Had a reader and then a coworker at the university where I'm getting my master's ask me pretty much the same question over the past couple days, so I thought there might be some other readers interested in it, too.
From the reader's email:
I am not a journalist by profession though I have worked off and on in the field for the last 20 years. Professionally I teach history and coach football. I have coached just about everything at one time or another a lot of basketball and baseball. ... For the past few years I have been freelancing for local papers writing mainly preps basketball and spring sports. Add in some features and a little politics. I also do photography which I have learned to enjoy. My question to you is how do I start expanding to bigger assignments. I enjoy writing local sports, etc. but I want to write something bigger and more important. — J.W.
My coworker wants to write about film.
Now bear in mind, this advice is free, but it's also just my advice, and as I say down there at the end, there's no one way to go about this. That said, here's my (extremely abbreviated) take.
As far as expanding to bigger assignments, basically, you need clips—articles published in real places, like newspapers and magazines and maybe a proven website; your blog doesn't count—that prove you can write what you want to write for the big boys. In my case, I went from doing basically what JW's doing to doing slightly bigger stories for local magazines to doing slightly bigger stories for regional magazines and then eventually I landed a story for a major website and used that to parlay my way into national magazine work. It also didn't hurt that I'd written a book that got published.
In fact, that's the second driving force behind why I wrote and worked so hard to get that book published. It made me stand out. Chris Jones of Esquire told me that writing the book, even if it sold 500 copies or fewer, would still hugely help me for that very reason. He wrote a book about boxing when he was younger, and he credits it with helping him stand out from other candidates for the columnist job he got that got him in the door at Esquire.
My book came out shortly after my story for the big website. The editor for the big website put me in touch with the editor at the big website's big magazine. I now write for that magazine on a regular basis.
I knew the book would set me apart from others my age in my field. I think this is a key to everything. What are you doing that makes you a little different? That makes you memorable when you contact editors asking for writing assignments? (The first reason: The book told an amazing story, and I was so young and hopped up on ambition that nothing was going to stop me from writing it. Looking back, I'm like, dude, what got into you?)
That's the short version. There are other things that go into it. You have to really know how to write. You have to really know how to report if you're doing journalism. I'm still learning as I go. But there is no one true and guaranteed way to make what you want become yours.
Mostly you just need the one thing I ask people to ask themselves if they have: Do you have to have this hunger to be great at what you do? If you do, then really, you sort of find the other things you need along the way.