Is Mentoring Just a Memory?
Once upon a time, a writer was created in a complex process of teaching and mentoring. To the detriment of the worlds of publishing and journalism, this system has broken down, and it will never be the same again. But as is true of any skill set, it is still possible to make the journey from apprentice to master.
Traditionally, a journalist’s route to professional success was an imperfect but generally effective series of steps to mastery. In the mythology of the American press, cub reporters were taken under the wings of gruff but game senior reporters or editors, who taught the apprentices how to chase down a story and maul it and worry it until it took shape under the clacking keys of a typewriter.
Journeyman writers learned how to craft compelling ledes, how to find the nut of the story, how to organize the article in the inverted-pyramid form, placing the most important information at the top and continuing in descending order so that the article could be cut for length right from the bottom instead of requiring someone to hunt throughout the piece for the least vital paragraphs. Under the ruthless patronage of their elders, they developed a knack for writing vivid, punchy prose, making every word count. The copy desk provided valuable lessons, too, catching spelling and punctuation errors and indoctrinating reporters in Associated Press style.
By the same token, editors at book publishers painstakingly cultivated the talent of their writers, investing time and effort to help authors craft their work so that it would reflect well on the company that published it, with the by-product that writers learned how to write better.
Now, this all reads like a tale from the distant mythical past. The implosion of periodicals has resulted in a breakdown of the system. Newspapers and magazines have shut down or consolidated, throwing veteran editors and reporters out of work and slashing salaries so that generally, only the least experienced and most desperate writers remain in the business, and seldom can they count on the guidance of experienced hands anymore. Much journalism is now published online, and though many Internet journalists still work side by side in offices, reporters and columnists are much more likely to be contractors and freelancers who work at home and lack face-to-face contact with would-be mentors, who are usually so overworked anyway so that finding time to train and develop writers, even remotely, is a challenge.
The book-publishing business has suffered the same kind of constriction, and if a company even bothers assigning editors to help writers develop their manuscripts anymore, these people — often employed by the project rather than over the long term, just like their charges — may have so many manuscripts to monitor that they have little opportunity to provide high-quality feedback and ongoing support.
Meanwhile, the deterioration — I mean evolution — of the standards for the written word, and the indifferent education in writing and grammar that many people now receive, means that many of the people still willing to engage in one of these systems are more poorly qualified than ever (not just in writing ability but also in critical-thinking skills and breadth of knowledge), and those who would mentor them are frequently little more skilled.
Is there any hope? Yes, some publications still exert the effort and provide the funding and infrastructure that allows editorial staff to strive toward excellence. Publishing companies, especially university and small presses, still endeavor to share well-crafted books full of well-crafted prose. Salaried and freelance mentors are still out there. Writing groups, whether they already exist or you start your own, still provide a collaborative environment in which you can hone your skills.
The editorial environment has changed drastically during my three decades of experience, often in ways I did not foresee, and change will persist. But there will always be paths to improvement and enlightenment. It’s become more difficult to navigate these paths, but they’re still there. If you care enough and try hard enough, you will find them.