Advice for young journalists (and other professionals)

In the most recent (August 1, 2013) issue of Rolling Stone, the editors paid tribute to Michael Hastings—a journalist and contributing editor to the magazine who was most famous, perhaps, for his article that led to the end of the career of General Stanley McChrystal in 2010. The article described the way that Hastings, who was killed in a car accident in June, reached out to young journalists by publishing a list of recommendations on Reddit on how to succeed.

While his advice was specifically directed at young journalists, it isn’t much of a stretch to see the value in his ideas for other professionals, and especially for anyone who wants a career in a field that is highly competitive (such as journalism, publishing, broadcasting, university teaching) and probably underpaid. Today I’m going to take his advice and apply it more generally to others:

1. Hastings said: You basically have to be willing to devote your life to journalism if you want to break in. Treat it like it’s medical school or law school.

My take: If you’re passionate about finding a career in a particular field, you may have to be really dedicated to make it happen. And it may not happen overnight. Just as people go to medical school or law school for years, and then often have to go through years of professional training in addition to school to gain needed credentials, you may have to spend a long time succeeding in your chosen profession. (Tip 49 in my book is relevant to this point.)

2. Hastings said: When interviewing for a job, tell the editor how you love to report. How your passion is gathering information. Do not mention how you want to be a writer, use the word “prose,” or that deep down you have a sinking suspicion you are the next Norman Mailer.

My take: In every field, there are things that are crucial and things that you need to be aware enough to avoid. You want to sound professional and confident, you want to demonstrate that you know what the job is all about, and you don’t want to come across as arrogant. The line between confidence and arrogance is very fine, and once you cross it in an interview, you may not have a chance to go back. (Tips 42-47 in my book provide advice on interviewing.)

3. Hastings said: Be prepared to do a lot of things for free. This sucks, and it’s unfair, and it gives rich kids an edge. But it’s also the reality.

My take: This is where those unpaid internships come in, as well as any relevant volunteer work you may do for nonprofit organizations. It all counts toward building your resume. (See Tips 4 & 5 in my book for suggestions about gaining experience.)

4. Hastings said: When writing for a mass audience, put a fact in every sentence.

My take: While this seems very specific to journalism, many jobs involve writing. What Hastings is saying is make every word count and cut out the fluff. You may have spent years trying to fill 15 pages for an assignment, but those days are over once you finish college. From here on out, everything you write is written for a purpose, because someone needs the information. Best advice: factual and concise rule the day.

5. Hastings said: Also, keep the stories simple and to the point, at least at first.

My take: Again, he’s talking to journalists, but the concept applies to other types of writing. If you’re writing a proposal, make it clear what it is that you’re proposing. Add the details later. If you’re writing a report, make sure that everyone who reads it will understand what you’re saying.

And that’s it for today. On Thursday I’ll give you my take on the second half of Michael Hastings’ top ten list.