Well, the short answer is, yes, it is. If you’re incredibly lucky, in the right place at the right time, with the right group of contacts, maybe a degree of nepotism, and, as an absolute prerequisite, talented with a unique and distinctive style.
Before I continue, there are many not-so-brilliant writers who make it against these odds, and there are great writers who don’t make it as a successful jobbing journalist, even with every advantage listed above. Also, to be clear, my experience is entirely in lifestyle journalism. For all I know, news journalism works entirely differently. But actually, from what I’ve seen, I don’t think it does. But, with all of that on board, the advice I’d give to anyone wanting to make a living as a lifestyle journalist is as follows:
Often the most successful writers aren’t necessarily the ones with a perfect, literal grasp of grammar or vocabulary (those, if they went to Oxbridge, get hired by the big magazines as subs where they have minimal creativity in their role, but incidentally get paid the most). You’d think this would be listed amongst the prerequisites catalogued above, but, strangely, it’s not. As a features writer, far more important is a sensitivity to sentence rhythm, how that rhythm works within a paragraph, and then an understanding of how everything you’ve written leading up to that point works as part of a whole – the journey you take your reader on and the takeaway message you set out to convey. This, combined with a sense of balance (even if arguing the unarguable), an ability to engender a feeling of empathy, combined with effortless dry wit, deployed in tactful moderation, are the hallmarks that truly stand out in a prospective writer.
As someone who considers herself something of a grammar Nazi, I was initially surprised at how low the standard of English needs to be to make it as a successful writer or editor for a major magazine. But don’t for a second think this translates to me saying it’s easier than I envisioned as a young, green upstart. If anything, the contrary. Just, that the type of writing skills so emphasised at school and universities do not a salaried magazine writer make.
Consider A.A Gill. Estimated at one point to be the highest paid journalist in the country, yet so profoundly dyslexic he requires a scribe to transcribe everything he ‘writes’ via a dictation machine. No one can argue that he is deserving of his success. Divisive as his opinions may be, and as much as some people find him loathsome, it’s hard to question his knack and flair for language, for abstract and amusing parallels, and his unique ability to devote 5/6 of an article to something so seemingly irrelevant only those patient enough to see the article through to the end benefit from the long protracted journey he takes you on.
Like many creative arenas, there are far, far more talented, able and willing candidates than there are jobs. And as a result the industry favours those who can afford to intern unpaid for, possibly, years at a time, then most likely work below the London Living Wage, or if you’re a freelancer, even Minimum Wage for several years thereafter. And, if you really value your freedom and prioritise the freedom of working your own hours, and writing about what you want, even if you do make it as a successful freelancer writing for big-time publications, odds are you’ll have many wonderful experiences, but will be living hand-to-mouth indefinitely.
There are lateral avenues in which a good writer’s skill set can be used, and monetised. With a solid body of writing behind you, combined with a firm grasp of grammar and syntax, you can have a semi-lucrative side-career in copywriting. Companies and individuals everywhere are in need of people to put their business across in the best light. There are many established and respected businesses in London owned, run and staffed by people for whom English is a second language, and whose websites let them down through the sort of minor errors only a native speaker can correct.