Jennifer Miller’s Five Tips for Young Journalists

The Year of the Gadfly tells the story of Iris Dupont, a teenage reporter who communes with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, and Jonah Kaplan, a failed microbiologist-turned-biology teacher who is haunted by the ghosts of his past. Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly, has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Allure, Salon.com and The Daily Beast, so she clearly knows a little something about the journalism. She also plays the banjo, which is cool. Banjos are cool.

Drawing from the experience of creating Iris, the young journalist of The Year of the Gadfly, and her own journalistic chops, Jennifer Miller has generously created a list of five tips for those of you whose writing leans toward reporting:

5 Tips for Young Journalists

1. Reject Rejection: When an editor turns down your pitch–and it will happen!–don’t be discouraged.  Hone your idea, frame your story from a different angle, and pitch it to another publication…And then another. There are a million magazines, papers, and blogs out there. One of them is going to love your story.

2. Talk to Strangers: Your parents say don’t talk to strangers, but as a reporter, that’s your job! Don’t be shy about making cold calls, emailing people you don’t know, or even approaching random people in line at the grocery store or local coffee shop. Just say you’re a journalist and ask if they have a moment to chat. You’ll be amazed at how many people will love to talk to you. (In fact, you might not be able to make them stop!)

3. It’s Ok To Be Dumb: As journalists, we’re often asked to report on unfamiliar or complicated issues. If you don’t understand what a source is talking about (or don’t even know what he’s talking about!) don’t be embarrassed. Simply ask for background information or more context. If you’ve got a good handle on the facts, your readers will too.

4. Required Reading: Do you want to write for newspapers? Read your favorite one every day. Are you interested in magazines? Pick a couple that inspire you and study them. You’ll learn how a good story is written and pick up on tips you can use in your own writing. And as you read the news of the day, you’ll begin to come up with ideas for your own stories. Maybe there’s an angle the paper didn’t cover or a source who didn’t get a fair shake.

5. Get Off Script: It’s great to bring prepared questions to your interviews, but you shouldn’t necessarily stick to them. Chances are your source will get onto a tangent that is unexpected or surprising. Follow up and ask new questions. I promise, you’ll get terrific material, and you can always return to your original questions later on.

6. Bonus Tip: Be On The Lookout! Every story has at least one new story hiding inside of it. An article for your school newspaper on the cafeteria’s new meal plan might lead to a piece on kitchen health codes, or recession-era budget cuts, or childhood obesity. It never hurts to ask a couple of off-topic questions during an interview to see what else you can dig up.

Inspired to become the next Barbara Walters? Check out the book trailer for The Year of the Gadfly–with special guest Brian Williams!

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