I am only three days from finishing my first semester of grad school, which sadly also means I’m halfway done with grad school. I’m more stressed this week than I have been in the past four months, but mostly because home is just within reach. And in order to go home, I have to hurdle myself over a stack of assignments and responsibilities that are piled up to my eyeballs.
I’ll probably spend the majority of my flight home reminiscing about this past semester, about the work I’ve done, the things I’ve accomplished and about the incredible people I’ve met and have grown to love immensely.
Well, anonymous, let me start by thanking you. I’m extremely flattered that you think my writing is straightforward, personal and elegant. Those are three descriptions I rarely ever heard growing up.
To be frank though, I don’t have a concrete answer as to how one can improve his or her writing style. I’m not quite sure how mine has managed to evolve since my English teacher in 8th grade told me I needed a writing tutor. It would be lofty of me to say that dexterity in prose is something you’re born with and can’t be taught – because I’m a living example to the contrary. But nevertheless, it’s true to an extent. Inside every writer is a dormant one. Aside from predisposition though, I think the best way to hone in on a writing style that suits you best is to read. Read, read, read. Find authors you like and study them. Study the way they use words, study the words they use, and find a way to integrate those nuances into your own writing. I wasn’t much of a literature nut growing up, so my style has been largely adapted from editorial. I digest magazines and non-fiction like a lunatic. And so, I take inspiration from people like Katherine Boo, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson…and numerous other journalists.
That being said though, it hasn’t been easy. Writing still isn’t easy, by any means. I struggle regularly with my stories. In fact, I’ve been working on a foreign reporting piece for the past 27 hours, and I’m still agonizing over it. To that end, the only advice I have for you is to practice. Find reasons to write outside of required assignments, like applications and essays. I find that really formal formats like those stifle creativity and ease – which is probably why I’ve been procrastinating on my cover letters. But when you can derive passion and pleasure from writing, via a blog or a fanfiction or anything recreational, you’ll find that writing will become second nature to you because you will actually enjoy doing it.
I don’t know you, nor do I know what your writing is like, but try identifying your problems with a peer or a teacher. Why isn’t your writing turning out the way you like it to? Once you know what you’re struggling with – whether it’s structure, cadence or vocabulary - you’ll know where to start making improvements.
Best of luck to you. I’m an avid supporter of writers and aspiring writers, so I’m glad you’re taking initiative. I know my fair share of people who should care more, but regrettably – and to their disadvantage – don’t.
What’s the point? Why do we, as a society, care to cultivate reporters to carry out a job that many deem doable by anyone who bothered to graduate high school? It’s a vocation, not a profession, people tell me. Because there’s not a comparable level of training in journalism as there is in fields like law or medicine, for which no Average Joe could waltz into a courtroom or an operating room and expect to perform unhampered. But anyone with a pen and an understanding that sentences begin with subjects, end with objects and that somewhere sandwiched in between is a verb, can be a journalist, right?
Precisely why we need a journalism school. Because all of the above is wrong. What people outside of the journalism biosphere don’t understand is that Joseph Pulitzer forked over a large sum of cash to open the world’s first journalism school in 1892 and failed to live to see the day it opened 20 years after the fact not to fulfill some superficial ideology that academic pedigree would necessarily make the industry any more lucrative or more appealing, or to create any arbitrary distinctions between the have and the have-nots of a degree. He founded the Columbia School of Journalism because he thought with as much power the press has over public opinion and with how much responsibility it has as a civic entity, it deserves the best because the people deserve the best. The people deserve to take solace in the fact that credible, well-trained reporters are out there bringing home the news, unwavering in the principles that set journalism as a traditional industry apart from any random person who could claim to know the truth but then execute its telling sloppily and with little regard to its accuracy or its fairness.
Pulitzer writes in The College of Journalism, which was published in the North American Review in May 1904,“I sincerely hope it will create a class distinction between the fit and the unfit – one based not upon money, but upon morals, education and character.”
I believed years ago before I had even taken my first steps into a journalism school, that morals, character and judgment simply couldn’t be taught – that they were byproducts of nature and thus unbendable and uncompromising. After years of the trade, I realized that though morals, ethics, sheer talent and the like are innate, the application of such to the news industry is not.
Pulitzer writes, “However great a gift, if news instinct as born were turned loose in any newspaper office in New York without control of sound judgment bred by considerable experience and training, the results would be much more pleasing to the lawyers than to the editors.”
I completely agree. I could not have walked into any newsroom after high school with pen and pad and hope that I could pull together anything of quality or of sheer passability as per journalistic or legal standard. And I didn’t my first time as an intern at a community paper, for which I technically only had one semester of “Critical Issues.” In retrospect, I didn’t source properly, I spelled names incorrectly and pretty much got the facts wrong (even though the “gist” was right) – all because I didn’t know how. I, as a journalist at 18, was a glaring indication of why journalism school was necessary in the eyes of Joseph Pulitzer. And after 3.5 years as an undergraduate student, I realized I was still too unfit for the job. So I went to Columbia, where I’ve been tested, pushed and pulled to my limits so that I could have better faith in my ability to report and report well.
That’s not to suggest that there was no such thing as good journalism prior to the establishment of a school. Walt Whitman poetically reported on the wounded soldiers of the Civil War for the New York Times, a great example of early conflict reporting in American history. Nellie Bly set the standard for investigative and undercover reporting when she locked herself up in a mental institution more than 25 years before Columbia J-School even propped open its doors. Then there is the generation that followed of ground-breaking muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell who blew the lid off government and industrial corruption in the early 1900s.
Good journalism did exist before journalism school. But Pulitzer probably saw something in society that no one else did, clearly. He foresaw the rapid progression of media into a world in which an oversaturation of writers, new platforms and new outlets posed a threat to the overall sanctity of the trade. And because of such, the construction of a school to differentiate between the “fit and the unfit” became a more pressing need. Because without formal education, without a means to shape writers into credible journalists who not only had an instinct for news but also a penchant and a resounding ability to apply that instinct, journalism would not have been able to move past the broadsides we saw in the 1700s.