06 March 2017 | By Billy Dowling-Reid
Erica graduated with an MA in Magazine Journalism from City University London in 2012. Soon after graduating, she created the blog How To Be Jobless which documented her 10-month unemployment and job hunting misadventures. She worked numerous internships and short contracts including stints with The Sunday Times, ShortList Media and Mother&Baby. Erica joined The Guardian in 2013 on their trainee digital journalism scheme and remains there to this day as a freelance features writer. She is currently working on a book.
When did you first realise that you wanted to make a living from writing and what were the very first steps you took to achieve this? What, if anything, did you do to make the most of your student years?
Erica: Because writing is one of those "so few make it" professions, I wasted a lot of time growing up trying to be good at anything else. I managed, too – I collected languages and taught English and phonetics – but I always had the itchy sense that I should be writing. I decided in my mid-twenties to go into journalism and spent a little over a year saving to go to City.
I cannot overstate how lost I was during my student years. During my BA I spent most of my time acting – as far as I know I still hold the record for most number of acting roles during a degree (thank you, Philosophy, for your laughably low number of contact hours). I wrote a few things for stage as well but it didn't even occur to me to get involved in journalism. I'm now actually married to the ex-editor of the uni newspaper, who never went into journalism. If you're a student and you already know what you want to do, know that I find you baffling and impressive.
Taking into account stop-gap jobs, internships and your How To Be Jobless blog – what was your experience of making the transition from being a graduate to building the beginnings of a career in journalism?
Erica: Much of my MA was spent reading news about how utterly screwed we were going to be upon graduation. I applied for jobs widely – so widely, in fact, that I landed a "travel editor internship" (yes, you read that correctly) in Thailand. It was a dodgy startup and while being in Thailand was great – and getting made redundant 10 days before my leaving date, yet being given a month's severance was also pretty great – it meant coming back to the UK where things had not miraculously improved.
Being ignored by the editor of every publication you've ever respected takes its toll, and How To Be Jobless was an attempt to both keep myself sane by making jokes about it, and to connect with other jobseekers, because it is hugely isolating. There is no unity amongst the Jobless because we are in competition with each other. When GoThinkBig spotted my tweets and gave me a weekly column, I started getting a real following. Nothing improves your writing like having to do it every day, so without even realising it I was essentially in training to be a professional writer. My post about the Guardian interview process basically went viral, which led to hordes of strangers tweeting at the Guardian to "HIRE THIS PERSON!!" That was the high point for me after 10 terrifying, miserable months. It was the opposite of being trolled. But it's not a standard step in the transition from graduate to professional writer, unfortunately.
You were very resourceful in blogging and building an online audience in order to get yourself noticed by potential employers. How important do you think it is for current students and graduates to follow a similar route in creating their own content?
Erica: Very important. I'm not saying anyone with a blog will end up getting noticed and hired at their dream publication; I got exceptionally lucky. But creating your own content makes you more attractive to employers for several reasons:
- It shows a work ethic; no one was paying you yet you still felt you needed to write, make videos, report. That's a good person to have around the office.
- It shows you're at ease with technology. While I think we're just leaving the age where middle-aged people are in awe of millennials for "knowing about digital stuff" (the jig is up – they've realized it's not that hard. Who told?!), any evidence that you won't need much training in what is increasingly the most important element of any publication is a plus.
- It means you have a backlog of content by which they can judge you. If all you've ever published is a few words here and there for whatever publication you interned at over the summer, they're not going to be able to get a sense of your style and skills. Remember that no one is impressed by grades or the simple fact of a qualification: if you want to be a writer, they need to see your work.
What are some of the key things you have learnt and experienced thus far during your time at The Guardian?
Erica: So much. I've learned how to do my job, essentially. Learning by doing means I now really know how to construct a feature. When I started out there were a lot of "shit, also need to find out this!" moments. I've done a load of interviews which has also given me a knack for what questions to ask – I used to have to sit down and write down about 50 then whittle it down to the best ones. Now that process happens in my head and much, much faster.
Now that I work from home, I've also learned I work better from home. Offices aren't for everyone and while I sometimes miss the buzz and the proximity to humans, I'm much happier and can do a full day's work without experiencing that special brand of exhaustion that comes with being near people all day (unless you're an extrovert in which case it's an excellent place to be).
As far as key experiences go – I had an amazing mentor in Jane Ferguson, and getting to edit a couple of issues of G2 was very exciting. Writing for the That's Me in the Picture column in Guardian Weekend is always a treat – we find the subjects of famous photos and interview them. Writing for Travel has also been bizarre and incredible. I went to a bee spa in Slovenia and to Switzerland to build an igloo and sleep in it (or play dead in it - I built an igloo with cracks in it and it's hard to sleep in minus 20-degree wind chill). I'm also about to go to Spain on a baking retreat for the Observer. Peak Guardian ahoy!
Thinking back to your university days, what advice would you give to your younger, student self, or to anyone else looking to build a career similar to yours?
Erica: I'm going to take this literally and picture myself actually meeting my student self. I'd start, "Oh hi, student me, I'm from the future and you wouldn't BELIEVE how awesome your life is given how utterly useless you are." Then I'd point out to her that she's already a writer so she should start pursuing it now, instead of assuming she's not good enough and going to live in Mexico for two years – because even though she ends up at the Guardian, she could have got there earlier and via a traditional path, rather than through becoming the poster child for unemployment. Go and write for the student newspaper, I'd say – and don't worry that the editor is your ex, you end up marrying him so it's all fine. JUST WRITE, WOMAN.
My point is, if you're a student and looking to build a career similar to mine, do it properly. Start now. Write all the time. Pitch. File on time without fail – you'd be amazed at how many writers don't. Pitch and write and pitch and write until you realise you already have a job.
Follow Erica on Twitter: @ericabuist. Check out her work at The Guardian here.
Snooping in a dead man's house: my uneasy inheritance – Erica Buist
'London isn't just one people': the international families at home in the capital – Erica Buist
Guardian digital journalism scheme – a day in the life – Erica Buist
Interns: all work, no pay – Erica Buist
How can the UN fight inequality when it doesn’t pay its interns? – Erica Buist