So You Want to Be a Writer?

Deputy Features Editor Catriona Aitken talks to various student journalists about their experiences and what it means to be an 'aspiring writer'.

Illustration: Olivia Hendren

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was eight years old and I was made the editor of my primary school news-paper. Thankfully, I quickly moved on from word search puzzles and documenting dining hall drama, and continued my interest in writing by submitt ing articles to my local news-paper, and then seeking work experience at regional publications.

As a student in St Andrews, particularly studying an arts degree, I am surrounded by keen student writers with various passions and writing styles. However, I’ve recently been in a couple of situations which have led me to question the term “aspiring writer,” and consider whether it is in fact a problematic notion. How can “aspiring” really be defined? Who’s to say when a person may transition from aspiring to being, and do we too often hide our abilities, of various kinds, behind the notion that we are yet to reach the point that they can truly be considered to represent who we are?

I spoke to a number of students who have taken on a range of editorial roles in a wide variety of St Andrews-based publications, and was eager to hear their views on the concept of the aspiring writer, and their own journeys into the world of words.

The first issue I came across with the notion of the aspiring writer, was the idea of pigeon-holing, and uncertainty over who is qualified to decide when that transition from aspiring to be a writer, to actually being one has occurred. I spoke to Annabel McLean and Sarah Jack, two fi nal year stu-dents and editors of the print and on-line editions of the magazine Hearing Aid respectively.

Hearing Aid is a music-based magazine published three times each academic year, with additional content published regularly online. While their online articles are often responses to albums and gigs the writers have recently attended, their print issues include music-based content, often opinion pieces, and centre around a new theme each time.

“I think with anything, the shift from aspiration to being the thing probably comes when you decide it,” suggested Ms Jack. She continued: “‘Aspiring’ for me would probably be linked to profession, like if you wanted to be a music journalist and be paid for.”

However, Ms Jack did also acknowledge that being a professional writer did not always necessitate the ability to make a living from writing, referencing a recent trip to an awards ceremony as an example. “Hearing Aid was nominated two years run-ning for the Stack Awards, which is a magazine award in London with publications from all over the world and we fell into the student category. We went down last year for the cer-emony, and we were so interested to see what the real deal was […] We were actually quite surprised by how often these publications aren’t considered a “real job”. A lot of people were just doing it as a sort of side, passion projects. They said you weren’t going to make your money in music journalism. These people aren’t reaping much reward for what they’re doing but, if they’re winning awards, they’re definitely writers.”

Ms McLean agreed that receiv-ing recognition marked the transition away from “aspiring”.

“I think it is probably to do with profit, and if you can see that you’re garnering success,” said Ms McLean. She additionally touched on the problem of confi dence as a barrier to receiving that feedback, and thus in a person’s self-proclamation as being a writer, “I guess the problem would be confidence in putt ing your work out there, whether it’s as a writer, or even as a musician or an artist. The prob-lem is that idea of having your work judged, so I think it’s just about having the confidence to put yourself out there.”

The issue of confi dence was also mentioned by Andrew Sinclair, a third year History and International Relations student who holds the position of joint Editor-in-Chief of The Saint, alongside Olivia Gavoyannis. He began his writing journey in his first semester in the bubble, writing for the Sport section and quickly progressing up the editorial ladder.

“In my first year, I spoke to someone from the rifle club which I knew nothing about,” recalled Mr Sinclair. “It would have been easier to say, oh I’m an aspiring football writer or rug-by writer and hide behind the sports that I liked, whereas that completely threw me out of my comfort zone. But it got me totally immersed in interviews, writing up an interview, getting quotes, that kind of stuff .”

It is this ability to challenge yourself that Mr Sinclair now values in his fellow writers, and he explained to me why he therefore dislikes the term “aspiring” in this context. “I find [the term ‘aspiring writer’] an issue for myself because I think it often becomes a byword for you not being proactive enough. It’s the same thing when I’m trying to recruit people for the teams; it’s not always who’s the best writer that you should hire, it’s who’s the most interested and most flexible.”

Mr Sinclair also conceded that not all student journalists are looking to continue writing after graduation, and therefore believes that outside approval weights differently in each person’s own idea of themselves as writers, further emphasising the term “writer” as a deeply individual label.

