Top 10 Myths of Journalism School

Oh, if I could go back in time, and whisper in the ear of my younger self during journalism school.

Not that I was busy screwing it up. Editor-in-chief of my college newspaper, graduated No. 1 in my class, won a bunch of awards, blah-blah-blah. (Related: Who is this Guy?)

But the traditional things that most journalism students think they SHOULD be doing — well, often those are seven separate kinds of wrong.

And there are other things Serious Journalism Majors scoff at, things that you actually should not only embrace, but hug tightly to your bosom.

So here we go with the Top 10 Myths of Journalism School.

Myth No. 10: Hard news is the only true love of a Serious Journalism Major

Sure, unfiltered Marlboros and Jim Beam come close. But nothing beats a scoop about an amazing scandal. You laugh at people trying to make the words flow for their feature story on dumpster divers, a story packed with all these photos, which are for nancypants who don’t have the stones to write more words.

Here’s the truth: hard news is all about news gathering and using the inverted pyramid, which is a horrible structure for any sort of writing and needs to be taken behind the barn and shot.

Hard news is worthy, and does the public a great service. Yet if all you do is hard news, you won’t truly learn journalism — or how to write.

Myth No. 9: Journalism school will teach you how to write

Once you get that pigskin from j-school, and land your first journalism  gig — at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times — you’ll go home after 12 hours of banging on the keyboard to stay up past midnight, banging on the keyboard some more while smoking Gallouise Blondes and drinking cheap whiskey sours as you write (a) the next Great American Novel, (b) a Broadway play involving a debutant who falls in love with a struggling young reporter or (c) a Hollywood screenplay about a vast government conspiracy unraveled by an intrepid young intern at CBS.

This will be a lot of fun, and you’ll remember this as being the Best Thing Ever until you’ve been doing it for seven months and turning every draft of your extra-curricular writerly fun into three-point attempts. Also, you will miss this thing we call “sleep” and these other things we call “money in the checking account” and “a social life that does not involve typing on a keyboard chatting with a person who may, or may not, actually exist.”

J-school will teach you to be a journalist, but not how to write. You’ll know the AP Stylebook better than the people who wrote it, and your noggin will be stuffed full of the mechanics of writing news stories, how to put out a newspaper or produce a magazine. It may even teach you how to produce radio and TV shows.

Journalism school won’t, however, make you an all-purpose writer. And to truly learn how to write, you need to learn how to edit. I don’t mean copy edit or proof.

Sidenote: I wrote this in a crazy hurry and have not proofed it, or copy edited it, much less edited-edited the sucker. My apologies. God knows what kind of felony crimes against journalism were committed on this silly blog today. 

Myth No. 8: Copy editing is editing

Sure, you sleep with your AP Stylebook, and proof-reading marks are like a second language. But that’s not editing.

There’s proofing, copy editing and true editing. Vastly different things.

Anybody who’s literate can proof. Do I want a great proofer? Sure, I want the best around, because errors are inevitable, and it takes a special person to have the stamina to read page after page. This isn’t rocket science, though.

Copy editing is important. When something is written on deadline, in a huge hurry, the copy editor is a Writing God, saving you from making gigantic factual errors or crimes against the English language.

True editing, though, is different, and you won’t learn it in journalism school. Not unless you seek it out.

Myth No. 7: You should specialize in your special thing while pish-toshing PR, because that’s for cheerleaders

Maybe you’re a sports guy, and all you want to do is write about baseball. It’s your passion. In fact, it’s your dream to cover the San Francisco Giants as a beat reporter. Anything else would be a let-down.

Out in real newsrooms, you’ll switch beats — and newspapers, or TV stations, or whatever — all the time. One month you might be covering politics and the next month it’s a huge murder trial. As a reporter, I covered city council meetings that lasted until midnight, got up the next day and did a flood, a fire or a bumbling serial killer. You never knew what was going to happen, and that’s why journalism is fun. The smaller the paper or media outlet, the more different things you get to cover. The bigger the paper or TV station, the more specialized you get.

So in college, try everything you can. Features, sports, the opinion page. Give radio a shot, and TV if you can. Somebody who can do lots of things, and is interested in many things, is a lot more marketable and fun than a journalist who’s obsessed with one solitary thing.

