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Joel Achenbach  On Journalism


You know, the thing about journalism is I don't really know how you study it. I really believe that all we do is we ask questions, and we write down the answer, and we try to have an intelligent conversation with people, and then we communicate as a medium to the people out there, put a little spin on it, throw in some unsubstantiated opinions, maybe, that's what we do where I work, in the Style section. We put a little opinion in there. But anyway, I don't really feel like there's something that requires a lot of training, I think it requires common sense and honesty and the ability to work hard, and that's about it.

I feel bad because I recently criticized journalism schools, I gave a quote for a story that made fun of journalism schools, and I shouldn't have done that, because I've never been to a journalism school, I don't know how I would have benefited from one. I do know that I basically feel like I type for a living. And I think people should learn how to type, I guess. But beyond that, honestly I think that it's not like, it's not like being a doctor where you want your doctor to sort of know which organ is the pancreas. Do you know what I'm saying? So they don't take out the wrong one.


I think the biggest problem with journalism is a lot of people, particularly with beginning writers, is they have an idea about the way journalism is supposed to sound. Okay, there's a certain kind of journalistic voice they think they should be writing in. And it tends to be kind of stilted. It's not natural, it doesn't flow from them in a natural process, it's rather a kind of translation of their own thoughts into this "journalese." And a good test is read it out loud. Can you imagine ever saying that out loud? I like to think that most of my stuff is vernacular, it's like spoken language. That's how I try to write. I'm not saying everyone should do it that way, but the way I write, I write the way I talk. You know, such as it is. Talking is harder, actually, for me. And I think that's a way to communicate directly to people. Is write it the way you'd say it.

For example, when you write the lead to a story there's always the question of how long should a lead be? And I think maybe there's a rule somewhere that says it shouldn't be longer than 32 words or something like that. And it has nothing to do with how many words it is, it's is it something you can imagine yourself saying? If you said it out loud, do you have to go huuuuuu! (inhales) in the middle of it and go on again, 'cause if you do, then you should, then the lead's not there, you should try again.

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