How I landed my first writing job

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Wednesday, 23 November 2016.
Tagged: health, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, nutrition, wellness, writing

How I landed my first writing job

New grads and young dietetic hopefuls often ask me: “How did you begin your writing career? How did you get your first start?”

Now, after two thousand articles, over 700 blog posts and over 20 years of writing experience, it’s interesting to look back and recall that precise moment when I stumbled into writing.

Here’s my recollection of the first time I got offered a regular page in a women’s magazine. It’s a long time ago now but worth recalling if only for the sheer luck of it all!

Where I started

I was working for the Baking Division of Allied Mills as it was known in those days (now it’s been swallowed up as part of the Goodman Fielder empire). We were one of Australia’s three large bread manufacturers and had a swag of well-known bread brands such as Vogel’s, Roggenbrot, Nimble 43, Toastie as well as the leading square sliced bread, a supermarket brand known as Buttercup.

We baked all the hamburger buns for the McDonalds chain around the country which was a pretty impressive baking contract, even though it was soft white bread and not a wholesome wholegrain bread that nutritionists backed.

New bread launch, launched me

We had just launched the first soft sliced bread with 10 per cent added wheat bran under the rather obvious title of ‘White ’n’ Bran’. As a soft, creamy-coloured loaf with extra fibre, it was selling nicely and filled that niche between heavy, dark wholemeals with all their chewy fibre, and soft white, pappy easy-eating breads. A win-win.

White ‘n’ Bran was my baby so I was extra pleased it was attracting attention. Nice for a nutritionist to work with too, as my role at Allied Mills was half Nutritionist and half Marketing Assistant – a combination which I just loved as it allowed me to expand my skills into another area of the food funnel apart from nutrition. I just loved the whole marketing side of bread. Another story for another day.

Right place, right time

“My Brilliant Career” as a nutrition writer began with luck. Like many things in life, it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time.

It turned out that UK diet guru Audrey Eyton was coming to Australia to talk up her new diet book ‘The F-Plan Diet’. This was 1982 and her book had spiralled to become an international super seller taking the world by storm. Australia was part of that storm.

The promoters planned a special luncheon for her along with all the manufacturers of the high-fibre foods that she mentioned in the book such as Heinz baked beans, Kellogg’s All-Bran and Sultana Bran, fruit, dried fruit and bran crackers. Our new loaf White ’n’ Bran was to supply the bread for the lunch and for media sample bags and I scored an invite to the event.

Meeting the Medical Editor of Family Circle

As luck would have it, I got to sit next to journalist Jim Clarke, who then was the Medical Editor for the popular Family Circle magazine in Australia. Over lunch, we got to talking and got on well. I liked his attitude and sense of humour. I guess he liked my enthusiasm and freshness.

He asked if I’d be interested in writing a page each issue for his section entitled Your Family’s Health. It covered topics like health, feeding the family, diet, nutrition, women's issues, helpful ‘how-to’ tips. Think advice.

He wanted me to write about each of the vitamins in depth in each issue, one page on each, starting with vitamin A, vitamin B1, then vitamin B2 and so on. Around 600 words in each page. I had never written anything like that before but had already pulled together a basic vitamin section in the intro to my earlier book project at the Bread Resarch Institute so was pretty sure I could do it. I said Yes.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was on my way.

Getting known

I knew I wanted to write and be known for readable articles on food, diet and nutrition - I had already fallen in love with the Jane E. Brody series of nutrition articles from the New York Times and her wonderful readable style. They were often reproduced in the Sydney Morning Herald and I always loved reading them. I learned so much from each one.

I knew I had to build my platform and reputation, and writing seemed the obvious way to get known in those days - before websites, Twitter or Facebook. Nobody knew my name. Nobody in marketing or PR had ever heard of me. There was no way I was able to win freelance jobs even if my fee were the lowest, as the word always came back “We’ve never heard of her” or “We can’t take a risk with an unknown."

A toe in the door

So a page in Family Circle was the perfect way to get my toe in the door - start with something small and work my way up from there. I discovered I could use the printed articles to showcase my writing ability, just as a blog does now. What’s more, I could list Family Circle on my Bio as proof that a big circulation women’s magazine was prepared to pay me and run my stuff! Win-win indeed.

I could research and write the page outside of work hours. I was still working full-time at Allied Mills so it was a nice mix. Very different from my day-to-day tasks so it gave me something  interesting and exciting to work on. And I got paid too! I don’t remember how much it was. It wasn’t huge but that wasn’t the point.

A universal topic with wide appeal

In hindsight, I was lucky. I happened to stumble over Jim Clarke. The topic he wanted on Vitamins was a universal topic that would always appeal. It turned out to be a topic that would always stand me in good stead as one can never know too much about vitamins - where you find them, how much you need, what deficiency signs to look for, plus any special or fascinating facts about each one. It took quite a bit of research on my part (going to the library, reading up from books, no internet then) but I really enjoyed it.

Years later, when I was writing my big Nutrition for Life book, I looked back at my notes from this early series of articles from Family Circle. They were good. They were still fresh and I could use most of them as the basis of the new pages for the book.

The series went well. Jim was a great editor and slowly but surely with each issue he re-worked my words to make them fit the FC mould. I learned how to craft an intro sentence into a ‘hook’ and how to get everything said within the word count. No point writing more than can fit on a page! A magazine is not a web page – the story had to come to a neat conclusion by the time the reader got to the bottom of the page.

The bottom line

How I landed my very first writing gig is typical of how I found work as a nutrition writer. I never really pitched. Work found me through my network of foodie contacts and editors who passed on my name or suggested me to a colleague. It’s funny how your circles of contacts work like that! I’m very grateful and humbled that they did, as ‘word of mouth’ always is, and always will be the best form of recommendation. These days, I’m forever mindful of saying thank you or of returning the favour if and when I can.