In a season of commencement speeches and advice to graduates, I was reminded of an old newspaper column called “Nobody asked me, but …” So here are some lessons, learned from a master teacher.
As you prepare to graduate, you are likely filled with conflicting feelings of fear about the unknown and confidence about your readiness for new challenges. Given the quality of the education you’ve received at Shelter Island School, you will be carrying with you the basic tools to succeed, but you haven’t been taught all you will need.
When I left college, the computer age hadn’t even hit its stride, so if I thought I knew it all then, that’s just one example of critical knowledge I was yet to learn.
I’m not sure if I thought I knew it all when I graduated from high school, but as a college sophomore, I certainly thought I did. After all, I had learned everything I would ever need by the end of freshman year. Wilbur Doctor would dramatically demonstrate how wrong I was.
Wilbur was a college dropout who had decided many years before to abandon academia and go to work for the Providence Journal. Degree-less though he was, the University of Rhode Island hired him as an adjunct to teach a few courses. Eventually, he was appointed as a full-time teacher and still later, went on to become chairman of the university’s journalism department.
He was as gruff as any city editor I’d ever encounter. He wasn’t going to ease up on us because we were students instead of the professional journalists he was accustomed to editing. I remember the first day in his classroom when he gave us a writing assignment, then walked around the room, looking over our shoulders as we wrote. I knew I was the star of the class, but apparently no one had told Wilbur.
He came up, read what I was writing, tore the paper from the typewriter — yes, typewriters preceded computers in the mid 1960s — crumpled it up, tossed it on the floor and told me it was junk. I cried.
As the weeks progressed, everyone cried — even the burly and seemingly fearless football players. But as the semester progressed, I began to learn. My smug attitude that someone couldn’t be taught to write melted away as
I watched this talented teacher bring the best out of everyone in that class.
Wilbur was the first one to teach me that the best way to untangle what’s happening with most stories is to follow the money. Who’s gaining? Who’s losing? It wasn’t enough to tell people the who, what, when and where of a story. Readers wanted to understand how and why something had occurred and that often required substantial digging.
He taught me some simple lessons that have stayed with me to this day:
• The writer’s job is to tell a story clearly and concisely, not show off his or her vocabulary.
• Give all potential sources a chance to comment and ensure that if someone couldn’t be reached or declined to comment, that statement is included.
• If you make a mistake, correct it as rapidly as possible. Your guiding principle should not be get it first, but to get it right.
• Research the topic of your interview and be prepared to check the basic facts you think you know, but also dig beyond those basic facts.
• Listen to those you interview. You should arrive with a list of questions, but if you’re listening, your subject is likely to make statements that require follow-up questions or take you in new directions.
• When you reach what you think is the end of your interview, inquire if there’s anything you haven’t asked that the person would like to say and let there be silence to allow the interviewee time to think. The question you didn’t ask may just become the most important part of your story.
• Don’t hesitate to go back to clarify something you realize you don’t understand or think you may not have gotten correctly. But get your questions together so you’re not calling your source every five minutes.
• Cherish a good editor who tells you he or she doesn’t understand the point you’re making. If one person in your newsroom doesn’t understand what you’ve written, there are likely to be readers who have the same response.
A few simple points that I’ve never forgotten:
• We all die “suddenly.” One moment we’re here and the next moment we’re not. What a writer should say is “died unexpectedly” if that’s the case.
• A story about numbers shouldn’t use “over” and “under” to mean on top of or beneath. The writer should say “more than” or “less than” to correctly express what’s meant.
• There’s a difference between “that” and “which” and the two aren’t interchangeable.
• Modern usage not withstanding, a sentence shouldn’t end in a preposition.
There are so many lessons I learned from Wilbur that continue to inform my work and I can honestly say there isn’t a week that goes by I don’t learn something new.
As you might have guessed, Wilbur and I went on to become close friends. He helped guide my early career and deserves much credit for teaching me not only the basics but so much more about responsible journalism.
Sadly, he died several years ago and I can only hope that the teachers who have followed him in what has become a larger communications department, are as demanding as he was.
When I graduated, I knew I would never face a more demanding editor and thanks to Wilbur, I was prepared.
I wish for all of you such mentors, who will help foster your careers and your lives.
In April, Julie Lane was named the 2014 Writer of the Year by the New York Press Association.