Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘malcolm gladwell

A writer first, a journalist second

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Some writers, wanting to write, get into journalism. They like writing, and journalism offers them a place to do it. Think of Hemingway who started out as a cub reporter on The Kansas City Star, or Malcolm Gladwell who spent ten years as a reporter for The Washington Post before going on to create exploratory narratives for The New Yorker.

There are writers like Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Jennifer Egan (A Visit From The Goon Squad)  who are both novelists and accomplished magazine journalists. One of my favourite writers, John Jeremiah Sullivan, plies his trade in this journo-literary tradition.

Then, there are journalists who love the reporting. They like digging out facts and unearthing truth, the power to tell hidden stories, and exposing wrongdoing and injustice. These are bloodhound reporters, ambitious, and sometimes noble; the world-changing pen-warrior. Examples include John Pilger, Robert Fisk, and in broadcasting, Orla Guerin of the BBC.

Thirdly, there are journalists whose passion lie not in journalism at all or even writing, but who are just very smart, very organised and very competent. I’ve known a fair number in Beijing who fall into this camp. I won’t name them but imagine Oxbridge and Harvard graduates, or cosmopolitan bi-lingual Chinese, who fill the echelons of Reuters, the FT, the WSJ, and you might get the idea. Some of this camp just happened to drift into journalism, blown by circumstance, and who had the right skills to fulfill their accidental fate. They can write and report to a very high standard but don’t necessarily regard it as a vocation.

If I were to put myself into these three rough categories I would say the first group is the one with whom I identify the most, even if I may not share their talent.

I studied journalism at degree level because I had some interest in writing. Later on, I did more writing, and journalism was the arena in which I practiced it.

These days I’ve broadened out so that I do more writing that’s not just journalism.

For example, lately I’ve been working in an ad agency writing a story and script for a promotional campaign for a German automaker. It’s fun, highly creative, and quite well paid.

I still do journalism, freelance, but mostly I confine my writing focus to working on a novel. Writing fiction has taught me a lot about story, narrative, and much else; far more than journalism does, but I’m still glad that journalism gave me some rigour and practice. But I’m also glad that I jumped out before the sentence structures of journalism became completely ossified and entrenched.

Writing a novel is no route to riches and is a difficult road without any guarantees. But I’ve definitely enjoyed learning the craft along the way. Copywriting is a fascinating process too and a neat addition; something that is complementary to the life of a professional writer.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 27, 2017 at 11:02 am

Part three: How to Make a Name for Yourself – As a Journalist

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This is a continuing series exploring the strategies of success of journalists and writers. Parts one and two in the series can be found here and here

Christopher Nolan is a film director with great power in Hollywood. He’s known for producing blockbuster movies – like his Dark Knight Batman trilogy – under budget and before deadline. Recently I read a brilliant profile of the British filmmaker written by Tom Shone; it’s an excellently reported piece.

What makes the article special is its description of Nolan’s commitment to his craft, emphasizing his abilities of focus to art and craft.

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Cal Newport’s blog focuses on how people achieve success by continually bettering their skills. It’s a must-read blog for me. One of his mantras, culled from comedian Steve Martin’s memoir, is: “Be so good they can’t ignore you”. Newport emphasizes that to be not just good, but truly great, to rise to the top where the best get unduly rewarded, you have to focus not just on improving your skills – a given – but to concentrate your efforts on projects that will generate massive returns.

Needless to say, this can be quite difficult.

Read the rest of this entry »

How does a journalist make a name for him/herself? Part 1.

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Patrick Kingsley (left) is a 25-year-old journalist, currently Egypt correspondent for The Guardian. His rise has been precipitous.

Some journalists and writers seem to rise out of no-where, their names shared around all of a sudden. Laurie Penny arrived after being noticed for blog-posts about politics. Owen Jones arrived in similar fashion, helped along with the publication of his zeitgeisty book.

Some have a dizzying ascent, characterized by bravado and a ferocious intellect. But a rapid fall can also occur: Johann Hari, Jonah Lehrer. Say what you will about Hari but he made his name with a series of columns – one in which he seduced a homophobic neo-Nazi – that were breathtakingly audacious.

On this blog you can find posts with interviews and profiles of journalists who’ve ‘made it’. Their paths to success can be determined or rather fortunate. But we all like to know other people’s ‘secret’ to success, so that we might copy the route.

It’s certainly something I like to ponder. But having vaguely defined goals or even closely set markers of achievement may not be enough. There has to be a system.

Of the journalists whose bylines are worth remembering, there seems to be 3 underlying factors to their success:

1. The Precocious Upstart

They write a book, an article (or series of), or start a blog which either catches some part of the popular imagination, or comes to the attention of a few influential editors, writers.

Examples: Owen Jones, Caitlin Moran

2. The Master Craftsman

After many years refining their craft, they ‘break out’ with sensation-making articles, noted for either their writing style, depth of reporting and story-telling skills, or innovative choice of subject matter.

Examples: Malcolm Gladwell, David Grann

3. The ‘Lucky’ Student

These are those who are given an opportunity – work experience at The Guardian say, or who got a chance start at a national newspaper or magazine, and then proceeded to impress with their originality, cleverness or diligence.

Examples: Patrick Kingsley, Helen Pidd

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Getting your name recognised and winning a certain level of renown is not simply down to you of course. Other people have to be talking about you, discussing your work and wondering about the person behind it. Maybe they admire your way of thinking or your audacity. It is not a science.

To get to that stage, it should go without saying that doing good work, showing originality and verve in your work is requisite. But plenty of freelancers or even seasoned journalists do this. What separates those who do good work but remain relatively anonymous, their bylines not expected with a certain drool-worthy eagerness, from those whose writing and reporting commands attention, higher fees and reader loyalty?

Over this spring season, I’ll be analysing just why in this series. Look for the ‘How to make a name for yourself’ blog titles.

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Journalists mentioned in this post and articles about their rise:

Patrick Kingsley, Egypt correspondent for The Guardian – Patrick Kingsley is one of life’s overachievers: Guardian feature writer at just 23 and voted by MHP Communications as one of the top five young journalists to watch in 2012.

David Grann, staff writer for The New Yorker – The Storyteller’s Storyteller: No journalist working today spins a yarn quite like The New Yorker’s David Grann

Helen Pidd, northern editor of The Guardian – How hairy armpits can get you a job at The Guardian

Malcolm Gladwell, acclaimed author and staff writer at The New Yorker – Outliers: Malcolm Gladwell’s Success Story

This is a continuing series exploring the strategies of success of journalists and writers. Parts two and three in the series can be found here and here