Wednesday, November 24, 2010
What Journalism Classes Teach
Last semester, I took my final journalism class. I didn't think about it that way until now. I didn't know, after all, that I would never take a class in journalism-- or even writing-- again in my student career. I suppose once things pass us by we tend to wax poetic about them, but honestly, I do feel that I gained something from being in those classes, something more than what makes news and libel laws. I left them feeling as if every person should take a journalism class, no matter where they see life taking them.
So what does journalism teach?
How to juggle.
Being competent at doing many things at once is an essential skill in our society. Many jobs will have you working on several projects at once, and if you can't cope, you're in for a hell of a ride. One of my journalism professors made sure to have us working on at least two pieces at any given time. In the real world, tasks aren't always discrete and you don't get to finish one before starting another.
The art of talking to strangers.
I'm a bit timid by nature, so learning how to interview people has been tough for me. Though I've done a whole bunch by now, I still get exceedingly nervous before communicating with other human beings, especially ones I'm not so familiar with. The thing is, shyness is one of those problems that really doesn't seem to resolve itself without practice-- and couldn't we all stand to learn how to pick up a phone without getting butterflies? (I can't be the only one!)
How to know what's important.
The more you listen, the more easily you're able to pick out the essentials. This can be especially hard, I think, for writers, especially ones who aren't used to adhering to things like word count. When you only have 300 words, you have to develop a sense of your story at a very intimate, nit-picky level. What is important? What isn't? These are hard decisions, but they get easier to make as your vision grows clearer. As I've gotten more familiar with journalistic writing, I've found I think quicker on the fly when it comes to teasing out the important details that will lead to an actual story. Which brings me to....
How to fail with grace.
Learning to be a journalist has been a great exercise in thinking on my feet and accepting my own limitations. It's never exactly pleasant to go into an interview and find your questions are leading nowhere, or get through an entire article and not feel sure you've said anything at all-- but these are the chances we really get to show our stuff. I think anyone can take a lackluster interview or article and turn it into something great, but the first step is admitting that your original approach? Not so great. And when dealing with an editor, you learn to take constructive criticism with grace and to admit when you've messed up. Denial doesn't fix a thing.
How to ask hard questions, especially of yourself.
Writers see their words as their children. If you think that notion is silly, I'm guessing you're not a writer. A lot of us creative-types go into blind panic at the thought of having to be our own most critical editors. The worst moments I've had while writing journalism have been the ones when the article is done-- but 50 words too long, meaning I have to go back and cut, cut, cut. It's painful. But sometimes it gets to that point where you have to ask "do I need this?" when looking at a particularly nice sentence that doesn't add much more than whimsy to your piece. I have to ask those questions as often as I have to ask an interviewee to talk about something deeply personal-- at which point I experience that fear that I've crossed a line. But we don't learn without challenging each other and ourselves.
That everyone has a story.
I can't tell you how many times I've asked someone to talk to me for an article and they say "I don't know why you want to talk to me, I'm not that interesting." False. False, false, false. Everyone is interesting, and everyone has a story inside them that is beautiful and inspiring and just waiting to be told. We often seem to get caught up in the idea that certain things make a good story and that any deviations are boring or inconsequential. You don't have to win in the end. You don't have to have had your life changed. You don't have to have conquered only the most seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Have faith in your story. The reason the world needs good interviewers is because without good interviewers, there wouldn't be nearly so many good stories. Sometimes it takes someone else to pull those bits of beauty out of us. Maybe we just forgot they were there, maybe we took them for granted, but either way they don't deserve to be hidden. This, I think, is one of the most valuable things anyone can discover.
Have you taken a journalism class? What did you learn? What life skills and values have you learned from other classes?