Like many of you, I have been a commenter on Jalopnik for many years. I don't remember exact numbers, but the site couldn't have been more than a few years old when I stumbled over here from a less awesome car site. About six months ago, after making a couple of popular Oppo posts, I started to get a crazy idea. S0mehow, I was going to become a professional auto journalist.
Fast forwarding to today, how has it gone? Believe it or not, it's gone way better than I could have ever hoped. I haven't exactly gotten the call up to the big leagues just yet, but sticking with the baseball metaphor, I'd say I'm at least up to AAA ball. On the one hand, I get paid to write about cars, but on the other hand, I still keep another part time job to make sure I don't have to worry about paying my bills. On the one hand, I just got my first test vehicle, but on the other hand, it was a 2014 Corolla S. I could go on, but you get the point. I'm way further along than I probably should be at this point, but I'm also not exactly Jason, getting Bentleys dropped off at my door and invites to Huayra unboxings.
Recently though, following Matt's tweet about aspiring auto journalists, there's been a lot of chatter about how exactly one just goes out and becomes one. As someone who very recently went out and somehow became an auto journalist (though only a semi-professional one for now), I feel like I have a bit of insight for those of you who are looking to do the same thing. Hopefully some of you guys can learn from the mistakes I made along the way.
1) Learn to Write
Don't just learn to write. Learn to write well. One thing that I learned very quickly is that even though I am probably an expert on most things car-related, so is every other auto journalist in the world. In fact, the ones who get paid to do this thing full time probably know more than I ever will. Odds are, they know more than you ever will too. All those other aspiring auto journalists? They know everything that you know, they know everything that I know, and we can all make the same Top Gear jokes. None of us are particularly special in that regard.
There's a difference between knowing about cars and being able to write about them though. Everything that you learned in high school English about writing a paper applies to writing about cars. Your writing needs to flow. You need to avoid cliches. You need transitions between paragraphs. You need an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. You might not think all of that matters, but I promise you that it does. If your writing samples are full of comma splices, ellipses, and sudden endings to developing thoughts, you look sloppy, and if you're going to impress editors, you have to be as impressive as possible.
2) Only Use a Shtick if You Actually Have a Shtick
Tom owns a business where he gets paid to help people buy cars, and he writes about car sales. The Regular Car Reviews guys sing songs and mercilessly mock every car that they test. Doug writes like a gerbil that just fell into a bucket of cocaine. They stick with those things because those things work for them.
I, on the other hand, don't have anything that immediately stands out as unique other than possibly being generally entertaining. I once had a shtick as a condescending douche bag when I tried my hand at writing advice columns, and it played well there, but it never felt like it played well when I wrote about cars.
If you're trying to become an auto journalist, don't worry about finding a shtick if you don't have one. Just write something that someone other than your mother would want to read twice. If you try to force it, your writing will just feel awkward and off-putting.
3) All Outlets Count
I don't work for Jalopnik. I don't work for Autoblog. I don't work for Motor Trend, and I certainly don't work for Car and Driver. You probably won't jump right into writing for Car and Driver either. Do you know what though? That's ok. Being published by even the tiniest little car website in the corner of the internet is still better than being unpublished, and you can always parlay that success into working for a better known publication down the road.
Find your most popular full length Oppo posts, give them a little polishing up, and then start applying to write for every car site that you can find. If you get ignored, so what? If you get hired, that's awesome. If you get paid, that's even better. If not, just consider it an unpaid internship, and roll with it.
4) Join an Association
Once you have some sort of outlet that will publish your writing, your local automotive media association will connect you with fellow journalists in your area, PR reps, and probably even a few cars to test drive. There may be other ways to get started meeting people and driving cars, but joining an association is the way I did it. I recommend it because it worked.
5) Network, Network, Network
All of the people that you meet who have any connection to the industry are worth following up with. Currently, I owe an email to a rep who I met last week, and that's definitely the wrong way to do things. She should have gotten an email the day that I met her. Not only do you need to develop a good relationship with the representatives that you meet, but you need to develop a good relationship with the other journalists that you meet. I am forever indebted to the fellow journalists who said something nice about me to someone who had the power to make my life better, and I can't stress enough how important those relationships are.
6) Don't Drink Your Own Kool-Aid
Just like you aren't suddenly in a relationship the first time a girl kisses you on the dance floor at a fraternity party, you aren't an auto journalist the first time a real life outlet publishes something that you wrote. If you think you've made it and can let off the gas just because you got published somewhere, you're a fool. Your Facebook friends may be impressed with your fancy internet presence, but you still have a long way to go before you're putting your kids through college on auto journalist money. You've got to keep working just as hard as you did back when you were desperate to get published for the first time and maybe even harder.
7) Don't Quit Your Day Job
Unless you already have a bajillion dollars saved up from that time that you bought Ford stock at $1.50/share, it's probably going to take you more time than you have dollars to become a real life, professional auto journalist. There's always going to be that one guy who quit his cushy corporate job with a company car to become a writer, but odds are, you aren't Doug DeMuro. Luckily, car writing can be done on nights and weekends. Until you start making the big bucks, do that. Believe me when I tell you that it's very difficult to pay your rent with unhatched chickens.
8) Get Lucky
If we're going to be honest here, nothing about my extremely brief career thus far has been anything that I could have planned, and while I've definitely worked hard, almost every opportunity to move forward came out of nowhere. It can be both frustrating and awesome, there's no set of instructions that you can follow to guarantee anything, and a lot of people work for years before they see any real success. Even with some success right out of the gate, I'm still not in the clear just yet, and I could very easily be forced to fall back on other options just because life isn't fair, and the world is mean.
That's okay though. If I fail, at least I gave it a shot. I'm going after what I love, and at least I've made a few friends in the process. If you decide to do the same and fail as well, no one can blame you for trying. If you're going to give it a shot though, at least give it the best shot that you can, and if we both succeed, maybe we can share a few beers at next year's Detroit Auto Show.
Collin Woodard currently writes for The Smoking Tire and Wall Street Cheat Sheet. You can follow him on Twitter @CBWoodard or email him at Woodard.Collin@gmail.com.