Things I Wish I Knew: On Mentoring

For the past two years I have taken part in an Alumni mentoring program through the University of Melbourne. The program asks you to fill in a questionnaire with information about your degree, career and areas of expertise, and matches you with current students who share those interests and whose career aspirations line up somewhat with yours.

In the past two years my career has changed and developed; my goals have shifted, my expectations have grown. There has been times when students have asked me for mentoring and I’ve felt like a complete fraud offering any advice. How was I supposed to tell them what to do with their lives when I had no clue what I was doing with mine?

UniMelb must have done a marketing campaign to promote the mentoring program, because last week I received a sudden flurry of requests. Happily, I have never felt more equipped to offer advice to young people hoping to enter the world of writing and publishing. Not because I am an expert by any means – and I am always very upfront about that. But because I have been more immersed in that world of late than I have been since I graduated myself; I finally feel like my advice is more than ‘this is how I did it’ and instead ‘this is what I know can work’.

The mentoring program didn’t exist when I was a student, but I can imagine I would have benefited from someone telling me stuff that seems simple, but isn’t. It’s as easy as someone telling you which literary journals offer internships. Or what the organisers of the Melbourne Writers Festival look for in their volunteers. I did these things, but I was flying blind, trying to balance study and work and with no clear idea of what I really wanted out of my career. I made some errors early on in terms of career direction, and I’ve only just started to feel like I’m back on track to what I wanted originally; what it turns out I want most of all.

If I had to distil my advice for students wanting to enter the publishing world into three mains points, it’s this:

  1. You will need to work for free when you start – make sure it’s work that will teach you something and give you the connections to go further.
  2. A community is there for you to tap into, but you need to go to them. Join writers groups, attend events and festivals, talk to people, be active on social media. Find your people.
  3. Small things become big things. Start building a portfolio early: every piece you have published in a tiny online journal no one reads can lead to a commissioned piece for a high profile publication, and every role you have editing copy for small companies gives you experience for the dream editorial job.

There is so much more, but all of these are things that I didn’t know when I began, and I wish I had. It basically comes down to putting yourself out there, being brave enough to fail, and going after something that plenty of people will tell you is almost impossible.

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