Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Review: Letters to a Young Journalist

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Inspired by Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist, this immensely readable book is thought-provoking, wise, and, for the young journalist who already knows the basics, extremely nourishing.

Written by Samuel G. Freedman, an author and journalist, whose day job is teaching at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the introduction is enticing: “Thirty years ago, when I was a good deal like you, I drove off to start my first job as a newspaper reporter….I was a few months short of nineteen then, and I didn’t even own a white shirt or navy blazer for the occasion.”

Published November, 2011. 206 pages. “Structure liberates writing”.

This is not a book to learn the building blocks of how to structure an article or the process of reporting. For that I recommend ‘Feature Writing: A Practical Introduction’ and ‘Good Writing for Journalists’, both of which were excellent education. But Freedman does provide inspiration and rock-hard nuggets of wisdom.

Although coming from an era few student journalists would recognize now — of local newspapers with individual departments covering crime or arts for example — those with a literary bent will appreciate chapters focused on reporting or writing or career.

One section entitled In Praise of Gradualism struck me as a much needed antidote to impatience. In it he says that for those in their early twenties the important thing is to develop your day-to-day skills, even if it’s at a small and humble publication.

“I can say that I have never seen a truly gifted young journalist go unrecognized. Maybe in the short run but never over time. There just isn’t that much excellence loose in the world that news executives can afford to ignore it.”

He goes on to cite several named journalists, a few of whom he taught, who went on to work at the likes of Rolling Stone or The New York Times, charting their personal qualities and rise to eventual success, remarking how each internship or lowly job was important to the opportunity that followed.

The emphasis here is on the individual drive to become better: “What looks like spontaneous creation…is so much more often the end result of an assiduous work ethic and a conscious effort to develop skills”.

Some may find the book too high-minded, American or preoccupied with art and literature, but then you come across lessons like this: “what does the article intend to say? What one central idea would animate the article, a decision that guided the remaining reporting in a more focused, channeled way”.

This is a short book with insights that illuminate every so often, and though parts may at times be preachy, it was a deep comfort to be reminded of journalism’s ambitions and a career choice that can offer some of the slow satisfaction of art.

**

Other book reviews:

Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China

War Reporting for Cowards

 

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  1. […] will also recommend Letters to a Young Journalist, by Samuel G. Freedman, and Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in […]


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