Brand building through storytelling

Question of the day: what a journalist needs to know

I’m a high school student and aspiring journalist making plans for university. Should I major in English or journalism?

Very likely neither. But before we talk about your major, let’s look at what you’ll need to offer your employer and your readers. You should have a basic knowledge of the complicated forces that shape the world today. You should be able to pull an argument from a welter of facts and opposing points of view. You should understand what interests people. And you’d better be able to write.

Does English cover those bases? The great dead poets can stir your soul and fire your imagination, but don’t expect them to teach you how to organize ideas for a modern audience. They can reveal the inner workings of the human heart, but not how the world works.

I majored in English myself and if I had my student years to live over again, I’d mix up my program with other subjects: more history, a little economics and above all science (which I avoided at the time because I found it too hard). I got an A average, but I didn’t get the background knowledge I would need to illuminate readers on global warming, genomic research or the future of the Middle East.

On to journalism. Not so many years ago, I’d have told you to skip it. ” Journalism schools are full of has-beens,” I’d have said. ” They’re not in tune with what editors need today.” It amazed me that undergraduates would devote themselves to narrowly focused job training, when they could be learning about the world they hope to write about someday. Well, I’ve had to moderate my views. Fact is, the top journalism students are first in line for the internships that launch careers. The instructors have connections that can help you.

So here’s my best advice: use your undergraduate years to learn about the world. Get a degree in something real, then think about a master’s in journalism.

And don’t rely on j-school to teach you how to write. You can learn a few chops, but the rest is up to you. (Incredibly, j-schools are full of students who hope to be newspaper columnists but never read a newspaper.)

The number one prerequisite for writing is reading. This is true wherever you intend to write (newspaper, magazine, online publication). Immerse yourself in the glory of the word. Notice what holds your attention and what drives you away. Learn from the real masters, the writers you feel compelled to read.

As Stephen King says in his wise and relentlessly honest book On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft, ” Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing…is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”

I wish I could make the same point with such eloquence. Meanwhile I keep reading, and learning from my own envy. Like writers everywhere, I’m serving a lifelong apprenticeship.

Posted by Rona

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