There's no way I'm going to J-school: What can I read, instead?
November 3, 2009 11:08 AM   Subscribe

What books can I read that will give me some idea of what it might take for me to make my living as a writer or journalist?

Before you ask, yes: I know what's happening with journalism right now. Clearly, this isn't the decade to be thinking about making a living with writing of any kind, but when I think about some of the alternatives, well... none of them are particularly attractive to me at this point in my life. I can write, I can perform research, and, what's more, I like to do both those things. I'd like it even better if those were the only things I ever had to do to make my way in the world.

So I think I should try becoming a journalist.

The trouble is, I don't really know where to start. I've published a few articles in different places over the course of the past year, and I've been paid--so I know I'm capable of writing professional (or near-professional) quality stuff.

But aside from the actual writing, most aspects of the trade are still pretty mysterious to me. I don't understand the business side of things (what's a "query letter" supposed to be like?), and I don't understand how a journalist behaves during the information gathering parts of the process. I've had to contact sources for some of my projects, but when I speak to them I'm never entirely certain that I'm doing it right (assuming, that is, there's even a "right" way).

I know some of you are journalists or journalism students. Can anyone recommend some good reading material that will help me learn some of the non-obvious aspects of the trade? I'd also be interested in personal stories, but I'm mostly looking for things to include on an independent reading curriculum. In other words, if J-school didn't exist, what would you, as a starting writer, choose for your personal textbook?
posted by AAAA to Work & Money (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
AP Style, Chicago Style are two that are recommended. Honestly? In my journalism classes, we didn't study much. There's media and law which is recommended (topic, not a book) but your writing samples is what will get you in the door. Intern if you can or get small freelance gigs and work your way up.

For interviews, there isn't a right way beyond who, what, where, why (and possibly how).

Good luck. It's not an easy gig.
posted by stormpooper at 11:20 AM on November 3, 2009

There's no way I'm going to J-school: What can I read, instead?

In addition to whatever people suggest you read, I recommend that you volunteer yourself as an intern just about any possible place you can physically get to, no matter how far off the track of your preferred journalistic field it may be. Offer to open their mail. Anything.

This is what most journalism students wind up doing at some point or another in their education, and I suspect that it's one of the more valuable parts, both learning-wise and connections-wise.
posted by hermitosis at 11:23 AM on November 3, 2009

I never went to J-School, and a number of J-School graduates I know feel it left them ill-prepared for the actual world of professional writing.

The trick is that you have to build up to it. Blog journalistically. Write for neighborhood newspapers. Build a resume. Few editors care where you learned to write if you know how to write and can dependably turn in good, clean copy on deadline. It especially helps if you have created, and know, a beat, so write about a subject that interests you and really get to know that subject.

As to what books to read, well, seconding the stylebooks suggestion. Some of depends on what sort of writing you want to do: newspaper or literary. If the former, Literary Journalism by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer is a good starting point. If the latter, I'd suggest Associated Press Guide to News Writing: The Resource for Professional Journalists. In regards to learning how to conduct an interview, I read The Art of the Interview: Lessons from a Master of the Craft by Lawrence Grobel years ago and thought it had good advice.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:30 AM on November 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

A columnist friend from a large city newspaper told me the other day that journalism has been heartbreaking. I predict that the J-schools will begin folding in a few years, as they are already having a hard time justifying their existence beyond classes in Twitter.

The only really good thing I got from my J-school experience was learning how to go to a city council meeting, etc., and distill what really happened from the bureaucratic stuff, to make it easy on the reader and cut through junk.

The more that print media is supplanted by Web stuff, the less there will be much of a textbook to follow, aside from the importance of being an ethical reporter. But even there, it is pretty much anything goes outside of traditional newsrooms. If you are going to put up with the indignities of low pay and disrespect that follow the freelance writer. you have earned the right not to answer to any rule other than being truthful. The textbooks I assign you are Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" and Warren Ellis's comic book "Transmetropolitan."
posted by Kirklander at 11:38 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Meant to type: heartbreaking for the last 30 years, even before the recent news industry problems.
posted by Kirklander at 11:41 AM on November 3, 2009

Best answer: I never went to J-School, and a number of J-School graduates I know feel it left them ill-prepared for the actual world of professional writing.

This was not my experience at all. (Shout out to the my awesome journalism professors.)

Honestly, I'm still very much a believer in finding a small-town magazine, newspaper or tv/radio station/online outlet and learning all the ropes from people who already know how to do it. You cannot learn this craft from a book. Sure, it helps to read good writing (go the library and check out the "Best of newspaper writing" series.) And forgive my newspaper bias but it has been my experience that many good writers, even those who ended up doing narrative and long-form pieces for magazines, cut their teeth in newspapers. There is also a "Best of Magazine Writing" series as well.

