How important is networking to getting a job?

When circumstances brought me back to the U.S. after living abroad, I found myself on a farm in western Massachusetts, disconnected from all my former editors, friends, and colleagues.

I quickly found temporary low-paying freelance work just by knocking on doors, but it was networking that really helped open up the world to me again. Other people don’t just help you find work, they help you think about work in new ways. In my case, that led me to considering different kinds of markets, not local, whereas previously I had always met my editors in person. They also taught me about the importance of running your freelance work like a business — with good record keeping, marketing, and sales strategies, continual training, specialization, and diversification.

First of all, I’m grateful for the local NWU Local 5, and I recommend to all and sundry that get they involved in their local writer’s union. Other local alternatives include business groups, chambers of commerce, and volunteer organizations. The key is to do more than just come to meetings — help edit the newsletters, co-chair a conference, organize a mentoring program, set up a website. I have a theory that all the effort you put into an organization will come back to you, one way or another. A karmic circle, if you will.

As a result of my work, I was invited to join a local writers’ group. I have been meeting with these five other experienced and successful writers now for almost six years, and I am immensely grateful to them for their support and kind advice.

If you can’t find a group in your area to join, start one. It’s a great way to keep on track, and share your experiences with people who’ve been there — or who are just starting out.

Then, think regionally and nationally. I joined the Society of Professional Journalists, and did some work on their International Journalism Committee. There are also a number of other national and regional organizations for writers — the Society for Technical Communicators, for example, and Boston‘s Society of Documentation Professionals (where I was a board member for a year). You might have to drive a ways to get to a meeting, or do everything by phone and email, but they broaden your horizons, give you increased visibility in your profession, and force you to measure yourself against a higher standard than you perhaps might have working only locally.

Finally, on the issue of hiring someone who’s good on paper versus someone’s who’s recommended:

I’ve been in a hiring position a few times in my life, and given my choice, I’d pick the latter over the former. Why? First of all, because what looks good on paper isn’t always what works out in real life, and references are handpicked — if a writer has 97 bad experiences and three good ones, it’s the three good ones who’ll end up as references. Whereas if I know the writer personally, and have seen him or work work in a professional capacity for an organization in which we’re both members, or have friends who’ll tell me the truth, I can form a much better opinion of his or her abilities.

There’s also another side — a writer who comes recommended has an obligation to the person who recommended him to do a good job. If he lets me down, he’s not only making himself look bad but the recommender as well. I’ve often assigned stories to freelance writers who swore up and down that they were on track and everything was coming together, only to ask for an extension at the last minute and then — once it was too late to assign the story to some else — come back and explain that their aunt was sick and they couldn’t finish the project. (You can imagine the hair pulling that goes on when that happens!) And what can you do? If I had known them personally, I could have said, “Bob, I know you don’t have an aunt. Get off your butt and file that article!” With an unknown writer, the best you can do is cross them off your list — and then try to find another writer to replace them.

The main differentiator between the reliable writers and the not-so-reliable ones (and we’re not talking writing talent here — if they can just get the quotes and turn the piece in on time, that’s enough to put them on my good list) was their committment to the profession. Is their writing secondary? Something they do between other projects? A hobby? A way to pay a couple of bills under a better job comes along? Or are they firmly committed to writing as a career? It’s not a question of how many hours they put in a week — I’ve freelanced with two kids, I know sometimes you can only do so much. It’s a question of how seriously you take those hours. And involvement in professional organizations and regular attendance at professional events shows that you’re someone who’s in it for the long haul.