As a writer and editor, I like making lists – especially when those lists have to do with writing and editing. I’m a quote collector and book suggestion hoarder. I write down good phrases, verbs and adjectives, making lists of words to string together down the road. And over the course of a writing career that has taken me to small-town and big-city newspapers, magazines and an international education nonprofit, I have made a habit of jotting down the lessons big and small that the editors I have been lucky enough to work with have shared. From the classroom to the newsroom, the following tips have shaped my writing career and influenced how I work with other writers.
1. Leave your comfort zone. Get out into the world.
To truly write well about people, issues and the world around you, get out into life. Roll around in it. Travel. Get dirty. Observe. Talk. Listen. Only then go back to your computer, writing nook, typewriter or coffee shop to do the heavy lifting of putting pen to paper. This was the lesson ingrained in me by my very first editor – a high-school history teacher whose assignment of a semester-long term paper was the longest and toughest piece of writing I’d tackled. A fast-talking, no-nonsense teacher from the Bronx, he pushed me to get out and experience life beyond the classroom. With his kick in the butt, I applied to study abroad in Italy during a high-school summer vacation, enrolled in a semester-away program in New York City at the age of 17 and traveled to Cuba on the school trip he fought to put together. Each of these experiences helped me write more authentically, whether for his history class or in my own creative scribbling. To write about the world, you must see it with authentic eyes.
2. If you want to work with words, read. A lot.
“Read. Read whatever you can get your hands on. If you run out of things to read, read a cereal box or a meeting agenda.” That’s what my first boss, the editor of the scrappy Vineyard Gazette newspaper, told me early on in my career, when I was working as a reporter covering small town government, agriculture and the arts on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s simple advice I took to heart and have passed on whenever I am working with new or young writers. “Pay attention to the way the words are laid out,” she told me then. “It’s going to make you a better writer.” And it has.
3. It’s OK to get creative help.
As a young writer, I turned in copy early, reported the heck out of stories and felt comfortable weaving a narrative arc. What I struggled with was coming up with my lede. I wanted to tell my readers everything right up front, and I needed help with honing the art of the hook. “That’s what I’m here for. I’m like a lede doctor,” my managing editor, a transplant from Australia, would call across the newsroom after I filed. “It’s OK.” Writers like to think it all comes easily and naturally, but often the process is tough, and a great writer is one who’s not afraid to accept help to make a piece of writing shine. Know your strengths as a writer, and know where you need practice. Work with an editor you trust, an editor you can go to when something is not quite right or needs some fine-tuning. Another boss of mine, the arts editor at the Boston Herald, insisted I watch while he edited my work. By repeatedly observing and learning from a pro, you pick up style and strengths and develop your own.
4. Don’t leave a meeting early, and other tips for finding your story.
Working at a newspaper entails a lot of meetings – town hall meetings, selectmen meetings, meetings with boards of nonprofits and arts councils and schools. The inclination is to get a few good quotes and dash to write. But stay. “Don’t leave until you’re the last person in the room. You never know when your story will appear,” the editor of the Vineyard Gazette told me once as I had one foot out of the newsroom to cover what I assured her would be a routine meeting with nothing to report on. Without that conversation, I would have left the meeting early that day – and I would have missed a near fistfight between two men at an affordable housing hearing. As the meeting drew to a close, tensions rose. Before I knew it, chairs were flying – at a small-town, mid-week meeting about how to house our community’s struggling working class. The story made that week’s front page. So stay until you’ve talked to everyone in the room. Read the footnotes. Ask the silly questions. You never know where you’ll find your story.
5. You have a voice. Use it.
I work for a nonprofit organization, writing stories about the group’s work worldwide and managing its social media presence. Although I’m no longer in print journalism, I find ways to exercise my voice. I write. I teach yoga. I work with young people who think they might want to go into media someday. As my first college writing professor taught me, I have a voice. Who am I not to use it? Without this professor, a truly great editor, it never would have occurred to me to work as a writer. Writing had always been something I did for fun or as an extracurricular activity. After writing my first long-form narrative nonfiction piece for her class, she asked where I had submitted it. “I didn’t,” I said. “Why?” she asked. “You have a voice. You have to use it.” I ended up submitting that piece to the school’s literary magazine, but she didn’t let me stop there. “What are you doing this summer?” she asked at the end of the semester. I was traveling, then going home to make some money waiting tables. “Call your local newspaper,” she said. “Even if they only pay you $25, tell them you’ll write for them. You’ll write whatever they ask. You’ll write because you have a voice, and who are you not to use it?” I did, and when I graduated two years later, that newspaper gave me my first writing job.
Julia Rappaport is managing editor of communications and social media for a Boston-based international education nonprofit. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Boston Herald and online and print magazines.