No, seriously, I started this personal blog my freshman year of college, talking about quesadilla Tuesdays at my cafeteria. A few brave souls have emailed me after having read the whole of my blog archive, and it makes me cringe but also want to hug them. Who the hell cared about quesadilla Tuesdays? Well, no one. But you have to start somewhere, and describing my every day life was the place I began. I've been blogging for almost ten years, on a now-defunct site and a few variations of this here blog. I didn't start trying to make money, or even thinking that anyone I didn't know would read it. I started because I loved writing, and I continued because I needed writing. But eventually it did become something I wanted to start doing professionally, and this is how I broke into it.
One of my biggest frustrations in college was that my writing professors didn't consider what I was doing online to be legitimate. They automatically assumed my work wasn't valid, that it wasn't "real writing," mostly because it took place on the internet, where anyone could open a tumblr account and call themselves a writer (it should be noted that I am of the school of thought that if you are writing, anywhere, you are a writer). I took a class in freelance journalism writing and got a C minus, because my professor and I were always butting heads about the format of assignments. She did freelance work twenty and thirty years ago, back when you had to own the latest copy of Writer's Digest and query publications by snail mail. That's well and good, but I was already existing in the new, digital marketplace, and every time I tried to get a little guidance on it from the people who I was paying to teach me how to write, I got shut down.
So I graduated, armed with plenty of knowledge on how to submit to literary magazines that didn't pay and, if I wanted to, try build a time machine back to 1993 and pitch a magazine article by typewriter. What I didn't know was how to take what writing I was already doing and become a professional. Now, for the sake of this, I'm going to assume a base knowledge of almost nothing, which is what I had when I started out. Chances are you may know many bits of this already, so just skip ahead if you feel informed on the topic. (Also, keep in mind that I am in no way a big-time-writer-person who sips caviar off of little fancy crackers all day [do you even sip caviar, how would I know]. I have a day job. Writing is something I'm still working at breaking into full-time. But I recognize that I've worked hard to get to the position I am, and there are people trying to get here right now. So this is for you, if you'd like to hear about it.)
Writing. You know how I said the only thing that makes you a writer is if you write? Okay, but you'd be surprised how many people have asked me how they can write for internet publications like I do and then, when I ask if they've got a blog or a tumblr, they say "well, I don't write yet, but I want to." I mean, I'm not covering new ground here by telling you to write if you want to be a writer. Write about boys, write about school, write about your relationships or your politics or your thoughts on growing older. Write about whatever it is you want to say, but just do it.
I do have a couple of tips for the whole making-your-own-blog thing. It boils down to "Don't do what I did," basically. When I started, blogger was the main hub for writing stuff. Now I'm stuck with a blogger-hosted site, and while a friend of mine does the design work for it, it's severely limited by the capabilities of blogger. I'm in the process of overhauling and sliding over to wordpress, but it's long and slow and it's gonna take me a while to iron out. In the meantime, my home site is a blog that doesn't really look professional, which is less than ideal. Try for wordpress if you're looking for a more traditional feel, or do tumblr - because it's easy for people to follow you and very simple to play with the design on.
Anyway, once you're writing, do so regularly. Even if you don't get paid, even if only your mother reads it - it's practice. I didn't go from waxing poetic about quesadilla toppings and touching stranger's knees to what I write about now with zero practice. It took a while before I started writing things that, while still rough, had a quality to them that made people care. I didn't know it at the time, but I was building my style and voice, and none of that was wasted effort.
Now, you're writing...and you want to get paid for it. Here's what you do:
Pitching. Pitching is the first step to writing for websites other than your own. It functions as an introduction to your work, and a selling point for whatever it is you want to write for the website you're pitching. It's always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the site's tone and content, so you can make sure they'd be interested in what you're trying to write for them, and that they haven't already covered it before. Some places will give you details on how to pitch and who to pitch to, and if you're lucky, exactly what they're looking for. Dig around on contact pages and mastheads and address your pitch to the proper channels, in their preferred format. It takes a little time to do your research, but it greatly increases your chances of succeeding.
Here's an example of a successful pitch. I started writing for xoJane earlier this year based off a cold pitch I sent them (cold meaning unsolicited).
I'd crept around their site (and googled) for any tips on how they prefer to receive pitches. They like the suggested headline in the subject line, a few details on who you are and where you've written before/what you've written about, and then a short paragraph detailing the proposed piece. You don't need to send a completed piece (chances are, unless it's asked for, no site's gonna read it if you send them a finished piece). Keep it direct and concise, while making sure it sounds interesting. It's also good to ask about rates and let them know a date by which you'll be taking the pitch to other sites.
Rejection will happen, for sure. I've been rejected a billion times (okay not really but it feels like it). Actually, I get article ideas rejected once or twice a week from the sites I freelance for. It's not a personal insult, it's really just a chance to retool and see what else works. Rejection sucks but if (oh god, this is so cheesy, I can't believe I'm saying this honestly) you take it as an opportunity to get some insight on what you're doing, it sucks way less. Also, a nice thing you can do if your pitch gets rejected is to take it to another site you think it would work for (something I do all the time. Recycling is good the earth and your brain too).
I've long had a list of the sites I want to write for. When HelloGiggles launched, I wanted to write for them desperately, and I've wanted to write for xoJane for ages too. Some places I haven't worked up to pitching yet, but they're on the list, like The Hairpin or The Awl. I would sell a kidney to be able to write for The Toast or The Butter or The Rumpus. It helps to be an avid consumer of the thing you want to create, and that in turn helps you when it comes time to decide who you're going to pitch what to.