Written by Kristen Johnson
On May 15th, I graduated from Purdue University with a Liberal Arts degree in Professional Writing. While in school, I worked at our newspaper, the Purdue Exponent for two years, in addition to other journalism internships and my onslaught of writing courses. In hopes that I had gathered a plethora of useful writing knowledge, Katie asked me to compile some things I learned over my college career. Here’s what I came up with:
• First, break the rules. Forget everything you learned in your high school English classes. Those old Elements of Writing books? Toss them. Writing is much more than simple sentence structures. Think outside of the box! Make non-existing words exist, use fragments when constructive, and be dangerously edgy when the risk is affordable.
• …but never forget the basics. Ever. As a college senior in a 400-level writing class, my professor spent for first week assigning grammar exercises. Why? Because you can only be a rebel when you know what rules you’re breaking. No matter how long you’ve been writing, it’s still irresponsible to make spelling a mistake and it’s still inexcusable to be ambiguous when specifics are desperately needed.
• Writing is like any sport. Practice truly makes perfect. Write, write, write…write!! Take any opportunity to write for any publishing venue, whether it be minimally paying, nonpaying, or your own personal blog. Any chance to have an outsider’s opinion is a great chance to grow as a writer.
• Your mother has been preaching the truth - reading in invaluable. This lesson is one I’ve had to learn the hard way, growing up with only a strong fascination with the Harry Potter series. Beyond the wizarding community and my school assignments, it practically took a knife fight to get my mind focused on anything else bounded by a cover. Once college hit, I felt the burn. My overall knowledge of the world, let alone my vocabulary, poorly suffered. If you struggle to find intriguing material, use the internet! No matter what you’re interests include, I guarantee there is a blog and/or site devoted to your curiosities.
• Master the internet, or at least research its limitless opportunities. Create a website and/or blog and update frequently. Learn the fundamentals of web design, even if it’s just a basic understanding of the how’s, what’s and why’s. For my non-tech savvy brethren, there are countless sites that offer shortcuts for these respected skills, such as web coding and photo editing. (Check out her site.)
• Network. Network like it’s the air you breathe. Network with everyone in your life, both those you know in-person and those available online. Knowledge and mastery of social media has become a must-have skill for journalists. In a social networking class, my professor explained that every person should have at least 2-3 social sites they manage daily. An overall understanding of all the popular social medias will only assist in your career; MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Blogger, Flickr, YouTube…if the names of any of these sites are unfamiliar, you’re behind.
• The editing process of any piece is half the battle. After you edit something, edit it again. And again, and again. No piece is ever perfect.
• Try to find a way to say what you want to say with less words, in order to get your point across more clearly and faster, as in: Tighten your language.
• You can never prepare all the right questions prior to an interview, no matter how much research you do, (and research is always expected and required). A good reporter enters an interview with ideas of where to lead his/her questions, but listens to the source for the perfect angle to lead the discussion and therefore the article. While interviewing, the article should be slowly unfolding in your head. Focus on the interview, but remember you’re not simply getting to know someone – you’re writing a piece that needs to have a central message.
• This world is full of writers, but it’s lacking great writers. You’re going to fail, time and time again. You’re going to get torn apart, and people are going to tell you you’ll never make it. The greats learn and keep writing. The regulars never adapt, or retire all together. If writing is your passion, you have to keep fighting and be prepared for people who think you don’t have “it.”
(Kristen Johnson is a recent college graduate. Her expertise, so far, is the music industry. She can write a killer CD review and bio piece on upcoming artists. Since I encouraged her to pursue writing when she consulted me about it, I thought it would be interesting to see what she got out of school. (In 5 years we should do a follow-up and find out what she really learned.)