On Publishing, Journalism, and Building Your Brand
Chef’s Table is a section on Ramen IR that provides readers insight into various professions related to international affairs and foreign policy. Authors share their experiences, offering an inside perspective of their respective fields. Ultimately, the mission of Chef’s Table is to better equip young professionals and students to break into the field of international affairs through lessons learned, career testimonies, and advice from experienced practitioners.
In a hypercompetitive job market, publications, whether in mainstream media or peer-review, can be an invaluable addition to any resume. Employers in the public and private sector understand concise, intelligent writing is a rare commodity. Yet, the publication game is undeniably stacked against young aspiring authors. Online submissions through email or website portals feel like cavernous black holes. Any prospective writer must overcome a gauntlet of screeners and editors. Then add in the fact that most publications receive hundreds of submissions on a daily basis. Furthermore, you are fighting for space and attention with staff writers and regular guest writers.
So what is a young writer supposed to do?
Write. And write some more. Then when you’re exhausted, tittering on the edge of caffeine overdose – go write some more. Writing is a skill, a craft that demands constant practice. This isn’t like Twitter where you type some pithy 140-character message on your phone, slap on a trending hashtag, and serve it up to the masses. Writing in the field of politics and security demands rigorous research, concise analysis, and most of all, a persuasive voice. And out of the cankerous gallery of political pundits and security experts, only a handful of voices have mastered the art of writing.
So, if you want to be more than mediocre, take an hour out of every day to write. Develop a voice. Experiment with new approaches. Hone a writing style. The first step in being published is having a product worth publishing.
You never know who is reading your work.
I never set out to be a writer or a journalist. The notion never even crossed my mind. In all honesty, I stumbled clumsily into the field with no notion of what I was doing. I had recently published a short academic piece for Georgetown’s online journal, GSSR, expecting no one beyond my peers and professors would ever read it. It’s not like anyone strolls through university journals, wondering what young graduate students have to say about defense policy and terrorism.
But I was utterly wrong. The very next day, I received an email from Tom Ricks, the editor of Best Defense at Foreign Policy, asking me if I wanted to write an article for him. After thirty painstaking minutes, I managed to string together a few sentences that didn’t make me sound like an excited schoolgirl or overly uninterested. It was the hardest email I ever wrote. His following email only gave me two simple directions: the article had to be about defense and under 600 words.
One article led to another, each pushing my writing to be better and better. And steadily, I fell in love with writing, unable to let go of the chance to join the policy discussion. Before I knew it, I was on a plane bound for Iraq in search of my next story.
The best writers aren’t always the best networkers, but the best networkers are usually the most published.
The publication game is not a meritocracy – no matter how much we want it to be. The best writers don’t necessary get the most views or even a fair chance. Imagine a publication is like a party, one that everyone wants to attend. Then the editors are the gatekeepers at the doors controlling the flow and content of traffic. If the world was fair, everyone would line up and get a chance. Yet the world is not fair, so editors depend on personal relationships to help them sort through the crowd. This may seem nepotistic to some, and to a degree, it undoubtedly is. Nevertheless, when faced with 500 articles sitting in your inbox, you can’t blame an editor for gravitating to a familiar name. Familiarity is seductive, a very human weakness.
So at the risk of sounding like a career cliché, build relationships, construct a network of people who know you, your work, and your worth. This isn’t about exchanging business cards in some dimly lit happy hour. This is about following up, about getting coffee, about producing consistent work for people, about associating your name with excellence – with familiarity. So if you ever get the personal email of any editor or staff writer, realize you have been handed a golden ticket to the party. Don’t waste it. Cultivate it.
Build your brand to leverage it.
I never met any writer who wrote their seminal work on their first attempt. I don’t even know a single writer that got paid for their first piece. This is the nature of the game, a simple asymmetry of supply and demand. The abundance of hopeful writers and the scarcity of publishing space creates no incentive to pay first-time authors. Thus, you have to build your own brand as a writer.
You have to build your writing portfolio one article at a time, trying to demonstrate different aspects of your writing. You should capitalize on every chance to write from short human-interest pieces to blog content for NGOs to peer-reviewed academic articles. Then one day, almost without notice, editors and organizations will begin to reach out to you for content. This is when you have established your value, your profile as an author. The pay may be underwhelming in real terms, but do not underestimate the value of being paid and of being sought out.
And if you’re wondering, “Do I really need to publish anything?” Go Google yourself. If the top results are your Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, then the answer is a resounding yes. Give prospective employers something beyond your holiday photos and a deluge of embarrassing Facebook statuses to judge your quality as a potential employee. So, go power up Microsoft Word and start writing.
Here is a list of potential publications to consider for your writing:
Foreign Policy: A mainstay in political and foreign affairs, articles can range from 600 to 1,000 words depending.
The Diplomat: Exclusively covering Asia-Pacific, the online publication looks for articles ranging from 400 to 800 words.
Defense One: Covering defense and national security, this publication looks for articles under 800 words in one of its five categories: Threats, Politics, Management, Technology and Ideas.
Ramen IR: A shameless plug for the site here. But seriously, Ramen IR was created to give a platform for young professionals and graduate students in international affairs. Covering a wide variety of topics in the international field, articles range from 500 to 1,500 words.
Task & Purpose: A fantastic publication for aspiring veteran writers on everything military related.
War on the Rocks: One of my favorite online publications, but they’re incredibly selective and rarely publish unsolicited guest contributions. Authors must be published in a peer-review journal, a veteran, or possess extensive experience in a war zone in some other capacity (journalist, aid worker, etc.).
Small Wars Journal: A great publication for both peer-reviewed articles and shorter commentaries focused on “small wars.” Think counterinsurgency, terrorism, and stability operations.
Foreign Affairs: Covering American foreign policy and global affairs, this publication seeks articles ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 words depending on the category.
Joint Force Quarterly: Focused on topics concerning joint military operations, this peer-reviewed magazine looks for pieces ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 words.
Sebastian J. Bae is a member of the Ramen IR writing team focusing on security issues. He is a regular columnist for Foreign Policy and the Georgetown Security Studies Review. His views are solely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the organizations that he writes/works for, Ramen IR, other authors, or any of their organizations or affiliations.
Image: “The Passion of Creation” by Leonid Pasternak (public domain)