But, I’m back (albeit briefly) to discuss something I’ve talked alot about lately. In addition to people asking my advice on how to “become a writer” or “how to get a job in journalism,” I have also had long talks with friends and colleagues about the way young people enter into the business. It has led me to some conclusions I thought I’d share.
I’m not a journalism teacher and, to be completely honest, I don’t even consider myself a “journalist.” I feel like that term is reserved for the full-time, hard core writers, particularly those who do investigative work. I’m more of a blogger or reporter, but I’ve spent enough time talking to people about it over the last 20 years, I feel like I have maybe a smidgen of insight…though even that is debatable. 🙂
Learn to self edit.
Everyone wants to write, but no one wants to open an AP Stylebook. There is real value in learning the difference between its and it’s or the correct way to write 1 p.m. On a personal blog, who cares? I can write however and whatever I want. For a publication — particularly a print one — you better learn. It also teaches you the value of being edited. No copy is too precious that an editor won’t whack it in half or take our your overly florid language. A good editor will make it a LOT better. Help them. Help yourself. Self edit.
Write all the time.
I saw a quote recently that said, “The hardest part of writing is the writing.” Get used to it. Learn to write quickly (with accuracy) and editors will love you. You do this through practice, even if it is just writing for yourself. Any creative endeavor requires time sitting and practicing. I used to sit and play the bass for hours and hours. I’ve done the same with writing. It’s like training for a marathon. If you can’t write one story in a day, how could you possibly churn out multiple blog posts in an afternoon? That happens…frequently.
Read all the time.
I never gained a great love of reading like my fiancée and my father, to name a couple. A child of the original video game era, I preferred things I could do with more than just my eyes and brain. But, reading newspapers, blogs, publications of all kinds is hugely important. To use the musician analogy again, most of them become great through emulation of their idols. Writers grow in much the same way.
Be well rounded.
While covering the editor desk at the Houston Press, I’ve run across interns and freelancers who only want to write about one thing and in one way. That’s not how the world of writing works. To become a niche expert, you either have to BE an expert in that area (former football player writing about football, a surgeon writing about gall bladder operations, etc) or you have to have written about it nearly exclusively for a LONG time. Read the news. Understand politics. Gain some insight into healthcare and education. Follow sports. Visit museums and learn about the arts. Not only will it make you a better and more interesting writer, it will make you a better person.
Be willing to take jobs no one else will.
The way to work your way up in any organization is to be willing to do the dirty work. General managers in sports started as equipment managers. Famous producers started by sweeping the floors of recording studios. Directors got their starts as errand boys on movie sets. The grunt work of journalism is often writing boring crime stories or re-organizing press releases. But do it well, efficiently and without complaint and you’ll be in position for other opportunities. I know you might think you are above it, but you aren’t.
Learn how to research and interview people.
Probably the single most frustrating thing about journalism students is their inability and unwillingness to do real reporting. It means going out and talking to people, doing research and allowing the story to tell itself without your conclusions. Too many want to just read a story and then riff on its contents. This is not real reporting. If you become a skilled interviewer, it will not only put you ahead of your peers early on, but it will make you a better listener and basically a better human being.