If you check out, you'll see that many small-town newspapers are still hanging in there, trying to do good work and tell the important stories about their respective cities and towns. Some former big-city folks are actually buying small newspapers and reviving good, old-fashioned competition in the news business. I saw a job in Lake Placid, N.Y. that looked interesting for someone starting out with a few clips.

Good luck. I've left journalism but my skills have served me well and I still believe it's the best job ever if you're young, curious and willing to work (and party) hard.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:58 AM on November 3, 2009

I'm sure it depends on the J-School.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:07 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing Astro Zombie.

Sometimes I feel that my $45K or so (including the gear ... oh, the gear!) multimedia j-school Master's has just given me a super-expensive hobby. I could've spent that money on weight training and figure skating.

But, then I think of my classmates who've gotten great jobs and think, well, my day is coming. And I am making it come, because I don't want this to be a hobby.

But, anyway, skip j-school, do what Astro Zombie suggested, take some digital media courses at a community college, perhaps a certificate. Check out some free multimedia tools like Posterous and Wix. (We used to jokingly say that we could get our degree, or skip it entirely, largely with books like Flash for Dummies, and we were not that off base.)

Consider joining the Online News Association as an associate member if you can swing it on top of the courses, and then go to everything they sponsor that you are able to. You won't be able to get into the Society for Professional Journalists or the like. But ONA is a great group, even if you are not all that hot for digital news. When asked for your affiliation, just say "independent."

Investigative Reporters and Editors is another group that has associate members and they have incredible resources for their members.

Just do it. It's only in the last 20 years or so that graduate j-school was even that common.
posted by jgirl at 12:18 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have a BA in Journalism and one in English. Having the ability to write well is a skill that will serve you well. It wasn't until I got out of school that I realized how valuable a skill it is and that lot's of folks can't write well. I would say writing, and my ability to speak in front of groups without stage fright, have been the two skills that have gotten me the furthest in my working life.

So, my suggestion would be that while looking for work that is Journalism with a capital "J", you keep an open mind and look at other ways to use your writing. I've worked in a lot of different industries (publishing, toy, software, video game and currently, transit) and writing plays a big part. I've written ads, speeches, package copy, website copy, a couple of children's books, newspaper articles, public services announcements, presentations, etc.

Build a portfolio--the nice thing about writing is you can make a good portfolio of unpublished work, so even if you don't have "real" examples, your "spec" writing is just as good an indication of your abilities. And, as suggested above, consider internships.
posted by agatha_magatha at 1:57 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer:,,, and (in order of helpfulness) have lots of information.

Good luck. My brother is a newspaper editor; my cousin was a newspaper editor and is now a "content provider" at a very popular website sponsored by one of the Big Three US professional sports associations. The industry isn't going away, but it's changing dramatically--ironically, that's meant more, but lower-paid, freelance opportunities for people like me, so.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:02 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I should also say that being able to use lots of different software products, from print layout software to layout-to-Web software to direct-to-Web software is often what makes the difference between getting laid off and getting kept on (both my bro and my cousin have survived big layoffs because they were among the very few editors who knew how to use the software). So don't neglect that aspect of your learning.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:04 PM on November 3, 2009

This isn't answering your primary question, but re: a query letter, this answer I've given previously may be of help to you.

Also more generally: how to be a freelancer. I don't know if that will help you, but what I really want to highlight from the responses (both mine and others') in those threads is that there's no 'way' or magic trick to becoming a successful writer. Most of us just had to kinda muddle through it, and everyone it seems takes a similar, but different route to that.

It sounds like you are taking all the right steps thus far. Don't be afraid to trust your instincts. I spent so much of my freelancing career second-guessing myself when I was really doing fine, and my timidity cost me pieces at times. (Good) writers in general seem to be pretty harsh on themselves; this instinct won't stop you from doing or handing in shit work at times, but it will ensure that you know it's shit.

I have found Troublesome Word by Bill Bryson to be the single most valuable tool in my entire writing career, both journalistic and otherwise. Make of that what you will.
posted by smoke at 2:36 PM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

jgirl, out of curiosity, can you tell us more about the great jobs in journalism that you mention?
posted by Kirklander at 3:13 PM on November 3, 2009

Well, Kirklander, I'd rather not get too specific, but four in my grad cohort got multimedia jobs in the most prestigious national outlets. Only one of them was already an established jouralist with a body of work. Another, who already had an established print career in a national daily (a former Knight fellow) has taken on additional multimedia components in their beat and is teaching. Still another has a TV gig.

