I still remember — lovingly — my very first byline.
After honing some early networking skills, I had landed a weekly column in a tiny newspaper for a small town in North Carolina. I discussed trends among teens, and they paid me a whopping $10 a week. I still have one dollar out of that Hamilton, and it’s framed as a nod to the humble beginnings of my career.
Like most budding wordsmiths who grow up paging through magazines, I used to dream of being at the top of a masthead. But as I explored the vast world of media over many years, I quickly realized instead of leading someone else’s legacy, I wanted to create my own.
These days, my friends jokingly refer to my career — which includes a healthy balance of journalism assignments and content strategy clients through my consulting company — as an empire. At first, I thought it was a bit of a stretch… and then I reminded myself of the work, grit, determination and strength it took to become my own boss lady.
After all, most men wouldn’t shy away from bragging about their success, so why should I?
As we explored in our latest piece for Women’s History Month, many gender disparities are still omnipresent within media — digital, broadcast, print or otherwise — but there are plenty of badass ladies who are fighting for their bylines. Through years of hustling, rubbing elbows, writing for free and other strategies for success, these impressive women have an empire, too.
Luckily, we’re all here to support #girlpower — and share our best advice for creating that career you’ve always wanted — and deserve:
Rachel Sobel: “Find your niche.”
Rachel Sobel didn’t start in journalism, but rather on what’s often considered the darker side of content: public relations. After burning the midnight oil both on the agency and in-house side, Sobel was quickly schooled on the ways her writing could improve. Or more to the point, she realized it wasn’t her strongest skill and she set out to improve her talent. “I hate being bad at anything, so I took every piece of feedback I was ever given, constantly pushing myself to do better and applied it to subsequent projects. Before I knew it, all I wanted to do was write,” she explained.
Eventually, after one too many toxic experiences, she left the corporate world, built up her blog and freelance tunnel. This move, she shares, was the best professional decision of her life. Finally, she had a space to share her unique perspective, and a place to display her personality. “Every time I chose a topic to focus on there would be a whole new slew of people contacting me telling me it was so honest and relatable,” she continues. “I found a niche and an audience, and they are with me for every piece I put out there in the universe.”
Today, she hosts a small roster of clients who hire her to create all kinds of content, but most of her writing is geared toward motherhood. In addition to maintaining her own blog, she also pens for a number of online publications, including PopSugar, Scary Mommy, TODAY Parents and others. She has also explored other mediums, including Facebook Live and speaking live on local news channels and events.
“I have shared about getting divorced with a toddler, dating as a single mom, remarrying, suffering a miscarriage, having a baby two weeks shy of my 40th birthday and every other scenario I know other parents have experience with but may not openly discuss. I share the good, bad and ugly and have amassed a tribe of women — and even some men — who have become my biggest supporters and push me to perpetuate the reality attached to motherhood,” she shares.
This honest-to-goodness approach to journalism is exactly the advice she’d give to other women hoping to match her accomplishments. If you want to figure out how you can set yourself apart, you have to be willing to put it into words for the masses to relate to. This often means stepping out of your comfort zone. “Write what you feel and don’t hold back. When you become vulnerable in your writing, you attract people who are feeling exactly what you are feeling but may not be able to put it into words,” she continued. “I’ve also learned that those times I hesitate to hit ‘publish’, because I’m afraid maybe I’m putting too much out there, end up being my most successful and shared stories.”
Locke Hughes: “Network.”
Freelance journalist and health coach Locke Hughes started writing for her alumni magazine and some local publications while attending the University of Virginia. Discovering a passion for writing, Hughes did what so many before her did, and took a chance on a one-way ticket, destined for the Big Apple. During those first scarce first months, she asked anyone and everyone she knew to meet for a drink or a cup of coffee while she worked a paid internship at a publishing house. Finally she landed what she called her dream job: an assistant editor gig at Woman’s Day magazine. Then, everything was put in motion, setting her up for the career she’d eventually build: “A couple years after that, I discovered my passion for health and wellness, and made the jump over to Shape.com where I was the senior social media editor. I also worked at Greatist as well as WebMD, before I decided to go freelance,” she shared.
