A journalism student asked Tampa Bay Times Pulitzer-winning writer Lane DeGregory (right): “Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself when you were as inexperienced as us?” Here’s one of her responses:
I wish I hadn’t thought I knew what the story was about before I reported it.
When I was starting out, my editor often told me what the story was about before I ever went out to report it — so I tried to tailor my questions and observations and even the writing to what I thought the editor wanted. But the story you set out to get isn’t always the story that’s really there, or the best way to tell it, or even a true reflection of whatever reality you’re trying to capture.
She also writes:
* I wish I hadn’t thought I had to be so smart.
* Instead of trying to stay out of the story, I wish I had shared myself more.
* I wish my early editors had given me more leeway to say, okay, here’s an idea, now go out there then come back and tell me what you think the story is.
* I wish I had read more short stories and fewer newspaper articles.
UPDATE: DeGregory tells Romenesko readers about her email to the journalism student:
I wrote that last week, after speaking to Jim Sheeler‘s class at Case Western University. One of his students, Maureen O’Reilly, asked me what I wish I had known when I was her age … I started to answer her email and an hour later realized I had coughed up a lot of regrets! I usually don’t write responses that long, but I always write back to students :) That just seemed like such a great question, one I had never thought of before!
Here is O’Reilly’s response to DeGregory:
Thank you so much for your response! I have always considered myself a risk-taker, but recently have come to some mental roadblocks. You know, the usual ones — I don’t have time, someone more experienced should ask the questions, nobody cares to read about that.
Your honesty has propelled me to the point of selfishness, that place where I have (or, at least fake) the courage to stand up, pitch a story and — gulp — cover one of my ideas in the coming weeks.
The advice you gave is wonderful, not just for journalism students, but, given my experience, for all young twenty-somethings in general. I actually printed out and taped your response over my desk. Hopefully, you don’t find that too weird.
Thank you again for your time and thoughtfulness!
I truly appreciate it.
MEANWHILE, IN EVANSTON…
The Class of 2017 is moving in today. What advice do you have for the incoming freshmen? Use #Medill2017 to let us know.
— Medill NU (@MedillSchool) September 16, 2013