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Back to Basics: Lifelong Writing

Back to Basics: Lifelong Writing

Picture of Angilee Shah

These days, when we talk about careers in journalism, the focus is often on the razzle dazzle, the tricks and technology and the ups and downs of the industry. This week at CareerGPS, I'm getting back to basics. A student asked me recently, how do I make a career as a writer? I thought about her question for some time -- I thought about telling her to network and blog and make herself visible online -- but really, the most important and never-ending task is to become a really great writer.

This week's job opportunities are at the end of this post. Keep up with CareerGPS by signing up for weekly newsletters or via RSS.

Bob Baker's timing was perfect. He led a conversation last night at the Los Angeles Press Club where Twitter and content mills weren't mentioned once. Instead, the small group asked and answered questions about what it takes to be a really good writer. Baker (left), a 35-year newspaper veteran, former reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times, writing coach and author of Newsthinking, had many nuggets of wisdom to offer. Here are few that might help you develop your writing skills over time:

Read. Every good teacher I've ever had has told me that this is best way to learn to write. Baker adds some layers to this law. He suggests this analogy: If you are a musician, how do you listen to others' performances? Are you paying attention to how you feel? Are you critiquing their technique? Are you jealous? Writers should do the same thing, learning from others and maintaining their ambition to become even better writers by admiring the work of others. When I find a writer whose style I really love, I admit it, I Internet-stalk them and read everything they publish on the web. (You can, for example, create a Google alert to be sure that you don't miss a word.)

Think of your writing as literature. While it's helpful to keep abreast of writers in your field, read broadly as well. Really good literature can open your eyes to storytelling techniques that are powerful for nonfiction and journalistic writing. Baker points to a 1995 Los Angeles Times "medical detective story" by Barry Siegel that uses a compelling protagonist to push forward a suspenseful narrative. Siegel uses literary techniques to make technical information about a meningitis outbreak sing. Quotes from the Journal of the American Medical Association are turned into compelling dialogue and background information is fascinating because it is so important to how the story will turn out. You can read one part of article and Siegel's explanation of how he created the narrative on Baker's website, and then read the rest of the piece, if you were as gripped by it as I was. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Hallman, Jr. also shared his tips for writing compelling medical narratives here on ReportingonHealth.

Control your story. Baker is an advocate of expertise and knowing what you want to say. If a straight news story is the best form to tell the story, use it. If the story is better told using news analysis or an "observational profiles" then be confident that your point-of-view can better explain the news.

Be your own editor. When you are done with a draft, take your writer's hat off. Read your work like an editor. Cut and critique like an editor and take the reader's side over your own. If your draft seems rough or weak, know that everyone, even the best and most celebrated writers, needs revision.

Start the clock. The reader's clock, that is. Baker always has an "attrition meter" in the back of his mind while he's writing. He constantly asks himself if his writing is holding the attention of a multitasking and easily distracted reader.

Odds and ends. A few more words of wisdom from the discussion: Write like you talk. Read your writing out loud. Don't try to impress your sources. Be a lifelong learner. And the best advice Baker ever got: "It's not where you start, but where you finish that's important."

As always, here are some opportunities you might be interested in. If you have ideas for future posts or listings you'd like to see here, you can log in and let me know.

Jobs, Fellowships and Awards

Community Manager, National Academy for State Health Policy
Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online, public policy

Editor -- Health, Beauty and Family, (via
Location: New York, New York
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Health Associate Producer/Blogger, CBS News
Location: New York, New York
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Health, education and arts reporter, Columbia Basin Herald
Location: Moses Lake, Washington
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper

Health Reporter, The Tennessean (via
Location: Nashville, Tennesse
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper

Multi-Media Assistant Producer, Horizon/Associated Press
Location: Camden, North London
Status: Full Time
Medium: Broadcast, new media

Reporter (covering health care business), Crain's Chicago Business
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Status: Full Time
Medium: Weekly Trade

Reporter, heath care start-ups and venture capital, VentureWire (via
Location: San Francisco, California or New York, New York
Status: Full Time
Medium: Daily/Wire Service

Web Writer (on many topics including health), Ivia
Location: Irvine, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

REMINDER: Abe Fellowship for Journalists
Eligibility: Open to citizens or permanent residents of the United States or Japan with at least five years of professional journalism experience, with priority given to U.S. or Japanese journalists with no prior experience in the other country.
Award: Up to $23,500 for field work abroad and a fellows retreat to produce analysis or feature story about public policy topic.
Deadline: September 15, 2010
From the Website: "The Program defines policy-relevant research as the study of existing public policies for the purpose of: a) deepening understanding of those policies and their consequences; and b) formulating more effective policies. Policy-relevance also pertains to the public dialogue on contemporary social issues."

REMINDER: Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund, J-Lab
Eligibility: Proposed projects must be about Philadelphia or the surrounding areas and must come with a distribution plan.
Award: $5,000 awards to 10 projects
Deadline: September 16, 2010
From the Website: "The Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund is a pilot project designed to develop opportunities for amplifying public affairs journalism in the region. The purpose of this fund is to help in-depth reporting projects get off the ground and to explore collaboration opportunities among news providers in the city and surrounding counties."

REMINDER: U.S. Young Journalist Program, Fulbright Kommission
Eligibility: Must be a U.S. citizen, with academic achievement and a good proposal and good to very good German language skills
Award: 10 month stay in Germany with stipends and expenses, as well as language training
Deadline: October 18, 2010
From the Website: "The approximately 10-month stay begins in September and typically consists of an initial research phase, during which the grantee becomes familiar with his/her project in a German setting, followed by one or more internships with German institutions of print or broadcast media."

REMINDER: Association of Health Care Journalists - Centers for Disease Control Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Professional journalists working in the United States
Award: Week of study of public health topics at CDC campuses, membership, travel, lodging and meals
Deadline: October 22, 2010
From the Website: "The AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellows will: Attend sessions on epidemiology, global disease prevention efforts, pandemic flu preparedness, climate change, vaccine safety, obesity, autism and more; tour the CDC director's National Emergency Operations Center; meet new sources on policy and research; learn how to tap the agency's abundant resources to produce better stories."

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The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors to serve as thought leaders in one of the most innovative and rewarding arenas in journalism today – “engaged reporting” that puts the community at the center of the reporting process. Learn more about the positions and apply to join our team. 


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