How I Became a Journalist & Features Editor for National Newspapers

How I Became a Journalist & Features Editor for National Newspapers

Ever since I was a teenager I dreamed of being a journalist or writer. I had no contacts in the media and was the first person in my family to go to university. But as a dreamy teenager, I didn’t allow this to put me off. 

When I had to find work experience as a 17 year old, I wrote to every single national newspaper to ask if they could help. Only one paper replied. It was from an assistant editor from The Daily Mirror. I didn’t know him at the time, but his generous spirit spurred on my ambition. I worked all summer in the Mirror offices on their news and showbusiness desks, answering the phone and taking notes for people ( this was before the days of email!). I loved every minute of it. 

I went to Salford University and got a 2:2 degree in English Language and Literature. I didn’t enjoy the course and regretted choosing an academic subject rather than going straight into journalist training but my father warned me journalism was a tough profession to break in to and I should choose a subject to ‘fall back on.’ 

I had to have a part-time job to help pay for my university costs so I worked in the Hacienda nightclub at weekends. I also offered to do work experience one day a week at the local newspaper, The South Manchester Reporter. They’d just started a new Student pull out paper, so I began writing for that. I loved working on this local paper and one week even wrote the front page story.

 By the time I left university, I was in debt and although I had newspaper work experience, had no way of affording to do the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists).  It felt almost like my dream was over before it had begun. 

I ended up signing up with an employment agency in London and working as a receptionist in one of the sink estates in Wembley, dealing with residents’ problems. It was a fascinating job but wasn’t what I wanted to do. 

I wrote letters to every single local newspaper in London, including The Evening Standard. I only had a few replies, all rejections. I also applied to all of the graduate trainee schemes on the national papers and was rejected from them all.

I carried on with my agency work and then one day got offered the chance to apply for the job as editorial assistant on one of the newspapers I’d written to. 

It for the Staines and Egham news. 

I jumped at the chance, not realising how long the commute would be. It was nearly two hours each way from where I was living in London but I saw this as my way in, so I grabbed the opportunity. Even if the salary was only £8,500 a year and a huge portion of that went on train travel. 

I was so excited to be working in a newsroom finally, but my actual job was very dull. I had to write up What’s On guides, Women’s Institute reports and do general admin. I tried my best, but wasn’t very good at any of it. Really I longed to do news reporting and the main editor wasn’t very supportive of me, so I resigned. Luckily a news editor at the time stepped in and offered me the role of junior reporter. They agreed I could also do NCTJ training by correspondence course one day a week.

This was my big chance. It was a huge gamble by the news editor to give a young wannabe such a role but I was determined to work hard. Around the time several big news stories broke in my ‘patch’. General Pincohet, the disgraced former dictactor of Chile was living under house arrest in Virginia Water, one of the areas I reported from. I managed to secure an exclusive interview with his physiotherapist, which cast doubt on Pinochet’s claims he was too infirm and senile to stand trial for his crimes against his own people. The story gained interest around the world and I was interviewed on radio and TV about it. 

Ali G, a comic character played by Sasha Baron Cohen, was also suddenly a big thing on TV. Ali G was a character depicted from Staines and it suddenly put this relatively unknown small market town on the national map again. I thought it would be funny to ask Cohen if he’d consider giving our local paper an exclusive interview as Ali G. It was hard to get in touch with him but I managed to find a phone number for his producer and amazingly they agreed! 

After several months Ali G gave our local paper the exclusive interview and this was sold onto the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Sport. 

 After two big scoops my editor put me forward for Press Gazette, Young Journalist of the Year. I was short listed and invited to attend an award ceremony in Park Lane hotel. It was the first time I’d ever felt like I’d made a success of something. I didn’t win but it was very exciting. 

Around this time I spotted a job advert in The Guardian for a job as a features writer for Take a Break magazine. At the time it was the biggest selling women’s magazine in the UK and the offices were very close to where I lived. I applied and got offered the job. Instantly my salary more than doubled and I felt as if I’d finally ‘made it.’ 

But as John Lennon once said, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans and I got pregnant with my long term boyfriend who promptly dumped me. I had to leave my job because I was only offered three months maternity leave and couldn’t afford childcare. By the age of 25, I found myself living in London alone with a baby. 

I really thought my career was over. I tried to carry on freelancing by writing for baby and mother glossy magazines and even pitched a book idea to a publisher; a handbook for single mothers. Being a single parent made me realise how few resources existed out there. The idea was rejected.  

Some weeks I scraped by freelancing, other weeks I made a reasonable living. I was determined not to give up, but assumed I’d never have a staff job again. 

I began doing shifts on the features desk at The Sunday People in 2003. A year later I did an investigation for them into the lack of security at Wimbledon Tennis tournament. The story made a double page spread and was talked about in the national media including making a news item on BBC Radio. Afterwards I was offered a full time job by the Sunday People features editor. 

At first I didn’t think I could do it. After all I had a three- year- old to care for.  Newspapers are notorious places for not being family friendly. But the female features editor was very supportive. She said she didn’t believe in presenteeism for the sake of it. I would be allowed to leave the office by 6pm so I could pick up my daughter from a child minder. 

