Advice to a young writer

By Terry Marotta
Columnist, The Citizen of Laconia (N.H.)

Terry Marotta

Last Tuesday a seventh grader named Danielle wrote to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists with some questions about our work.

She needed the answers by Friday and was sorry this was so last-minute, but she did hope someone could help her.

As a proud member of the NSNC I volunteered right away, since I talk to young people all the time in schools, in libraries and even in prison settings as part of the Beyond Bars program that enables young Girl Scouts to have troop meetings with their incarcerated moms.

Danielle wanted to know if others assigned us certain topics or if were we free to choose our own; also what colleges were the best for learning to become a columnist/journalist.

She wondered too what the basic components of a good and readable column were, what advice we would give a middle school student interested in becoming a columnist/journalist, and if newspaper offices really are such loud and fast-paced places to work what techniques we use to stay concentrated.

I tried to make my answers as succinct as her questions:

“Danielle, we can write whatever we’re most excited about, you could say; in fact our editors count on our doing this.

“As to journalism schools, there are many fine ones but most people say the best way to prepare for this life is by getting a good broad education. Study it all, the History, the Literature, the Science, every subject that’s probably got you up late on school-nights now.

“A good readable column? It should get right to the point and use language accessible to all. They used to say newspaper people should aim their writing at a Fourth Grade reading level and this still makes sense to me, The simplest prose is always the best – look at the Gettysburg Address!

“Some say we should make ourselves ‘small’ so that the stories we’re telling can really shine through. And even if what we write starts out seeming pretty personal it should end by being universal too, which is the great paradox operating in every kind of art.

“You can begin preparing right now for this life by writing down every quirky, funny unique or moving thing you see. Keep a journal, in other words. Call it Letters to Danielle’s Future Self, from the Third Row by the Windows, or wherever you sit in your English class.

“There is so much adventure all around us. What are those birds up to outside? What is that old man SAYING as he talks to himself in the park? Edge a little closer and see if you can hear.

“Listen to everyone because really we’re meant to be each other’s homework assignments; we are supposed to be one another’s responsibility.

“So greet people as you pass them, and realize that the best thing any of us can do right now is help knit up the big old raggedy sweater of this body politic with many acts of kindness. Because otherwise, we’re just a nation of strangers with cell phones glued to our heads checking our messages, and thus missing out on the thousand chances for fellowship all around us.

“Finally, as to working in a noisy newsroom, Danielle, the world is a noisy newsroom. All I can say is learn to concentrate first on the task at hand and then let inasmuch as you can of the great buzzing Everything Else.

This big noisy world is the party that you got invited to attend for the next 80 or 90 years so… make the most of it! And know that we’ll be here waiting ready to welcome you.

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