Also, public relations isn’t something journalism majors should take because it’s a required course. Chances are, you won’t do journalism forever.

Maybe five or ten years after you start working at papers of news, you’ll meet an amazing girl, or a wonderful boy, and the two of you will get married and decide that living on Top Ramen was fun for the first year, and kind of unfun the second year, and if you ever want to have babies and buy a house and send your pookie to college, the job thing may need to get revisited. And instead of selling Toyotas, you want to stick with some kind of writing gig, except one that pays decently and won’t make you worry about the next round of layoffs and such.

This happens. It’s OK, and public relations is a growing field — social media PR is crazy hot right now — while traditional journalism is shrinking before it changes and takes flight again. (I have hope.) Take the PR classes and learn from them. You will not die.

Myth No. 6: All you need is a pen and notebook

These days, it’s a pen, a notebook,  a laptop, a camera and a smart phone, though the phone is a given, and would require a surgical team / SWAT team / NFL team to separate most people from their phones.

A lot of print reporters are taking their own photos these days, with newsroom cutbacks for photo staff. There are far fewer photographers on staff than reporters. Can’t send a shutterbug out on every story, only the biggest ones.

Get a decent SLR and practice. A lot.

That camera will also shoot HD video, and most papers and radio stations are also putting video up on their blogs. Learn how to edit video a little, and to edit photos a whole bunch.

Sidenote: when I say “learn to edit photos,” I don’t mean firing up Instagram and applying the Lux effect.

Myth No. 5: Creative writing and drama people are weird

Yeah, they dress in black and like to quote Sylvia Plath and Oscar Wilde.

Get over it. Instead of taking tons of political science classes and such (I was guilty of this), take all the creative writing and drama that you can. Because you want to be a great journalist and writer instead of a U.S. Senator, right?

If your college has a screenwriting class, take it. If they don’t have screenwriting, buy SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder and STORY by Robert McKee. Read them all the way through while taking notes. Then go back and read them again, because those two books are all about structure, which is the secret to great writing. Not pretty words. Structure.

Also: speech and debate — or editing the opinion page of your college paper — are both crazy smart. You need to learn how to (a) speak in public and (b) persuade other human beings to do things, such as (c) getting sources to reveal secrets to you and (d) charming editors to run your story on Page 1 instead of burying it on Page 15 next to the obituaries. I got lucky by doing speech and debate, and being an opinion page editor, along with all the hard news. Those things gave me different ways of writing aside from the inverted pyramid. So hop on the happy train of storytelling and rhetoric. DO IT NOW.

Myth No. 4: Your  resume, GPA and 5-pound stack of clips — those are the ticket to success

They’re important to get into grad school, sure. And yeah, employers are a lot more impressed with somebody who has a 4.0 and a great resume than a loser.

But after your first real job, nobody cares about your grade point average and such. Or even where you went to school, unless it’s something insanely great (Harvard) or wacky beyond belief (French Polynesian College of Scientology and Barber School).

Here’s a secret: people get stacks of resumes that tower over their desk. They spend about two seconds per resume to sort them into three piles: YES, NO and MAYBE. Three-page resume? The NO pile. Weird font? NO. Paper as stiff as cardboard or so flimsy it tears? NO.

Here’s the cat who helps bosses around the world sort through stacks of resumes.

Then they go back into the YES pile and winnow it down until they’ve got enough people to call for interviews. And that’s if they even ask for resumes.

Also: one amazing clip with photos is better than three great clips or 5 pounds of good clips. NOBODY WILL READ ALL YOUR CLIPS. They’ll read the lede of the first graf of your first clip, maybe. I’d throw some more journalism slang in that sentence, but it’d just be piling on.

Myth No. 3: You can apply for any open job

A lot of times, jobs aren’t advertised. You won’t ever know they existed.

Why? Because people off the street are always a risk. Somebody with the Greatest Resume Known to Man could be a sociopath.

This is why the most important thing isn’t “who you know” but “who already knows you.” There’s a difference, and that segues to the next myth.

Myth No. 2: Internships are glorified slavery

You’re not getting paid for this free work. Why dress up, shave (face or legs), fight traffic and work like a dog while this paper of news / TV station / magazine makes all kinds of money from your free labor? Who cares if you’re late by 15 minutes or leave early? Who cares if you play Angry Birds on your phone during meetings?

