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A veteran journalist’s advice to young writers

Media

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

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

Having watched that phenomenon for a decade or two, I’m ready at last with 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!

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First, learn some important distinctions about categories of writing. Give up on poetry, fiction, and opinion pieces. I’m astonished by young people who think they’re prepared 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, 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. It deepens your understanding of human nature and throws you into the cauldron of human conflict, grief, disappointment, betrayal, and all the other complexities of life that go beyond petty personal experiences. 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 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 always trump opinion writers. 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, speaking a second language, mastering spreadsheets, or networking computers. All of those 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.

That “something else of value” might even be competency at pushing a broom.

“How do I get started?” they all ask me.

“At the bottom,” I tend to reply.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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