“I now write for an American website and, over Christmas, I got re-cruited to write for the UK’s biggest Boxing and Wrestling magazine. So that, for me, was the step where I can actually consider myself a journalist now,” Mr Sinclair said.

“But it varies depending on what you want to do,” he continued. “I know some of the people who work for The Saint enjoy doing it in their spare time as a hobby at university, but have no intention of going into journalism afterwards. So, to them they wouldn’t say they’ve made it, even if they were to get that kind of recognition. I think it is a personal thing.”

On the other hand, some of the student writers I spoke to found ex-tremely positive connotations with the term “aspiring writer.”

Third year student and Gastronome Editor for the online life-style magazine Owl Eyes, Sandra De Giorgi, told me that she frequently refers to herself as an aspiring writer, and believed the term to carry “a lot of hope, wistfulness and connotations for the future.” Ms De Giorgi surmised that “you can be both a writer and aspire to be one, dream about your future while making it happen.”

In addition, Alexandra Rego, Editor-in-Chief of The Tribe, indicat-ed a particular fondness for the term. “I personally love the term ‘aspiring writer’. The word ‘aspiring’ comes from Latin (ad, meaning to or towards, and spire, to breathe). The idea that aiming high is, and should be, as natural to us as breathing, and the idea that an aspiration is a forward, very alive motion speaks strongly to me.”

While their views on using the term varied, all the student writers interviewed agreed that embracing every opportunity to practice writing was the most important step on the road to pursuing a writing career.

Ms Rego is in her third year study-ing English Literature. She does want to continue writing in the future, but doesn’t view it as entering into an in-dustry or career as such. “I prefer to think of it as a vocation,” commented Ms Rego. “I need to write, so I do write. If I could make some money off  of it, I’d obviously leap at the chance.” Ms Rego credits her experiences with The Tribe with equipping her with valuable skills, and continued by advising other students in St Andrews who are keen to follow a similar path to make use of all available resources and not to “misjudge any experience, large or small, as irrelevant to your chosen career path.”

The transferrable skills reaped from their times spent with student publications was something reiterated continuously among the interviewed students. Mr Sinclair began his involvement with The Saint before even arriving in St Andrews, by striking up conversations and gaining crucial contacts.

“It’s increasingly difficult to get into journalism, there aren’t the same opportunities anymore. But having the ability to say ‘I write for one of the biggest independent student newspapers in the UK; here’s all the stuff I’ve done, you can see it all, I’m pleased with this; [that] would be the main thing [I would recommend to others].”

All of the students spoke of their own publications as perfect training grounds for writing careers. “The good thing about The Saint is that it is what you make of it. So, if you really want to be something with it you can, but if you just want to write every now and then, you can,” said Mr Sinclair.

Ms Jack noted the rare platform Hearing Aid provides for student writers with quite specific interests. “A lot of the writers we have, al-though they’re few, are really keen on music, and it’s really nice to have a place for them to express that I think, because in St Andrews there’s not a humongous music scene. Being an in-ternational university as well, you get people from all over the place with different tastes and different inspirations. The most interesting content we get is over the holidays when people go home and experience the music [there].”

With so many platforms for such a small town, St Andrews is undeniably a fantastic starting place for writers, aspiring or otherwise.

I was only able to take a glimpse at just a few of the many newspa-pers and magazines seeking fresh ideas and creative contributions, and didn’t even touch on other styles of writing going on here aside from journalism, such as creative writing. With such a vast choice of places to get yourself published, the advice of the interviewed students is certainly achievable.

“There are loads of publications here that you can get involved with. I think I would say write as much as possible and have confi dence. If you are a writer, and you know that you have a way with words, then do it as much as you can, because it’s like anything, the more practice you get the better,” advised Ms McLean.

“Being in university is like a trial run for real life, isn’t it? You’re practicing at being a journalist and you’re practicing at having a household – which doesn’t always go very well! Everything’s like a little test run,” joked Ms Jack. She continued, “If you’re going into creative industries, you often don’t really know what you’re looking for until you get there and it will be changing around a lot.

So maybe being an aspiring anything isn’t really [how to view it] because you’re just aiming for an industry, or to develop something, or to see where it goes, rather than having a set goal.”

Personally, I am, and likely always will be, aspiring to something, but I think that’s quite healthy. As writers, it’s about owning our abilities and ensuring that aspiration doesn’t become an excuse for inaction.


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