The job was another big opportunity I nervously grabbed. It gave me steady salary so I could apply for a mortgage. Suddenly I had security I could only have previously dreamed about. 

After a few years, I left the paper to join another women’s magazine as deputy features editor. My daughter had started school by then and I wanted to be around earlier for her in the evenings. But my luck seemed to have run out. Just 18 months later the magazine was taken over, the offices moved to Colchester, and I took redundancy. 

This was a huge blow. I had a mortgage now to pay. Freelancing was so precarious. Luckily however I took on more shift work, working at Take a Break specials and also Pick Me Up magazine regularly. It was around then my first opportunity to ghostwrite a book came out of the blue. 

If you’re still reading, thank you for sticking with this! 

A former editor I’d worked with on the newspapers was working with reality TV star Jade Goody on her last autobiography and he asked if I would like to put forward to write it. I had never written a book before but he thought of me as a good writer and needed someone available. There were very few young female ghost writers so after a nerve wracking interview, Harper Collins non fiction gave me the job. I had just three weeks to conduct all of the interviews and write 70,000 words. 

Cutting a long story short, somehow I met the deadline. The book was released following Jade’s very sad and untimely funeral and was a number one Sunday Times bestseller for four weeks. 

I was over the moon, but also a bit shell-shocked. I found myself a good agent who promised me much more work. I wrote several chapters of a novel they also submitted. I was on cloud nine! But the agent didn’t find me any ghosting work at all and after almost being taken on by a major publisher my novel was rejected. 

I went back to working in the magazine offices. Meanwhile after brushing myself down again, I picked myself up, and approached a new agent. This time she put me in touch with publishers looking for particular subjects, something I was good at. My next book, Gypsy Princess, the true account of a Romany gypsy lady was published the following year and made it into the Sunday Times bestseller list. Around this time I set up my own website, offering my services as ghost writer and people started to approach me with work. 

A flurry of books continued. I wrote about five in the space of 18 months. Two more of them made it into the bestseller list. 

I tried again to write a novel, but this time the agent rejected it. I was then headhunted by another agent so I left.  I was given the opportunity to ghost write the story of the whistleblower to Lance Armstrong. This was nominated for the Sports Book of the Year in Ireland and reached number two on the bestseller list. 

That same year I was also named as one of the top ghostwriters in the UK in ‘The Complete Guide to Ghostwriting’ by Teena Lyons. 

By now, I’d met several other ghostwriters and we’d become friends. Ghosting is rather a lonely and little known job so we decided to start United Ghostwriters, a leading collective of ghost writers. 

Over the next couple of years, I became very busy with private clients. These projects were far better paid than working for publishers. 

To date I have written for a huge variety of people across the world,   from a billionaire banker to TV celebrities to philosophers and people who have survived abusive childhoods. In particular I love telling the stories of people whose voices have never been heard before. I’ve even written a book from the perspective of a pug dog! I am working on my 21st book at the moment and never know who will email me next asking for help with their story. 

I feel very privileged to do my job and wouldn’t change it for the world. 

If I had some advice for wannabe journalists or writers it would be this: 

  1. Do not give up. There are a million different routes into the industry. Nobody’s is the same. You will face rejection but with resilience you will find a way. If you can train early on and do as much work experience as possible.
  2. Network. Expand your networks as much as possible. Always be nice to everyone you meet. The industry is small and people love to work with people who are trustworthy and enthusiastic.
  3. Don’t work for free, unless it’s work experience. And even then it should pay your expenses
  4. Keep writing, whatever it is. Just do it. Even if it’s a regular blog post or your own work, you only learn to become a good writer by writing as much as possible and reading everything you can lay your hands on. 
  5. Expect and embrace rejection. Everyone experiences this. It’s part of the process and has to be expected and accepted. 
  6. Persevere. It’s not always comfortable to keep going. Sometimes it feels like you’re never going to get anywhere but good stories and content is always needed. 

Shannon worked as a journalist and features editor for national newspapers and magazines before turning to ghostwriting.

Since then, she has written 17 books, including four Sunday Times bestsellers. The books she has ghosted have sold over 200,000 copies. She’s written for both men and women, covering many genres including celebrity, self-help, social history, misery memoirs and sporting.

Her projects include:

Forever in My Heart by Jade Goody – a number one bestseller in the UK for four weeks.
Everyday Ubuntu by Mungi Ngomane, the granddaughter of Desmond Tutu – rights sold in 12 countries worldwide
The Race to Truth; Blowing the Whistle on Lance Armstrong and Cycling’s Doping Culture, by Emma O’Reilly – nominated for the Board Gais Energy Sports Book of the Year 2014, and one of The Guardian’s Books of the Year 2014.
Her books have secured serialization in major newspapers including The Sun, The Mirror, OK! magazine. Excerpts from her books have made front-page headlines and her authors have appeared on prime-time TV shows.

Also read: How I became a freelancer writer and blogger

How I Became a Journalist & Features Editor for National Newspapers

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