Today, she’s based in Park City, Utah, contributing to a variety of sites, including NBC News, HuffPost, Oprah Magazine, Shape, Women’s Health, and many others. “My empire as an inspiring and invigorating mix of multimedia projects for both local publications in Park City as well as regular articles for New York-based websites,” she described. She’s also starting to explore partnerships, including one with VisitParkCity.com, where she was hired to write and produce a series of tourism videos. With all of this work, she estimates a take home around $70 to $80K annually.
Hughe’s biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers journalist is to network, since as she puts it, connections with editors are everything. And if you can afford it, Hughes says a stint in New York or Los Angeles — even for a little bit — will pay off big time.
Caitlin Collins: “Keep writing.”
When freelance writer and content strategist Caitlin Collins was fresh off the boat in New York City after graduating from journalism school, she learned one lesson fast: content and advertorial pay more than editorial. This prompted her to stick to this side of the written word for eight years, scribbling across various brands, until she decided to branch out on her own. It took a while, but she says now, she’s discovered an ideal balance between branded content and freelance journalism.
“I work for myself and have been truly lucky to work with a list of amazing clients from a branded content and content strategy standpoint. This accounts for the majority of my time, but I also am a freelance editorial writer, always looking to grow this side of my business,” she shares. “I consider it an empire because I love what I do every day.”
And the keyword there is every day — since she’s been penning away since she was in grade school. Thanks to the encouragement of her mom, writing has been a lifelong journey for Collins — and has helped her to land at one solid piece of advice for those who want to follow her tenure: keep writing. “Put in the time early in your career, even if it isn’t exactly the type of writing you would like to be doing,” she continues. “Embrace the side hustle. Accept that as technology changes, writing may look different. But the art of storytelling is always the same.”
Cathy Cassata: “Have persistence — and patience.”
When freelance health writer Cathy Cassata was 11 years old, she started writing poetry. She remembers writing them from her parent’s kitchen table in a spiral-bound notebook, erasing and re-writing words again and again, until they perfectly expressed her feelings. When she reached high school, her passion for writing grew, and eventually, she majored in English in college. From the start, she rejected the idea of a backup plan— and knew she could making the act of stringing together sentences her livelihood.
She was right: After working as a staff writer and editor for a medical association for eight years, she left in 2008 to begin her freelance career. And for 11 years? She’d been busy managing deadlines for a variety of publications and websites, and most recently, cemented her niche in health, mental health and human behavior. She frequently pens for Healthline, Everyday Health, and other destinations. She also moonlights for Story Terrace, where she writes biographics, utilizing her talents as an interviewer, researcher and writer. Rates vary, but she takes home $200 to $1,200 for her stories, all dependent on research and interviews.
For those who want to have a diverse— and lengthy — writing career like Cassata, she gives an alliteration-inspired nugget of wisdom: patience and persistence. “As writers, we all have topics we really want to write about, but we have to take jobs sometimes that will pay and give us experience. I knew each opportunity I got over the years, whether my heart was in them or not, got me to where I am today,” she shares. “At this point in my career, I’m able to turn down jobs that don’t interest me because I took so many in the past.”
Jane Coloccia: “Be flexible — and know your worth.”
Jane Coloccia’s career started on the editorial side, where she worked as the assistant travel editor for Modern Bride magazine. After a few years, she decided to make the move to public relations, where she discovered she could flex her writing muscles through various media. “ I suddenly found myself writing press releases, copy for advertorials, proposals and more. And when I started my own communications agency, I handled all manner of writing projects, which evolved from print ads to website copy, digital ads, emails, social media content and beyond,” she explained.
Fast forward 30 years and she’s still in business — for herself — doing whatever her clients need. Her empire today includes a lot of marketing communications, brand storytelling, corporate blogs, and even editorial assignments.
In other words: It’s diverse, and it challenges Coloccia to be flexible and nimble. If you want to mimic her same success, she emphasizes the value of allowing your career to shift with the market, identifying holes — and pitching yourself.
“When I began I was just doing PR and ad/brochure copywriting. Then I saw a need for website content and so I began to offer that,” she continued. “A few years back I saw the craze for social media, so that became another tool I could use in developing content for Facebook, Instagram and more.”
So how will you make your empire? From those first bylines to the 100s you’ll reap in your tenure, allow these words of wisdom to guide you.