Here’s the truth: internships mean jobs. Bosses would much rather skip the whole advertising for a job thing, which involves tons of paperwork, sorting through resumes and sitting through weeks of interviews. It’s a royal pain. If there was a couple interns they just had, people who were professional and hardworking, why not call them both up and hire one of them?

This happens far, far more than you think. And not just with internships. I’m ten times more likely to answer an email from somebody who’s chatted with me on Twitter than a total stranger (delete). The same thing is true for freelance jobs.

Myth No. 1: You’ll win the Pulitzer prize and retire to a villa in France

After you work for six months, putting in all-nighters to uncover the Biggest Scoop Journalism Has Ever Seen, and blow the socks off every Pulitzer Prize judge, your hometown will throw a ticker-tape parade, the mayor will give you the keys to the city and The New York Times will fight it out with The Washington Post to see who can give you $1.3 million a year along with your own set of minions.

Oh, that’s a nice dream. It would make a great movie. I know people who’ve won the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, and while it’s a great honor, they didn’t get snatched up by the national biggies or have buckets of monies rain upon their noggins. Yeah, it’s a big deal, and the best possible award for journalists, and everybody pronounces it wrong.

Despite all that, winning the Pulitzer Prize is not like holding the winning ticket to MegaMillions.

HOWEVER: Journalism isn’t about getting famous or getting rich. It’s about serving your audience, and giving them news and information. The profession is interesting and fun, and even though it’s changing fast, the need for information — and for people who can write — is only growing.

If you choose journalism, you won’t get rich. You won’t get famous.

What you will get is an interesting life. And that’s something worth more than paper decorated with dead presidents.

The Red Pen of Doom destroys FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

FREEDOM

By Jonathan Franzen

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – (add spaces here to match dash format in 2nd graf) he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill did were not so loyal to their city as not to (if we can replace 10 words with one word, those 10 words are deader than Charlie Sheen’s acting career) read The New York Times, which ran According to a long, and very unflattering story in the Times, on how Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty trouble reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle (maybe bicycle geeks know or care, but humans do not get into bike vs. commuter bike, and I’m entirely unclear whether Walter was a U.S. Senator or a staffer or a lobbyist, and how he made the transition from bigshot in Congress or whatever to 3M employee on a bicycle, or whether he started as a nothing at 3M on a bike and went to D.C. or is now pedaling to work after screwing up big enough to be in the Times yet not go to federal prison) up Summit Avenue in February snow;. (let’s use a period, because semi-colons at the end of endless sentences are for professors and pretentious chowderheads) It seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen fell on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. (contradicts last sentence of the first graf, since buying a beater house and working crazy hard to fix it says there’s something very right about the Berglunds) Early on, Some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to guzzle drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in (Drunken bikers would be afraid of some housewife? Um, no.)

(end of page 1)

Time Magazine - Jonathan Franzen - Great American Novelist

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

Yes, I know that critics went gaga over this book, and they loved THE CORRECTIONS, too.

I hate this first page. It rubs me wrong, and makes me feel like I’m about to read a 895-page doorstop of a book, something my sadistic Contemporary English Literature professor assigned me to read as punishment for my literary sins.

Here’s the deal: Franzen writes about families in the suburbs. Basically, the same topic that every sitcom has tackled for the last 50 years. Instead of making it funny, he makes it deep and depressing.

Is what Franzen writes – when he closes his eyes and composes after receiving inspiration directly from a muse that circles his head and descends, like a butterfly, or a silken bat, to kiss his unshaven cheeks with the kiss of creative genius – is it fun to read? No.

Don’t care about Walter and Patty as characters. I’d rather read about that biker gang guzzling Schlitz and grilling knockwurst while the talk smack and plan crimes that go epically wrong.

As with all literature – as Camryn Rhys or Elisa Logan would say, LIT-rah-SURE – the beginning is deep and mundane and depressing. It only gets worse from there. While the writing may be beautiful and amazing (though it is not beautiful or amazing on this first page yet) that’s not going to make me want to read more of the story. If I want to be depressed, I’d watch daytime TV.

