not out there, if that makes sense. The outlet you write for is almost inconsequential. Sure, you’ll get more exposure at some places vs. others, but you need to build your automotive writing resume and you can only do that by writing. Start a website, grab a blogspot page, volunteer to guest author something, whatever, doesn’t matter. Just write.
Lesson Two - Write well! The quality of your writing does matter, and that’s where a mentor or editor will help. Volunteer to contribute somewhere you find interesting, writers with zero experience rarely get paying jobs right out of the gate. So unless you’re coming out of college with a journalism degree or something, your resume is what you make it. The term “fake it until you make it” was probably first written about an aspiring motoring journalist. You’ll only get better with practice, if you have the means/access to some sort of formal writing training, do it. Otherwise, read well produced content by others, develop your own voice and emulate your heroes. Spelling and grammar matter! A lot! I happen to be a professional writer/editor on non-car topics at my day job, so I was lucky to get additional experience outside of writing about cars.
Lesson Three - Write Honestly! It’s essential to keep your journalistic integrity, if something sucks, say that. Sure, it’s a slippery slope, a manufacturer can loan you your first, and last car, if you trash it. But over the long run, you’ll be better off writing candid thoughts about your topic vs. just regurgitating a press release. We’re here to let people what we think about cars and to tell good stories. Saying everything is awesome is a good way to lose credibility.
Lesson Four - Learn to take solid pics! Key to any good article is a good visual. We all can’t be as lucky as Clavey and have someone like Myle! So learn how to take good pictures, which like writing is a lot of trial and error unless you can find a good class to take. Get a real camera if you have the means; your iPhone isn’t bad, and it’s getting better every iteration, but a real DSLR is pretty key to taking solid pictures. Capture interesting details, but make sure you get the whole car in the shot as well. Take pictures of all the things you plan to write about. Cool backgrounds are a bonus.
Lesson Five - Be Opportunistic! You already learned that you need to write, write, write, but about what? Anything you can. Borrow a friend’s car, go to Cars & Coffee or other local events and take pictures, but more importantly notes so you can write about it later. Feature an interesting car you come across parked on the street. It doesn’t matter, just write. Many people ask me how we get access to press cars. I credit Hardigree, we read his article at RFD and started to reach out to request access. Some manufacturers will say “Sure, here you go”, others will say “no”, still others will say “no for now, but ping me in 6 months” and finally others will just ignore you. Follow up, be persistent.
Lesson Six- Network! Which brings me to a key point, like any business or profession, it’s all about who you know. Meeting PG when he used to live in DC was pretty clutch, I’ve bothered him quite a bit over the years. “Hey man, hope all is well, take a look at this thing I wrote on Oppo when you get a chance” was something I written to him dozens of times via email. And it worked quite a few times, I got the all important FP bump back when that was a thing. I was just at the same C&C pictured above recently walking around with DeMuro, who by the way is insanely nice and stops to talk to literally EVERYONE who comes up to him asking for take selfies, etc. which is a significant number of people. We had never met in person before that, I just made a good pitch via email and he fell for it, I mean went for it.
If you can find a local automotive press association, join immediately! My local version is the Washington Auto Press Association, and for $50 a year I get invited to local ride and drive events not to mention a spiral bound membership booklet every year. Why is that important, well it has just about every automaker listed and their media/press contact. Many will let you join sans-media outlet attachment; I’ve actually recruited new writers at events.
Lesson Seven - Learn to drive well! Not just the basics that you learn in driver’s ed, but actually how to drive quickly and safely. Understanding the concepts like understeer, oversteer, and how to accurately describe steering feel is key to making sure the reader knows that you’re an authoritative source on cars. Enter an autocross or track day, you’ll learn more about car control in an afternoon there than a month of street driving. Similarly, keep learning about how cars work mechanically, that’s something that I haven’t spent as much time on as I should.
Lesson Seven - Promote yourself! It’s obvious to the younger generation, but it took me a bit to catch on, you need to be on social media constantly. Post links to all your articles on there, take pictures of every cool car you see and post them. #hashtagallthethings! Like people’s posts, comment on them, I once liked a manufacturer rep’s post and 5 minutes later he sent me an updated loaner list including a vehicle I was hoping to get. Stay fresh in people’s mind’s, you’ll be surprised how it can help open new doors.
That’s about it for now, I would get into video production, but there’s a lot to that topic, and it may be best for another post. Suffice to say, if you can produce video, do it. You can make some cash on YouTube, plus it’s a lot of fun. I spent the morning being bounced around a truck bed recently while filming this M2 on a track. Only person who had more fun than me, was Josh. And he was driving the car.
Suffice to say, good luck! We’re always looking for good talent at RFD, and feel free to ask questions in the comments. I’m sure I’ll think of other stuff I forgot to mention.
Usual follow me stuff follows: