My colleague Geoff Schumacher recently presented a workshop on journalism for the Las Vegas Writers Conference. Included in his handouts was this essay about writing. I thought it deserved to be shared with other writers and lovers of writing, so I sought his permission to post it here.
“I write because I can’t do normal work like other people.”
Orhan Pamuk, winner of 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature
“Words on a page give the world coherence.”
Alberto Manguel, Into the Looking-Glass Wood: Essays on Books, Reading, and the World
Writers write. If you’re a writer, you can’t help yourself. Putting words on paper, or onto a computer screen, is part of who you are. Writing helps us understand and give order to our chaotic lives and to a turbulent world.
Most writers want others to read their work. We want attention, validation, reassurance, fame. We want to be praised, questioned, challenged. We can’t help but write, but we like it better when our words are disseminated widely.
Despite our economic troubles, there never has been a better time to be a writer, because there never have been so many avenues to publication. Consider: You can set up a Facebook or Twitter page in about two minutes and start publishing your words to your friends and colleagues. Or you can set up a blog in about five minutes and start publishing for all the world to see.
These may seem like mundane forms of publishing, but I disagree. I have 255 friends on Facebook. If I write an essay and post it on my Facebook page, it is immediately available for perusal by 255 people who, because they know me, are likely to take a look at it. How would you have accomplished such an endeavor 30 years ago? If you wrote an essay and wanted to share it with your friends and colleagues, you would have had to make photocopies and either hand them out or put them in the mail to reach those 255 people. That’s a lot of copies, a lot of envelopes, a lot of addresses to track down and a lot of stamps. This process also would take a lot more time – days, maybe weeks.
Of course, we also would like to be compensated for our writing. We want our writing to be a money-making venture, not just an obsession or hobby. This complicates matters, but it’s not an unreasonable request. In order to be paid for writing, though, we must write something that a publication is willing to buy. This often means writing that is substantially different in style and substance from what we might post on Facebook or in a personal blog.
More often than not, what we’re talking about is journalism: facts, figures, interviews, research. We must be thorough, accurate. We must explore multiple perspectives. We must delve into subjects we might not otherwise care about. And then, once we’ve gathered the materials we need, we must organize all those facts, figures, quotes and multiple perspectives into a coherent and entertaining piece of writing.
It looks easy. It’s not.
But it’s also not brain surgery. Journalism is a craft that requires a set of skills that can be developed by most people who know how to read and to write a clear sentence.
The most important trait of a good journalist is curiosity. Successful journalists are innately curious about how things work. They follow a road to see where it leads. They ask lots of questions and genuinely want to know the answers. They aren’t afraid of talking to strangers. They aren’t satisfied with the conventional wisdom.
Successful journalists also are persistent. When they ask questions, they expect answers. They aren’t deterred by roadblocks. They know there is more than one way to get the information they seek.
Sometimes, journalism isn’t such a serious business. But writing a restaurant review or reporting on a ball game still demands the same skills needed to uncover the Watergate scandal.
Geoff Schumacher, a veteran journalist, is the director of community publications for Stephens Media. He is also the publisher of CityLife and Big Island Weekly. He has written two books, Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas and Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue (Stephens Press) and is working on two more. Schumacher was recently named editor of CityLife Books, a Stephens Press imprint. He writes a weekly column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. For more information, see www.geoffschumacher.com.