The first page is all over the place. Also, he adores adjectives and adverbs, while I believe, deep in my dark heart, that all those modifiers simply mean Franzen should’ve picked stronger nouns and verbs in the first place.

It pains me that Franzen is half-Swedish and spent time in Germany as a student, because I am Swedish and lived in Germany as a child. But we are nothing alike, and I care nothing for this first page.

Which is too bad. Franzen has talent to burn. I bet if he wrote about the biker gang instead, it would be seven separate flavors of awesomesauce, and the Coen brothers would make a movie out of it.

Verdict: From this first page, you’d have to hand me stacks of purple euros to convince me that reading FREEDOM would be a good use of my limited time on this planet.

The evil secret to ALL WRITING – editing is everything

Editing is everything.

I don’t care who you are — you need an editor. And you always will.

In fact, the more successful you are as a writer, the more editing you’ll need.

Here’s why:

The time crunch.

You’ll never have as much time as you did when you were struggling to break in.

A journalism student can get away with writing and polishing a major story for weeks or months.

Once you get a job as a reporter at The Willapa Valley Shopper, the first step on your path to The New York Times, you’ve got to crank out two stories a day, every day.

I used to write three or four stories before 10 a.m. every deadline day at papers of news. You get used to it. But it’s a shock at first. The time crunch is real. Which leads to problem No. 2.

The sophomore slump

Think about famous debut novelists who had a tremendous first book, and when you hopped inside your automobile and raced to Borders — back when Borders existed, and sold these things we called “books” — to buy their second novel on release day, it made you weep like a Charlie Sheen who’s run fresh out of tequila and tiger blood because that second book sucked like Electrolux.

Why does this happen?

Because debut novelists spend years polishing that first novel until it shines like a diamond made of words.

And when a debut novelist finally makes it, and has a three-book contract with Random House to crank out a book a year, it’s a struggle. They aren’t used to writing that good that fast.

You only need editing three times: when you start out, when you’re middling and when you’re a busy pro

Some people who write for a living — and didn’t spend time at newspapers or magazines getting edited every day — sometimes think success means they’re infallible. Their words are perfect, becausee otherwise why wouldn’t they be famous? Or they are richer than God and simply don’t care.

And even great writers sometimes just write long. They’re in a rush. They have to crank out the product and move on to the next thing.

Stephen King, who I adore, writes beautiful little short stories and novellas while cranking out novels that clock in at 800 or 1,000 pages.

I could close my eyes, reach onto my bookshelf in my secret lair and grab five King novels that weigh more than most second-graders. Some of these novels are fine being that long. Others are overloaded semis with a sleek sports car of a novel lurking inside and waiting to burst out.

Even literary snobs now admit that King’s  novels — even the giant ones — are good. But you could chop 400 or 500 pages from any of his monstrously overlong novels and make them even better.

Think about J.K. Rowling, and how with every paycheck and movie deal, the next book in the Harry Potter series doubled in size, until Boeing had to invent a new freight version of the 747 just to deliver the last novel so we could find out why Hermione winds up with What’s-His-Face, the redheaded doofus sidekick, instead of Harry, her true love.

Get the right editor

Most people get the wrong kind of editor.

You don’t need an editor for nancypants nonsense like dangling modifiers and misplaced commas. That’s a proof-reader, not an editor. Any semi-literate fool can proof-read a document. Microsoft Word can take a whack at that.

The editor you need is (a) a professional who (b) edits or writes for a living in (c) the specific type of writing you want to do FOR MONIES.

Any old professional will NOT do

A roomful of reporters and editors at a newspaper is a good example. They all write and edit for a living, and 99 percent of them want to write the Great American Novel — but 99 percent of the time, they fail.

Because it’s not their specialty.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Writing short non-fiction newspaper stories is far, far different than writing 400-page novels. The structure reporters use for news stories — the inverted pyramid — is exactly backwards for fiction.

Now, there are exceptions. Opinion page editors and columnists could make the transition to speechwriters, and vice-versa. The structures and techniques for persuasion on the page are quite similar to the ones used in speech and rhetoric.

But if you want to make a switch, the fact that you already write for monies doesn’t guarantee anything.

It’s like professional sports. The fact that you play shooting guard for the Bulls doesn’t mean can play left field for the White Sox.

