Survival Tips for Aspiring Writers

This spring, I taught a seminar in short-form narrative at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. Friends of mine warned me about the challenges of teaching, telling me to focus on the good students — because, invariably, there would be students who would be uninterested, or who just wouldn’t care. They were wrong. Maybe I was lucky; my thirteen students were engaged and engaging. They were creative in the topics they selected for their writing assignments and perceptive in the details they noticed and reported. They were eager to learn and they challenged me every step of the way, in a good way. With the semester behind us, I believe that I learned from them as much as they learned from me.

We spent our time together talking about the elements of storytelling, things like narrative arc, character development, description, sequence of actions, point of view. We read some amazing interviews to learn the importance of preparing for our interviews and asking good questions. We turned long stories into shorter ones, an exercise that reinforced to the students the importance of selecting what to include and not include in their stories. Again and again, I told them, short narratives are tough to write, but learning to write them is critical.

It is also critical to understand the challenges of being a writer. Newsrooms are full of big egos and journalism is full of people who are highly competitive, which can be good and bad. Some reporters will do whatever it takes to shine, even if it means stepping on a colleague. Some editors are great mentors. Others will not hesitate to criticize you behind your back. I told my students they must believe in themselves always. Confidence — or the appearance of confidence, at least — is a critical survival skill in this business.

The juniors, seniors and graduate students in my class had to know that, just as much as they had to learn how to report and write a scene. After our last class, we went out to grab a bite and celebrate the end of a wonderful time together. That night, I thought of a wonderful professor I'd had in grad school, who'd taken the time to share with me what he called "survival tips"— advice that still proves to be critical to helping me navigate this crazy world we live in. That night, I realized it was my turn to pay it forward and share my own tips with my students. Here is what I told them:

  1. Learn, learn, learn every day, from every person you talk to, every story you produce.
  2. Don’t let self-doubt discourage you. Ever.
  3. Remember that you are who you are, and use it to inform your reporting and find ways to connect with the people you come across. Because there is always a point of connection.
  4. Don’t be a slacker: Pound the pavement, knock on another door, stick around a little longer.
  5. Take your eyes off the screen and look, listen, smell and feel the world around you, then tell your readers/audience what that was like.
  6. Be nice, but don’t be a pushover.
  7. Be firm, but don’t be mean.
  8. Always, always be honest, and demand honesty from others.
What are your survival tips? Share them. Who knows? I may be back teaching in the fall. My students and I.

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