Trade Secrets

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, May 22, 2005

I taught a seminar on "Intermediate Journalism" at a local university this past semester. Like many colleges, the school brings in outsiders as "adjunct professors," meaning "professors who are paid cat food money." Being on campus brought back memories of my adolescence, since that's the last time I made $2.50 an hour.

Naturally for that kind of money I could not teach the students everything I know. That would require a Cornel West kind of salary. Occasionally the students would ask a really pointed question about journalism, like "Is it okay to make up facts to make your story snazzier?" and I'd just shake my head and say, "That'll really cost you."

So much they didn't learn! I never taught them how to write in the kind of objective, even-handed manner that keeps all biases and personal opinions discreetly laced through every sentence. I declined to demonstrate how the strategic use of such phrases as "he asserted" and "he claimed" and "he sputtered" can signal to readers that the quoted person is lying. I never told them how to manipulate an expense account to make a debauched night in Vegas disappear into the category labeled "Tolls."

I never taught them that they can always get on the front page with stories about dogs, or the weather, or celebrities, or attractive individuals dying of diseases no one has ever heard of. I never taught them that every reporter I know prays for a story with a headline like "Tornado Puts Lassie Out of Her Misery."

I didn't teach them the classic New York Times feature-writing technique of bringing a small backwoods American hamlet to life -- the accents, the odors, the loamy mouth-feel of the soil, the electric sizzle of the mosquito zappers, the way the locals slowly bat their eyelids three times before speaking, etc. -- despite doing all the reporting by phone.

I feel most guilty about not teaching them the art of being unfindable. Every afternoon at every newspaper in America, the editors will emerge from a story conference with the kind of malodorous story ideas that even H. L. Mencken couldn't turn into readable copy. You want to be fully vanished at these moments. If not, you have to decline the assignment graciously, saying, for example, that the editor's idea for a four-part series on people who look like their lunch is brilliant, but you personally couldn't do the story because of your deep-seated anguish at being called pizza-face in high school. Whatever! Ideally your editors will decide that asking you to do any work whatsoever will cause psychic damage. You want them to think, "We can't ask him to do this story -- he'll shatter."

The problem with suppressing the best stuff when I teach is that the students are savvy consumers. They know how much their parents are paying to send them to school. Each class comes out to something like $754 an hour. When I spend the entire seminar idly reminiscing about my thrilling career (hanging with JFK, the years in 'Nam, how I broke the Watergate story, etc.), they seem to want something better.

The hideous pay notwithstanding, there are intangible rewards to teaching. The students call you "Professor." At first it's a novelty, and you kind of laugh about it, but then you get used to it and discover that you've taken to stroking your chin a lot, and using words like "hegemony" and "eschatology." For one class I insisted that the students speak only in words that ended in "ism." For a while I wore a tweed jacket, but eventually switched to a simple, unpretentious toga. By the end of the semester the "Professor" title started to seem ridiculous, though, and I told the students to just call me "Commander."

We also talked a lot about their futures. Many of them want to be novelists and screenwriters and rock music critics, and then, after the age of 25, do something really cool. To a remarkable degree, no one in the younger generation ever says, "I'd like to grind away for years as a cog in the corporate journalism machinery, gradually coming to grips with my mediocrity and finding solace only in the incremental swelling of my 401(k)." I just never hear that.

The truth is, you can't teach someone to write. You learn by doing it. You put the hands on the keyboard and go. You don't need a professor -- you just need to keep typing. My students did hear one excellent rule, something the late Wallace Stegner taught his students years ago: That a writer shouldn't simply try to write a masterpiece, but should try to become the kind of person from whom a masterpiece is possible. That advice is priceless.

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