What a Young Journalist Learned in 10 Years—and an Old Pro Learned in 50

By Jack Limpert

Washington Post reporter Dan Zak went back to work today after a year off to write a book and yesterday he posted about what he’s learned in his first 10 years as a journalist. It inspired Mike Feinsilber, who worked for 50 years as a reporter for United Press International and the Associated Press, to add to the list.

What Dan Zak has learned:

To summarize: I have learned things! I have fucked up! I have learned things by fucking up! Earlier this year #adviceforyoungjournalists was a thing on Twitter. I wouldn’t presume to have advice, but here are some things I’ve learned while trying to practice journalism. I tell them to myself frequently.

Always put your name and contact information on the cover of your notebooks.

Stay a little longer. Even just a minute.

If you can go, go. Always go.

Life doesn’t usually conform to narrative, or, at least, a single narrative. Rigorous reporting can reveal arcs and themes and twists and denouements and literary-like symbolism, but in the end life is mostly open-ended, unsatisfying and incomplete. Honor that incompleteness. Respect it.

“It’s the reporting, stupid.” (Someone said this, I don’t know who, but Ann Gerhart had it on a Post-It note on her computer at one point.)

Don’t lose your way. Start to cheat a little, and soon you’ll be cheating a lot.

Every story, no matter how small, is somehow about the meaning of life (this is the Weingarten Corollary).

Say “I don’t understand this; help me understand this” early and often.

Close interviews with “Who else should I talk to?” and/or “What else should I know?” and/or “Is there a question you wish I’d asked that you’ve been waiting to answer?”

Answer every reader e-mail; return their calls, especially.

“HAVE FUN.” “BE FUNNY.” (Also on Post-It notes, spoken I think by Henry Allen and written down by Garreau, who bequeathed the notes to me when he was bought out.)

There is no such thing as objectivity. There is only fairness.

“…you don’t have to be an expert to write expertly about complicated issues.” (Bradlee again)
And what Mike Feinsilber has learned:

Rewriting is the answer to everything. If you think what you’ve written is perfect, set it aside, rewrite, compare the two or three versions, go with the best or choose the best parts of each. You’ll be grateful in the morning.

Silence is a reporter’s good friend. Especially when interviewing over the telephone. Silence is the enemy of conversation, so the other guy will resume speaking, maybe giving you some good stuff.

Don’t interrupt.

You’re interviewing, not conversing. So the time you take talking is time the other guy won’t have to tell you stuff. Show the guy you know something about what you’re interviewing him about (if you do), but don’t talk to impress him.

When you’re finished with a piece, read it through the eyes of the person you’re writing about. Have you been fair?

I’ve never thought it was a crime to read your story to a source. If he complains, consider his points. It’s still your story. Chances are he’ll say, “Oh, if that’s what you’re after, you ought to know —.”

When you read something good in your paper, tell the author so. Tell colleagues, too. But insincerity is easily detected.

In reporting, you learn stuff. Now that you’re writing don’t assume the reader knows what you know.

Read what you wrote last week and last month and last year. There might be a good followup story awaiting. Stories stop but life continues.

Now that you’ve aroused a reader’s interest, satisfy it. A single story, no matter how bizarre, doesn’t have the impact of a series of stories keeping the reader up to date.

And when you find yourself typing “wasn’t immediately available to comment,” get back to the absentee commenter tomorrow.

Newspapers wisely insist that when you grant a source anonymity you explain why to readers. These explanations are a nuisance—they get in the way of the story—but they are vital and should be honest and complete. “Spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to speak” is almost always a lie. He wouldn’t be speaking at all if he weren’t permitted to by his boss. “Spoke anonymously in order to deal with sensitive information” is also fishy. It is a fish the reader can smell.

Editors don’t usually edit for fun. Most will tell you why they changed your copy, and they’ll probably be right.

“Said” is more useful, honest, innocuous, uncolored than any synonym for “said.” You can write it a hundred times in your story and nobody will notice.

Challenge every adjective you use. Read the sentence without the adjective. If it stands up, bye-bye adjective.

Quotations eat space, often are one-sided, unclear, clumsy, wordy. Quote someone only if he or she says it better than you can. Paraphrasing is a writer’s best friend; a reader’s too.

When you write, you’re connected to what you’re writing. When the reader reads it, the phone is ringing, the baby is crying, the car pool will be pulling up in three minutes, and an appealing headline sits right next to your story. Clarity helps.


  1. From another longtime writer:

    Get there early.

    Do an outline, however briefly. It forces you to focus your thinking.

  2. One of the best profile writers I worked with usually started her reporting by calling the subject, telling the subject she was writing the profile, and asking the subject for suggestions of people—friends and enemies—she should interview. She felt profiles worked out best if the subject didn’t feel ambushed.

  3. Great stuff, Jack — this, from a semi-grizzled, 40-year vet (who got his start under you). I’ve shared this with my editorial team. Warm regards.

  4. Harry Jaffe says

    Zak is a fine reporter and journalist, so he’s got most of it down. I’d add:

    — Study your subject before you report, especially if it’s a profile.
    — Don’t fall in love with your own prose.
    — Shut up and listen.

  5. From Meryle Secrest on Facebook:

    Some awfully good ideas I wish I had thought of when I began my writing career at the age of 19. One caveat: having been interviewed now, after decades of doing the interview, I disagree with the idea that the reporter should never talk about him or herself. If I sense reluctance to answer, I launch into personal experiences designed to elicit less guarded responses. It has never failed. People who want intimacy from me while their personal guard is up make me nervous.

  6. Bill Mead says

    When you call or visit a source for information, tell him/her upfront the nature of the story you’re working on.

    (This may need an “almost always” caveat.) Most people are flattered to be brought into your story and are helpful. If they don’t know what you’re working on, they’re likely to be suspicious and not helpful.

  7. This is great advice. I’m gratified to hear Mike Feinsilber say that it’s OK to read a story to a source, something I’ve done numerous times. I’ve never had a problem running copy by people I spoke with, many of whom had seen their observations misconstrued or misquoted in the past. Mostly, they just wanted to make sure I had gotten the technical details right. I recall Jay Mathews saying the same thing some years ago. The upside is that when you write something accurate, the sources you spoke with will always help you out in the future, and may even tip you off so you get a good story.

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