Things I Learning in Writing Class this Semester (Part II)

November 28, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Man I am slow.  Here is the second part of the things I learned in writing class this semester.  Part I can be found here, and there will probably be a Part III…eventually…

Be Persistent

I guess this applies to a number of things.  Of course, the most important thing when you start writing is to try and finish it.  Sounds easy but it’s probably the most difficult thing.  Unless it’s compulsory, it’s so easy to give up.  Just do something else!

We all know the success stories of writers who were rejected dozens of times before the same manuscript got through and became an international bestseller.  These people persisted in finishing their manuscript, persisted in rewriting and editing hundreds of times to get it right, and persisted in getting an agent and/publisher.  If they gave up anywhere along the way, they’d never have made it.

But what I really meant to refer to was journalistic writing, and the act of going out there and getting people to talk to you.  The first thing that crossed my mind when I was tasked with writing an article about something or someone was — why would anyone want to talk to me?  Well, you’d be surprised how many people love to talk about themselves.  Often it’s a matter of getting them to shut up because you just want to go home!

On the other hand, there are people, especially key people you must speak to for a piece, that won’t want to talk to you, or worse, simply ignore you.  I’ve had so many calls, emails, and even an in-person visit knocked back this semester.  For every successful interview, I’ve probably had five knockbacks and three delays/reschedules.  But the key is, as the heading says, to remain persistent.  Forget about people thinking that you are a pain in the butt.  Forget about the humiliation, the disappointment.  Such is real life.

For one particular piece, I must have emailed and called this one guy at least 50 times over the course of two months.  I think he thought that if he jerked me around for long enough (by not answering, by not returning messages, by continuous delays and rescheduling, and by refusing to come out to see me even when I showed up at the time of our appointment), I would eventually give up.  But no.  I just kept going, kept pestering, and eventually I got the interviews and information I needed, and it ended up being one of the best articles I wrote this semester.

Confidence does wonders

This one also has multiple applications.  In terms of journalism, I was terrified when we first had to go out and talk to people.  Petrified.  I prepared for hours and hours, researched, wrote up lists and lists of questions, anticipated responses, basically played the whole interview out in my head.  And, needless to say, I still ended up being a fumbling, mumbling mess that made little sense. I remember wondering at the time how I was ever going to make it through the semester.

But after a few more goes, my confidence started to build up.  I stopped making up so many questions, instead relying on a few dot points covering specific areas I wanted to talk about.  I looked my subject in the eye.  I spoke coherently.  I felt like a real journalist.  And they thought I was one too!

In terms of writing, I’ve also discovered the power of confidence.  Reading back on my old fiction stuff, I realised I was too timid, too afraid to make mistakes.  I kept gravitated towards the mundane, the cliched style that I desperately wanted to avoid.  It allowed me to get to the end, but it wasn’t something even I wanted to read because it bored me to death.

I still struggle with that a lot, especially when I am not focused, but I’ve found that the more you write and the more confident you become, the more you are willing to experiment with things.  Muck around with the structure a little.  Do something more outrageous.  It doesn’t always work, but it’s a lot more fun.  The most important thing is to develop your own voice and style — which doesn’t necessarily have to be the same all the time, but it should be something you can call your own.

It’s all about connections

Sad but entirely true.  I never used to think it would be that bad, but it kind of is.  If you have the right contacts, you can get access to people you would never have gotten access to in a thousand years.  I was lucky to know a friend who knew a pretty famous guy that was kind enough to grant me an interview.  And through that guy, I got a whole bunch of other powerful contacts who were kind enough to speak to me.  The same can be said for another article I did on a writer.

But I basically exhausted all the contacts I had for two articles.  There were some people in class that had a contact for just about everything.  If you want to give yourself opportunities, you have to put yourself out there and get to know people.  I used to think networking was disingenuous, and it probably is, but it’s gotta be done if you want to give yourself a chance in the industry.  Some of it might be fortuitous, but most of it will have to come from actively seeking contacts.

The same can be said for the publishing industry.  If you know the right agents and the right editors, or people that can get you through to such people, getting published becomes much much easier.  You can have all the talent in the world, but if you can’t catch a break…

Okay, now I’m certain there will be a Part III because there’s just a couple more things.  Stay tuned…