My print journalism career was in part on-the-job training, i.e., some freelance clips from The Philadelphia Inquirer helped me get a full-time newspaper job elsewhere. But what about my initial training — the place where I learned to write well enough for the Inky editors to run my work?
That would be ReadALot University, where I majored in autodidacticism.
Ever since I was small I’ve been reading whatever came my way. This really ramped up once my dad decided to attend college at the age of 30. There I was, eight years old and puzzling over books like “Lord of the Flies” and “1984.” (I knew that Winston and Julia were up to something really filthy when they jumped into that bed, but I couldn’t quite picture what it was.)
I had one year of college right after high school, then ran out of money and motivation. I put together a sort-of living with jobs like secretary, housecleaner and typesetter/proofreader, and became an unmarried mother at age 20.
Eight months later I got a job as an Inquirer newsroom clerk. Through it all I kept reading, reading, reading. By the time I talked my way into those Inky freelance gigs I had a pretty good idea of what makes words work.
That doesn’t mean I was at the top of my game, mind you. That on-the-job training continued for quite a while* after I became a full-time journalist. Yet I spent 25 years writing for newspapers, magazines and websites – winning awards for doing so – before finally getting my bachelor of arts from the University of Washington. And again, I never took any writing classes for that degree.
‘Noticing writing differently’
Today I read about Dr. Elizabeth Fenn, who just won a Pulitzer for her book, “Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People.” Back in August she was interviewed for Erstwhile: A History Blog, which re-ran the article today.
Obviously she’s no autodidact. The woman has a Ph.D. and teaches at Yale, and in the article she named three very influential writing teachers.
But she also mentioned having dropped out of grad school to do manual labor for eight years. “The great virtue of a nine-to-five job is that when the day is done, you can drink beer and read whatever you want,” she said.
During that time she read a lot of fiction and tried her hand at both creative nonfiction and short stories. “This led me to read in a new way … I started noticing writing differently.”
Noticing writing. That sounds a lot like the way I learned to be a wordsmith.
Obviously this isn’t the only way to learn. In fact, I recently created the Write A Blog People Will Read online course to help people learn about effective and evocative writing. (Follow that link for a 25 percent discount on the class.)
A writer should read
But opening ourselves up to other people’s writing is a way to keep improving our own work. Reading well-known sites will help you understand what makes successful blogs tick. That doesn’t mean you should slavishly reproduce other people’s styles, but rather that you should look for ideas about topic selection, voice and reader involvement.
Yet I urge you to seek lesser-known sites as well. The blogosphere bristles with well-done yet woefully under-read work. Seeing the variety of topics and the bravery of the authors can free you up to write about subjects you thought no one would be interested in hearing.
Tip: I found that Erstwhile article on Freshly Pressed, a service of WordPress.com. Every day FP shines a spotlight on blog posts from around the world. Make it a habit to visit that link regularly and you’ll discover stuff you might never have found any other way.
In the film “Throw Momma From The Train,” Billy Crystal’s writing-teacher character tells his students that “a writer writes – always.” Agreed. But a writer should read, too.
*Who am I kidding? I continue to train. As should we all.
Readers: What kind of reading has shaped the way you write? Blogs, fiction, nonfiction, scholarly journals, the backs of cereal boxes?