Quit dreaming

A few practical suggestions for would-be writers

Issue: "The Sudan crisis," June 10, 2000

I like the months of May and June partly because they so typically provide a couple of invitations to speak at commencement exercises around the country. And with those opportunities come predictable opportunities as well to talk to young people interested in careers in writing.

"How do I get started?" they all ask me.

"At the bottom," I tend to reply.

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In an era where engineering graduates with a bachelor's degree and no experience are being offered salaries of $50,000 and up just to show up, it's sobering to have to tell young people who want to work with words instead of with formulas that journalism, by and large, remains a badly paid profession. The reason, like that for school teachers, is simply the law of supply and demand. Compensation in both professions has little to do with it. God seems to have placed into an extraordinary number of people the desire to influence others both through teaching and through the printed page-and the compulsion for many is so strong that they tend to ignore the pay factor just to get on with the mission.

But while the crowds of those wanting to become teachers may have diminished a bit, would-be writers are everywhere. The lure of having your name in print continues to intoxicate, which means that the competition for starting jobs as writers continues to be keen.

Having watched that phenomenon for a decade or two, I'm ready at last with a list of specific advice for aspiring writers. Learn these rules well, and you'll still die penniless and in obscurity. But at least you might get something into print!

So first, learn to make some important distinctions about categories of writing. And for the time being, give up on poetry, fiction, and opinion pieces. I'm regularly astonished to discover young people who think they're already prepared, or certainly could be with just a couple of years of training, to be handed a regular paycheck for writing down their wisdom.

A far better place to begin is with basic news reporting-and I can tell you from experience that it's also more fun. News reporting sharpens your observational powers and your skills in using detail to draw word pictures. Reporting teaches you to listen to how people talk. Reporting deepens your understanding of human nature. Reporting throws you into the cauldron of human conflict, human grief, human disappointment, human betrayal, and all the other complexities of life that go beyond your own petty personal experiences. Reporting teaches you to be a question-asker rather than an overly glib answer-provider. Reporting teaches you how big the world is, and how far God's works of creation and providence stretch in every direction.

In short, reporting enriches and matures you. If someday you also succeed as a writer of poetry, fiction, and opinion, that success will come in large measure because you honed your skills first as a reporter. Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens), probably the greatest writer America has ever produced even though a rebel against God, spent his early years as a newspaper reporter and typesetter. Another giant among American writers, Herman Melville, apparently did no newspapering, but he was a reporter nonetheless. Melville richly prepared himself for his writing career by adventuring for four full years on the South Seas. Nobody writes out of a vacuum.

Here at WORLD magazine, if a gaggle of writing candidates were to show up looking for jobs, good reporters would always trump opinion writers. By the same token, freelancers should know that their chances of having work taken seriously by our editorial staff are enhanced immeasurably if they set aside their editorials for now and submit some shoe-leather reporting. Opinions are a dime a dozen, and easy to produce. Reporting takes hard work. That's why it's worth more to us.

To such advice, let me append this further counsel. Because even good writers sometimes go jobless, it's not a bad idea to learn some other skills. If two people showed up at my office looking for a writing job, and offered equally attractive clipbooks with samples of their work, I'd still take the one who said he or she also knew something about marketing-or speaking a second language, mastering spread sheets, competence at networking computers, or being the best speller or proofreader in the crowd. All these are worthwhile skills around a publishing enterprise. Face up to the fact that your writing abilities may not yet, by themselves, land you the job you want. But such skills, plus something else of value, might.

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