People in previous cohorts have done well, also, (national outlets, government, nonprofits). There are a fair number of nonprofits who use multimedia j-grads.

Just go to the alum pages of any j-school and check on how their multimedia grads are doing.

Generally, people who have established print careers or who are quite recently out of undergrad will be well served by a multimedia master's degree or, as said further up, following Astro Zombie's suggestions and getting some multimedia coursework. Older career changers will have a rougher time, especially if they are not used to a fast-paced, high-pressure work situation.
posted by jgirl at 3:42 PM on November 3, 2009

Best answer: Re ''how to behave in an interview'' situation. You need to behave, basically, in a way that will get you the info you need to write your story. Everyone does it differently, there's no special right way. As long as you get the info, and treat your source ethically, you'll be fine.

But as far as Interview 101 goes, here are my tips, FWIW.

Getting in touch
Identify your source, call them, explain who you are, who you're writing for and ask could they spare some time to speak with you about X, Y, Z. Ideally, you speak with them then and there. If not, nail down a time. If you can't get hold of them on the phone, try and email a polite note introducing yourself, the story and the publication, asking for a call back. If you're on a tighter deadline, a text is fine too, I've found.

There are a million books (just check your local college library) and websites that will go into interview techniques in depth. But basically, ask questions you have prepared beforehand, and take notes. You can ask the easiest questions first and work up to difficult / controversial material at the end of the interview (means you at least get something if they hang up on in horror/offence, depending on what you're asking).

As you're winding up, ask is there anything they'd like to add, or anything else they want to tell you. This often opens up fresh angles, or fresh ways of talking about your subject. Also, there will likely be some chit-chat at the end of the interview. This is when you should really be on high-alert for awesome quotes - people relax and open up a lot once they feel as though they aren't being officially questioned. If you have any doubt about whether to use these informal quotes, double check with your source (e.g., ''Wow, that really sums up what we were talking about... just let me get that down''.) Unless it's something spectacularly controversial they've just said, it's unlikely they'll object. Thank them kindly for their time.

Do not - do not! - agree to letting them see a copy before you file. If it is the only way you can get them to talk to you, offer to confirm quotes with them, verbally, over the phone, with the caveat that they must be available at your convenience. Because otherwise, you will be in a world of deadline trouble. For the love of god, do not send anyone a copy of your work by email for approval.

If you can, write copy from your notes right then and there. Don't do five interviews, and go back and write everything up five days later. Seriously, it's like writing through treacle. I HATED doing this when I started work at a newspaper, but eventually got used to it and it has enormous benefits in time saved. You just write so much quicker when it is all fresh in your mind. Caveat: I had colleagues who refused to do this and insisted on completing all interviews before beginning a story. So it's not for everyone.

Also, I went to jSchool (in Australia) and it didn't get me a job. Working for free to build up clips and experience, freelancing and doing jobs no one else wanted did get me a job.
posted by t0astie at 5:17 PM on November 3, 2009 [7 favorites]

Oh! Also check out NewsU. Some of it you have to pay for, but it's not expensive. And most of it is free. Good luck!
posted by t0astie at 5:20 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Toastie has great suggestions. One more along the same lines: I always ask a couple of gimme's for the first few questions. Not quite as easy as "what's your name?", but pretty much. The kind of questions the subject could answer in their sleep.

This loosens them up a lot, and will get you far better answers when you get into the meat and potatoes. It's especially important when you're recording for broadcast to do this. Answers to early questions nearly always suck.

Also do your research: in my experience, subjects are almost pathetically grateful when you've actually read what they've written, said, etc. in the past, and no something about them. It will immediately put you above 80% of your colleagues and go a long way to establishing both rapport, and decent responses.
posted by smoke at 10:10 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just start a blog. Look at Josh Marshal at TPM, which started as an individual blog. Or Andrew Sullivan. If you cover your niche well, you'll get traffic. I think if you want to be a 'regular' journalist now you would have to be very good at what you do. The talent pool is going to be huge compared to the opportunities.
posted by delmoi at 12:54 AM on November 4, 2009

Just start a blog. Look at Josh Marshal at TPM, which started as an individual blog. Or Andrew Sullivan.

Both Marshall and Sullivan were widely published magazine and newspaper journalists long before they started their blogs.

It's really hard to jump into journalism from blogging, but blogging is a good way to leverage existing success as a journalist into more success.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:36 AM on November 4, 2009

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