|Matt Pearce is a freelance writer for|
the Los Angeles Times, the Pitch and
The New Inquiry. He received a master's
degree from the Missouri School of
Journalism in 2011.
The most important thing you should know at this point in your career is that it’s OK if you don’t grow up to be a journalist.
I realize that your student loans are probably about to drown you and you’re thinking I already put in, like, all this work. I’m actually not trying to dissuade you! Being a journalist is a very fine and fun thing to be. I’m having the time of my life, and I’d be the first in line to encourage you and tell you that you’re gonna have a great career and so many stories to tell at the bar.
But because your teachers probably won’t say it to you, I’ll say it to you: If it ever stops being fun, if you ever start dreading going to work, if you start going hungry because they won’t pay you enough to do something you stopped loving to do anyway, then for the love of god just quit. If I wake up one morning and they tell me that journalism is sitting behind a desk for 10 hours a day and trying not to accidentally plagiarize something from the million blogs I’m supposed to aggregate, then I’m leaving journalism and moving to New Orleans to open a coffee shop. May the bridges I burn light the way.
Anyway, sorry to unload that upfront, but for your mental health, you need to know that other options exist and that it’s OK to take them. You’re at that insanely competitive/insecure leaping-off point where it feels like every decision facing you will be the most important decision you ever make. Not true! Your anxieties are lying to you. It doesn’t help that Mizzou is like a huge funhouse mirror that makes you think that you have to have it all now or you’re a failure, no thanks to all the great and annoyingly talented people you’ll graduate with. You’re going to be OK if you take the job nobody’s heard of or go surfing for a year before wandering off to report on grain futures or whatever. The best reporter I’ve worked with got her start at The North Biloxian and the Minot Daily News before landing her Pulitzer about 20 years later. And it’s not like she retired when she won; she just kept doing her job. Journalism is a ladder to nowhere, so you might as well learn to enjoy the climb.
So, the tips.
I freelance full-time, which is not something Mizzou really prepares you for. You should demand that your professors prepare you for freelancing, or, better yet, ask a freelancer how they do it. We’re moving toward a freelance economy, and odds are you’ll be freelancing at some point whether you like it or not. Everything I learned I had to learn myself, so here’s the most important stuff I can tell you to help cut down on the learning curve:
1. Embrace fear. Fear is awful. It’s also clarifying. When your lunch depends on turning something in by deadline, you know what you have to do. Fear is also perfect for telling you what really matters to you.
2. Get everything in writing. Don’t let editors screw you because you didn’t negotiate a price in advance. Also, save all your receipts. Your existence is now tax-deductible.
3. Learn to kick down doors. Never ask for permission to do anything; just do it and force people to deal with you. I got my big break when the Joplin tornado happened in May 2011. I looked up three email addresses of national editors I had never met and said Hey, I’m driving to Joplin first thing in the morning and will work for the first person who calls me back. I got a call from the LA Times 30 minutes later. Three months after that, when my summer internship ended, I flew myself out to LA for the sole purpose of coercing the national editors into having lunch with me. I’ve been writing for them ever since.
4. Everything is material. I approach freelancing by flinging myself at huge news events to write daily stories and then use the leftovers for longer-form/more analytical stuff. But also, that thing you and your friends have been talking about for two hours? A lot of other people are probably also discussing it and would love to read something smart about it. Wasting time does not equal wasted time.
5. I hope you took magazine editing with Jenn Rowe and investigative reporting with Mark Horvit — two classes whose lessons I use almost every single day. (I’m acutely aware that I ended two sentences with prepositions in this letter.) Great reporting is more marketable than great writing, by the way. Most decent publications will have editors to help buff up your prose, but you’re the one with the exclusive scoop. But beware: There are also fewer and fewer layers of editing these days, so you should start training yourself how to self-edit now. Never submit a draft you wouldn’t want to see in print.
6. That said, everybody needs an editor. Find somebody to be your mentor or your coach who is not afraid to critique your work. When you get out into the world, your editors will be stressed and distant and will only have enough time to make your story decent enough to publish. You must seek out constructive criticism if you want to get better. I still send early drafts to Katherine Reed, my old beat editor at the Missourian, because she’s the most unforgiving reader I know. I sent her and a couple friends this letter before I submitted it and made changes based on their advice.
7. Ditch your hang-ups. Everything is more fun when you stop worrying about what might happen and just wing it. Start by saying yes to life. I made an impromptu decision to go to Egypt for a month and ended up covering part of a revolution; I’ve gotten to see a few presidential candidates on the stump; for a variety of journalism-related reasons too convoluted to explain, I now have a bunch of cool friends in Toronto and London. I also went to Cuba. A lot of stuff I’ve done was pretty scary or intimidating at the time but turned out great. Journalism is a vast conspiracy to make doing amazing stuff your job, so exploit that for all it’s worth. Never let your career get in the way of living a better life.
Contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times, the Pitch, and The New Inquiry
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