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Home > Publications > Quill > Write what you know


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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Write what you know

Jenn Rowell

I was standing in an Army chapel as a battalion commander told more than 200 officer candidates what they were in for. But something the commander said stuck.

“I am a soldier,” he said. “It’s not a job, it’s who I am.”

I am a journalist. Meaning I’m an overworked, underpaid, cynical, obsessive, competitive and often compulsive insomniac.

For better or worse, I’m a journalist. But that’s not all I am. And with the so-called decline of our industry, I’m finding myself very protective of my journalist identity, but glad for my other interests and skills.

As a young journalist, I can’t imagine being anything else, and I’m not ready to give up on the career I love. But I’m also practical and know this is the time to branch out, develop new skills, try new things.

They say write what you know, so start knowing more. Use all this new technology to your advantage. Follow Google Alerts, Twitter feeds, blogs, trade publications, RSS feeds. Take classes on Web design, photography, writing. Become an expert on your beat. Consider graduate degrees. Your employer might not pay for it, but it’s an investment in yourself that also affords you more career options. Plus, it’s fun to quote yourself in a class on foreign policy when you interviewed a former ambassador or top military officer the week before matters.

GET OUTSIDE THE BOX

I’m a military journalist. I’m like a prairie dog at the office — if I even hear the word “military,” my ears perk up. So my shelves are lined with books on war, strategy, policy, weapons and now histories of the Middle East and translations of the Quran.

But there are a few off-the-wall titles mixed in. My favorite is fairy tales. Not because I want to be a princess; it’s actually a text from a class I took my last semester of undergrad.

That class and the tales themselves caused me to think differently and added to my writer’s toolbox. I tried different structures and styles of writing and occasionally tossed in whimsical references. Do fairy tales have any practical applications in waging war? Probably not, but fairy tales and war caused some of the world’s greatest writers to produce classic texts.

Go to new places

Our jobs demand such incredible awareness of the community around us that it’s easy to stop really seeing it or experiencing it. Getting outside your comfort zone is maybe the best way to broaden your comfort zone. Spending two weeks in Peru with limited Spanish skills and nearly dying a few times, or jumping off a bridge in New Zealand and nearly missing your flight home, will give you incredible perspective. Not only did I learn new ways to communicate, but the daily dramas at the office seemed as trivial as they really were — for a few weeks, anyway. I’ll be back on a plane to somewhere soon.

Reinvent yourself on the job

Create new features on your beat, propose projects that you’re passionate about and conveniently build your portfolio. You’ll be self-motivated and inspired and spend less time obsessing about layoffs and furloughs.

And, when in doubt, read “The Sayings of Chairman Mel” by Melvin Mencher. You’ll find at least one gem to make you laugh, one to inspire you, one to motivate you and one to remind you that you are a journalist. And it matters.

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