Break Into Publishing: My Three Hours of Journalism

newspaper 1People often talk about writing ability as if it’s one particular muscle you exercise until you’re categorically “good” at it – as if the craft of writing was a singular “it” in the first place.

But these days, writing “ability” should be pluralized – less like a single muscle and more like the various events of the Olympics. Today, there are so many venues writers use – books, blogs, magazines, social media – that being able to “code switch” between these genres is now more important than ever.

It’s a lot like dancing, actually.

save the last dance

“What’s she doing? Two-stepping?”

I never imagined I’d have cause to reference “Save the Last Dance,” but here it is: Children of the 90’s may remember watching Julia Stiles realize her ballet skills didn’t get her far  on Chicaco’s South Side dance scene. So – like every dance movie ever – she explores new styles, creates something altogether different, and blows dance world away.

It’s the same with writing. And academia may just be the ballet of the writing world – technically arduous, treasured by a minute few, but can stick out oddly in the “real world.”

That’s why, earlier this month, I attended a workshop at a local writing center on writing newspaper Op-Eds. Both journalism and academia have the same goal of sharing factual information, but stylistically, they couldn’t be more different: Journalism is known for being punchy and to the point, whereas academic writing is infamously wordy and opaque (I mean, one genre evolved around copyeditors trying to conserve space and ink, the other around seeing how many books one could fill on the same topic).

So what were the takeaways from my 3 hour foray into the world of journalism? Surprisingly, I learned less about the stylistic differences, which were relatively easy to grasp (culling passive voice is half the battle), and more about publishing. And with publishing, it turns out there’s a key similarity that cuts across all genres of writing:

In any genre, you need to know two key things in order to break into publishing: 

  1. How to format for your genre.
  2. Where to send your materials.

And that’s it. Notice that neither factor has much to do with writing. It’s true that writers must know how to craft words in a cogent way – but just like the thousands incredible YouTube vocalists who never get record deals – getting published is less about knowing how to write and more about knowing how the game is played.

In terms of formatting for your genre, one might think that you first write a piece, and then decide where to submit it for publication. But many writers are more strategic than this. Experienced academics write with certain journals in mind, as each one has different rules for length, tone, and how much background explanation readers need about your topic – factors that would require substantial rewrites if you didn’t have particular publications in mind before you started.

It’s the same with any type of writing. More than half of my Op-Ed workshop consisted of dissecting the structure of published Op-Eds. Lo and behold, they followed the same format. The same is true of almost every form of writing you’d like to tackle. Yes, you want to maintain originality and voice, but these are matters of content, not structure. And the structure is not to be messed with. It’s the first things that will get your article thrown into the trash bin as soon as it hits the editor’s desk.

Which brings us to the second point: where to send your materials. The “club” of folks who publish in many writing circles can be quite small. Therefore, as in many endeavors, it become more about who you know than what you know.

But luckily, the “who you know” part mostly consists of email addresses. The entire second section of our Op-Ed workshop consisted of browsing local newspapers’ websites to see where they want you to send potential Op-Ed material – they’re embarrassingly easy to find. But again, formatting is key, even in submitting your material. For example, you don’t start your email with “Dear sir/madam, I have an Op-Ed about XYX for you to consider.” You literally just launch into the piece right off the bat. I had no clue that was how any email should be structured, but apparently that’s how it goes in the biz.

All this information is out there, and it does take some digging, but knowing these minor details will be a key factor in whether your get published or not.

Knowing how to format and where to send your materials are the major gatekeepers to getting your writing out there. But luckily, they’re relatively flimsy goalies. A few web searches can probably knock down both in an afternoon. A rich civil society needs more writers and a broad range of perspectives to fill the pages of our newspapers, novels, and academic journals, so get out there and google!

With that out of the way. The big question becomes, “But what should I write?” Tune in next time for more on that one…

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Follow on Twitter @chriskbacon

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2 thoughts on “Break Into Publishing: My Three Hours of Journalism

  1. In high school, I wanted to be a journalist/novelist, and all the newspaper editors kept saying the same thing: “Don’t major in journalism. We can teach you how to write. Major is something so that you have something to write about.” I think that’s important to remember when you’re trying to publish academically, too. The most important thing is having something important to say. You can get help with the writing, as long as your prose is understandable. You can have a writing partner. At the Journal of Education, the editor does a lot of work helping new writers. Content comes first.

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