That’s exactly what Michael Jordan tried to do. This is the greatest basketball player of all time. He’d won enough NBA championships. He’d climbed every basketball mountain. He was one of the best athletes on the planet.

So when he decided to try playing major league baseball, it wasn’t a silly dream.

And he did it right. He didn’t try to muscle his way onto the White Sox starting lineup by having lunch with the owner. He trained with baseball coaches and played for the minor league Birmingham Barons, batting .202 with 3 home runs, 51 runs-batted-in and 30 stolen bases.

Batting .202 isn’t good enough. Jordan went back to basketball.

When you try to cross-over, you’ve got to be just as careful and serious and hard-working as if you’re trying to break in for the first time.

Your editor needs to do it for monies

If you really want to pay the mortgage writing full time, you’ve got to go all in with an editor who wields their Red Pen of Doom for monies, too.

Not your husband or wife or best friend. Not a coworker or a buddy who writes something sort of close to what you’re doing, even if they do it full time.

It’s an achy breaky big mistakey to use a non-pro as your editor. Friends and family may be great readers of books but horrible at editing. Either way, you’ll take what they say far too personally.

Dreams will be crushed. Friendships will fray. Marriages will sour. DO NOT DO THIS.

Even if you’re friends with somebody who writes or edits for a living, and they say sure, they’ll edit you as a favor, that might be OK for one small piece. A short story. Your first shot at a stump speech. But not anything of length. And not as a habit. When you start cashing checks for what you write, stop being a freeloader. Set your friend free.

Better yet, don’t lean on the friend too much in the first place. Because they’re your friend. They won’t tell you if you truly stink up the joint.

Your editor must be in your specific field

It’d be silly to use a professional writer or editor in a different field.

They won’t know the conventions and quirks of another type of writing. They’ll make you feel confident that your text is perfect when it has some formatting flaw or deadly structural boo-boo that neither one of you spotted, because your buddy writes screenplays and you’re doing a novel about elves with lightsabers who ride dragons.

Find an editor who does exactly what you want to do, whether that’s writing novels, newspaper stories, magazine features, non-fiction books or speechwriting for the politicians.

Now, the natural response to this is, “Professional editors cost money, and I am a poor, starving writer with six kids who lives in a cardboard shack and feeds my family Top Ramen, raw, like popcorn, because we can’t afford a pot to boil the stuff in, so there’s no way I can pay some fancy editor to bleed on my words, words that I carefully put on this paper towel in my own blood because Bic pens and Underwood typewriters and Toshiba laptops are out of my budget, unless I spend my every weekend robbing the local 7-Eleven, which for some reason hates AP style and won’t go with Seven-11.”

To this I say: suck it up.

Professional editors don’t cost THAT much. Scrape together $100 or $200 and have a pro look at the first chunk of whatever you’re writing. Believe me, they don’t need to read all 400 pages to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Though it’s a lie that you can figure that out after five pages. It only takes one page, to be honest.

If you were trying to cut hair for a living, it’d cost you more than a couple hundred bucks to get a license. A writing conference plus three days in a hotel can run you $1k, and that’s if you NEVER EAT ANYTHING and completely abstain from bourbon. So suck it up and find somebody good to look at your first bit, long before you write the entire shebang.

Because a great editor is priceless.

PlugTheresa the Stevens, who reads this silly blog and makes witty comments, is a professional editor and former literary agent who also edits for publishers.

Theresa the Stevens is also kind, because she does a special deal where she wields her wicked pen on the first 75 pages of a novel PLUS the synopsis PLUS the query letter.

Think about how long it takes a human being to write and rewrite and rewrite a novel and synopsis and query letter. Hundreds of hours. Bazillions. Think about paying yourself minimum wage for those hours.

Then close your eyes and imagine there’s a glowing mystical being who, for the price of the complete first and second seasons of The Jersey Shore on DVD, could save yourself hundreds of more hours of pain while making you (a) seem incredibly brilliant and (b) have ten times the shot of not only getting the thing published, but making decent money at it.

Is that worth a couple hundred bucks?

Cowboy up. If you really want to write for a living, and not toy with it as a hobby, find yourself the best professional editor possible. And pay them in something other than thank you’s and cups of coffee.