Advice for a would-be journalist

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In a few weeks I will mark my fifth anniversary as a columnist for the Post. I still have to pinch myself when I consider my luck. Getting paid, while working in the comfort of my own home, on my own time, for shooting off my mouth every week with my opinions? What an extraordinary concept.

Because I am so grateful for what happened to me, I’m always receptive to questions from aspiring young journalists seeking advice, or an opinion on their writing. I’ve developed something of a flare for spotting youthful potential (as I should have after 25 years of editing a competitive writing anthology for high school students). It’s no small satisfaction to know that I have been personally responsible for facilitating at least two successful entries into journalism(with a third very actively in the works).

Although it’s one of the more agreeable perks of my job to receive positive feedback from adult readers, it’s a special thrill when a young person writes with approving comments. After all, we’ve been told ad nauseam that young people don’t even read newspapers any more, they’re all about blogs and TV. Of those who do, how many could possibly be interested in the conservative views of a woman of my vintage?

Sometimes I get requests from journalism students to answer questions for an assignment. I always oblige, although at times I have to wonder about the agenda of some of these assignments. One young woman sent me a list of questions.

The first was: “Have you experienced bias against you as a woman in achieving your career goals?” To which I answered: “None whatsoever.” The second question began: “Did this bias discourage you from …” So in the comments at the end of the questionnaire, I added a stern warning to the student not to get sucked into the trap of feminist victimology before even launching her career.

One such request landed in my in-box yesterday morning. This student, “Sherry” (not her real name), tells me she is in Grade 11 and, as part of her summer reading project, was asked to read three consecutive columns by a national columnist whose work she considered thought-provoking. She chose me! I like her already.

Sherry is required to comment on my “tone, rhetorical and salient strategies, organizational shifts, diction and syntax, general focus and intended audiences.” Whew. Now I’m feeling self-conscious (what is a “salient strategy”?).

Since I need a column topic today (the one I intended ended up on a blog), I’ll try to answer Sherry’s questions as best I can:

What does it take to become a journalist? It takes consistently high curiosity, basic competency in writing and, to become a good journalist, more depth of historical knowledge than one generally sees nowadays. High ideals tempered by humility (most of what you write will line birdcages, not change the world) also helps. Here’s an important tip my editor gave me. He said: “It isn’t always the best writers who achieve success in opinion journalism; it is those who write with the most conviction and from a consistent point of view.” Where do you find the inspiration to write? In human nature and current events, in books, in magazines (I read a lot of polemically charged magazines), in the great canon of Western literature I studied (now out of fashion, alas), in the culture around me—but also, because of my age, in the contrast between my own experience growing up and what I see happening today.

Do you ever worry your columns are too controversial, or maybe offensive? Good question. I am not afraid to be controversial in areas where I needn’t fear physical retribution. Being tactfully offensive is good fun when your target deserves it. As long as the anger I provoke is verbal, well, duking it out with words is what I love best about this job. If you don’t, you shouldn’t get into opinion journalism. Have you ever had an editor try to squash your article because it was too controversial? What do you mean “try”? They can and they do. And yes, it has happened to me (that’s why my intended column for today ended up on a blog, actually), but it is part of my education, and I’m grateful to them for guarding my reputation for credibility.

Good luck, Sherry. If you do choose journalism as a career, I hope you will remember to send me your first published piece. I will know exactly how you are feeling: Ecstatic.

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