New Year resolutions of a young writer

The book I bought to celebrate getting my first 'real job' 25 years ago, in which I wrote New Year resolutions that remain relevant today.

ALMOST exactly 25 years ago, I was employed as an assistant editor and journalist at a small publishing company in Cape Town. It was essentially my first ‘real job’ after university and, to celebrate the appointment, I bought myself a book, which cost a princely R25,55. (I write “princely” because my first salary (which I hadn’t yet received when I bought the book) was R600 per month before tax.)

Written by New York Times and Life columnist William Zinsser, “On Writing Well: An Informal Guide To Writing NonFiction” was the third edition of the book. It was, at the time, cutting-edge stuff, including a high-tech chapter on “Writing With A Word Processor”. (I first worked on a computer two years later.)

I can’t remember how thoroughly I read “On Writing Well” but it remains on a bookshelf behind my desk to this day, which is where I encountered it recently.

As I paged through the book, I found I’d written some notes to myself on the inside back cover. It struck me, as I deciphered my left-handed scrawl beneath the headline, “New Year resolutions”, that 25 years on, the older me could learn from the younger me. Here’s what I wrote:

1. Look for unexpected stories but don’t ignore what others are already talking/reading/writing about. Be opened minded and interested, no matter how unexciting the topic might first seem. Is there another angle? The more you learn, the more likely you’ll see an unanticipated angle.
2. Don’t be afraid to stand up to GW when he asks why you did something. Have answers ready. (GW was the owner/publisher of the company.)
3. Check and check again.
4. Don’t be nervous about asking questions that you think the subject might think you should already know the answers to. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that make people nervous if they are relevant to the story.
5. Don’t let PR people and/or advertisers/ad reps bully you.
6. Make notes of your notes when it’s possible interview subjects are going to deny/question quotes after publication. Save up for a recorder.
7. Remember you can’t include everything you have learned on the subject in all articles. Edit to the bone.
8. Don’t try and sound clever when you write. Just be clear.
9. Make every paragraph tell a story, however small – otherwise why write it?
10. Observe, observe, observe, ask, ask, ask…report.

Happy New Year!

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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8 Responses to New Year resolutions of a young writer

  1. Marianne Marsh says:

    Those pesky adreps! And did you stand up to GW? Nice story!

    • pennyhaw says:

      Hehe! I didn’t count on a pesky ad rep crawling out of the woodwork all these years later and calling my bluff. I don’t know if I really “stood up” to GW but I did learn how to respond to his crits without feeling completely powerless and tearful.

  2. Lee says:

    GW – Golliwog? You sound so wise and grounded for a Rookie – and just how you have blossomed following your own sage advice 🙂

    • pennyhaw says:

      By George, Golli, no! Thank you, Lee. I sounded grounded because I had an excellent mentor. I was probably just echoing her advice. Whether I actioned it or not is debatable.

  3. designsbykc says:

    Oh Boy……… I remember that first job………. (How much to keep me quiet???? 🙂 )

  4. Huib says:

    6. Make notes of your notes when it’s possible interview subjects are going to deny/question quotes after publication.

    If so,show me the statement in wich my brother says that he get’s lost in parkinglots all the time.
    Best wishes for 2012.

    • pennyhaw says:

      Touché, Huib! I might argue however, that I have numerous first hand, eyewitness accounts of your brother getting lost in parking lots, which go back 26 years. Best wishes for 2012 to you too.

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