Is Mentoring Just a Memory?

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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.

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8 thoughts on “Is Mentoring Just a Memory?”

  1. I really miss the inverted pyramid form. The piece above emphasizes the benefits for editors, but it was also of great benefit to readers, who could stop reading at any point and know they had gotten the gist. Now without the pyramid (which, it is true, is pretty much gone), we can only skim and speed-read, and those techniques are less effective. Also I note that this advice is completely in contrast to a previous article on Writing for the Web , where I posted put a contrarian opinion this morning. I think good writing is good writing regardless of the medium.

  2. Because I’d read a book on basic journalism, I already knew how to write a lead (we spelled it that way, back then) and the inverted pyramid form when I got a job as a stringer on a daily in Vancouver. But when the reporter I strung for promoted me to the desk as a budding feature writer, I was glad that he showed me the difference between a feature lead and a news lead.

    I’ve long since moved on to other fields of writery stuff, but I’ve managed to mentor a couple of neophytes over the years and I’m willing to do it again. As my old mum used to say, “What are we here for, if not to help each other?”

  3. the world is so lucky that universities now offer creative writing degrees to help us whittle our prose down to the requirements of readability and regularity. all those other poor suckers are doomed to snout about in Nabokov and Conrad and Poe and Austen and Tolstoy and Richardson and Joyce and Dahl and Forster and oh dear im afraid ive exceeded the word limit.

  4. If you have ever seen the movie “Idiocracy,” we are actually living it. Although presented as comedy, it can be seen a near documentary.

  5. “seldom can they count on the guidance of experienced hands anymore.”

    This is most certainly true, but I also get the impression that most young journalists do not have the gumption to even TRY to find experienced writers to teach them how to write better.
    The same thing is true in broadcast journalism and other fields, too.

    The youngsters – and the middle-aged people – in so many fields believe that when it is the end of their designated “workday”, it is PARTYTIME. The idea of using one’s “spare time” to improve one’s professional abilities is completely foreign to them.

    I have observed this even among teachers, doctors, nurses, clerks. etc….
    I went to a shoestore recently and I asked a question about shoes of the clerk who was “on duty”. The answer that I got was. “I don’t know,” instead of “I’LL FIND OUT, SIR!” The same thing has happened in furniture stores, and elsewhere.


  6. In genre publishing, editors are being fired because of cost-cutting while publishing lines are being increased so editors are so overworked that they do very little editing.

    The editing process is being taken over by the authors’ literary agents or a good for-hire editor.

    Mentoring/education is often through the local chapters of writer organizations like RWA or through online education.

    An author doesn’t sell a novel that needs work, she sells a work that is as near perfect as possible.

  7. Until recently, I was Deputy Editor of a leading business magazine in India and I think the inverted pyramid is still valuable, though the reasons are different.
    My view is that internet and television news have shortened our readers’ attention spans to such an extent that they won’t go beyond two or three paragraphs if you have not grabbed their attention by then. Many media experts have dubbed this as the 8-second rule. Even a suspended intro in a magazine article should probably get to the point within about 100 words.
    One remedy for the reduced attention span of the readers, that editors have adopted increasingly in recent times, is to use a lot of info graphics that enable people to “look at” a story, rather than read it. That of course has its disadvantages from the writer’s point of view!

  8. There are numerous courses available for people wanting to learn the art of writing in various forms. But, I agree, there’s nothing like an apprenticeship and starting out as a junior reporter like our legendary hero Clark Kent to learn from the experience of others.

    The results are evident in the generally poor standard of writing in regional newspapers.

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