Journeyman Journalist, 1979: ‘Teach me to write like you’

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A cloudy day gives way to gradual clearing on October 8, 2023, in North Hero, Vermont. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself and other writers career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say, and early in my new career as a newspaper editor I found myself coaching others who wanted to break into the business — or just to make some quick money as stringers.

With the turnover of reporters for our tiny weekly paper, this novice managing editor was recruiting wherever he could. One surprising candidate was George, a fraternity brother who seemed more interested in rock than reporting. We weren’t particularly close — he was a few years younger than I — but when he expressed an interest, I offered to give him a try.

The results surprised me, but not for the reasons I expected.

Basically a boring day. No mail in or out and little office work. Highlight of the day was helping George rewrite his article — it’s fun to pick apart copy and put it back together again! Perhaps I have the makings of a real editor.

Today was also Barbara W’s first official day as production manager. To celebrate, the machines — from my typewriter, to the computer, to the headliner, to paper for the enlarger — took a field day.

Journal, Volume III
8 October 1979

One of the joys about working as an editor is that you usually work with someone else who has the troubleshooting skills to fix the machines when they go on strike. Later in my career, in the computer age, I had that role, too.

But at the Journal Opinion I was lucky to work alongside Barbara, who knew how to get things working again. That way I could serve as writing coach.

To my surprise, enjoyed it. Later in my career I would learn — from both sides — that an important part of being an editor is teaching the craft to others and mentoring them. My best editors have been my best mentors.

Maybe I did have the makings of a “real editor” after all.

Not so, apparently, for George, who worked for the paper for about a year. We didn’t pay much, and gas was expensive. “Then I went on to a brief career in journalism before selling out and going to law school,” he tells me. He went on to a successful career in international law.

A few days later, I had another student, which brightened up an otherwise drudgery-filled day:

… I interviewed the new town doctor today, along with a lot of other shit work for the JO and the Bradford Bullshitin. With any kind of luck, I’ll finish that off tomorrow., along with most of the entertainment stuff.

Seems I have a professional admirer. Susan M, new JO ad and reporting staffer, asked me today to ‘teach me how to write like you.’ I chuckled at that; why would she want to? But I offered to show her the ropes at Fairlee Monday.

Journal, Volume III
12 October 1979

Susan soon learned that she could make more money selling ads than writing copy. Still, I was beginning to get into the mentoring groove, which served me well when I worked for a daily a few years later.

Editing Tip: Howard, you’ll learn later that when you have two adjacent but unrelated capitalized words, it’s better to recast the sentence to avoid confusing the reader. Better: “… show her the ropes Monday at Fairlee” or “… at Fairlee on Monday.”

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