Monday, 11 March 2013

Student Journalism

In my first year of university I signed up to work on the student paper, having read lots of advice to wannabe writers saying they must get involved with the student press to gain practice, clippings and contacts. 

Unfortunately, a couple of meetings in I discovered that many of my colleagues were pretentious and prone to navel gazing.  They also didn’t seem to have any concept of news – one thrilling expose revealed that some people *whisper* take drugs!  Whoever heard of a student experimenting with drugs?  Someone get that guy a Pulitzer, stat!

Said paper hasn’t gotten a lot better since I graduated.  Here’s an example sentence from a current column.  It is supposed to deal with issues around being a fourth year, which you might think would include stuff like stress over finals, what to do after graduation, and so on…  Not so much.

‘There is something highly satisfying about wrapping up in a multitude of layers in the morning as you leave to brave the ice cold air: dressed in my latest winter purchase – a vintage, dark blue duffel coat – over one of my favourite chunky knit sweaters (I hail from ‘the home of cashmere’), with my mum’s old University scarf looped my neck several times, and my trusty ‘I-can-walk-through-anything’ brown leather ankle boots, I feel like I can take on the world and all that it throws at me.’

Quite apart from the poor structure (seriously, full stops are totally OK), that entire paragraph says nothing of importance or even passing interest.  Dressing in layers for winter is not an insightful part of ‘the fourth year experience’, ‘the third year experience’, or any experience at all - it’s padding in the most literal sense.  Stop wasting your words and my time, unnamed student journo!

In summary, that paper was balls, so I joined the team who put together the spoof one instead.  This was how I met my other half, the enigmatic Captain Tact, who was editor at the time.  He doesn’t remember our first meeting at all, but I do.  Nervous, I walked into the pub and looked around for people that looked like they might write comedy.  I soon honed in on the table of blokes with bad hair who were having an animated discussion about the new series of Doctor Who, and my nerves evaporated.  These were my kind of people.

The spoof paper was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t the sort of stuff that was going to win us any student journalism awards.   It mainly involved making up news stories (pirates attacking halls of residence, terror lizards, unusual meat in burgers, that sort of schtick).   On balance, it probably wasn’t the sort of thing older hacks were thinking of when doling out their advice.  And anyway, we were shut down in my third year following an incident with the ORLY owl and a local curry house, a harrowing experience of censorship that would only really have been helpful if any of us had got work on Private Eye.

Having said that, I still think wannabe writers should get involved with the university press.  You might get a boyfriend out of it, after all...  Or failing that, plentiful opportunities to network with the dynamic go-getters who are the editors of the future. 

Just try not to yawn too loudly when they commission a thousand words on what to wear in intemperate weather.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Why Everyone Should Be A Polymath

I’m in the park, dressed in black, taking pictures of the city by night and congratulating myself on my creativity.  A jogger pauses to pity the sad sack so gripped by despair she’s photographing darkness itself, before taking the executive decision to give me as wide a berth as possible.

My efforts stem from a weekly photo challenge I found online, something I’m doing as part of my on-going quest to be a Renaissance Woman (in the sense of having broad interests and skills, as opposed to the more historical measurement of marrying well and popping out lots of sons).   

If you want to scrape a living in the arts in 2013, you have to be willing to turn your hand to multiple areas.  For instance, journalists increasingly have to be able to write copy for print and online, create multimedia content, and use social media to find and break stories – in addition to traditional skills like grammar, shorthand and door knocking.  And in my experience, if you’re a freelancer and want to eat, you’ll need to know how to source copywriting work and be on the books of a temp agency to boot.

The idea that it’s positive to be accomplished at several things is not new.  We surely all remember from Pride and Prejudice how women can only get on in life with ‘a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages,’ whilst Wikipedia’s bumper list of polymaths demonstrates that multifaceted humans have been around for thousands of years. Polymathery has always existed, and in a world of ever-increasing multitasking it is only becoming more prevalent.

As a general rule, I deem this A Good Thing.  Wide-ranging interests lead to cross pollination of ideas, which means more creativity.  More of that, please!  Still, you can’t do everything all of the time.  The danger with trying is that when you’re genuinely interested in several areas, you can be tempted to flit between projects without concluding any.  Let’s be clear: it’s never OK to give up on something half way, unless your arms have fallen off.  Creative work needs to be dragged kicking and screaming to a conclusion and revised within an inch of its life, and nobody else is going to put that work in for you. 

And that’s the real rub with becoming a true polymath.  You need to put in serious hours to get good at something, so gaining expertise on several things at once could take decades.  You may want to focus on one thing for a prolonged period, spending your twenties on becoming a novelist, your thirties as a director, and your forties on that astrophysics PhD.  My preferred method is to become a generalist first, splitting my hours between blogging, fiction writing, photography and my work on string theory to evolve my knowledge base over time. 

Both roads are long, but the walk will be worth it – just look at Da Vinci.  See you at the finish line...