A thirteen-year-old girl who lives on a dairy farm in central Minnesota recently sent me an e-mail. She would like to be a journalist, she said, and was wondering if I could give her any tips and tell her how I got where I am.
My first reaction was that she should ask these questions of an actual journalist. I really don't consider what I do to be journalism, just a form of goofing off with the computer. But after doing this every week for more than a decade, I must reluctantly concede that I am indeed a member of the Fourth Estate.
This whole silly writing thing began when my area was suffering through a spate of wet weather. Frustrated, I wrote a spoof letter to Mel Kloster, my county extension agent.
The letter asked Mel if he knew of any cheap, effective herbicides to control the cattails growing in my corn field. Mel encouraged me to get it published, so I submitted it to my little local newspaper, the Volga Tribune.
It was a shock the first time I saw my words in print. "Doesn't the newspaper industry have any standards?" I wondered. "Shouldn't a journalist be required to pass a test or at least be licensed?" Apparently not.
Emboldened by this discovery, I embarked on an effort to self-syndicate. This was how I learned that journalism has a lot in common with dairy farming.
For one thing, both dairy farmers and freelance journalists are at the mercy of the market. Many people, upon learning that you are a writer, assume that your income is roughly the same as Stephen King's. Not by a long shot.
For example, I once submitted a sample of my stuff to a newspaper located some distance away. I later called its editor to see what he thought.
"You're good," he said. "In fact, you're better than the guy we have now. But he does it for free."
The implication seemed to be that I would have to underbid "free." I told the editor no thanks, that as a farmer I already had ample opportunities to lose money.
I entered into journalism with no training or experience save for what I may have accidentally retained from my high school English classes. And that was precious little, since I absolutely hated school. For me, school was an undeserved punishment that had to be endured, not unlike a sentence handed to a wrongly convicted prisoner. All I wanted to do was farm! What use is an education to a farmer?
There are probably easier ways to become a journalist other than self-training, but here is some of what I have gleaned over the course of my checkered writing career.
There are 6 simple rules for becoming a better writer. The first three are: Read, read, read. The second three are: Write, write, write.
Read anything and everything. Read novels and short stories, cerebral columns and fantastic fiction. And don't forget the funnies. Deep insights about the human condition can be extracted from the likes of "Calvin and Hobbes."
Read things that make you laugh or cry, read stuff written by people you don't agree with and articles from authors you admire. Read essays that will expand your vocabulary. Be sure to consume judicious amounts of poetry.