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If You’re Asking Me For Advice, You’re In Trouble

Posted October 16th, 2012 in Writing and tagged , , , , , , by davecopeland

At least once a semester a student asks to interview me for a senior seminar assignment which requires them to interview a “writer.” I ended up doing two tonight; here’s the one I did by email.

1. What do you like best about writing?

It’s almost a cliche but every day is different. It’s pretty much the only job where you can wake up and say “Today I want to learn about X” and then spend a day, week, year or decade immersing yourself in a topic. It’s also a control thing – I like knowing how things work and the story behind the story.

2. How did you begin your writing career?

I published for the first time in a national magazine when I was 19. I wrote whenever I had chances to in college and even chose a major that I felt would give me more time to work for newspapers. i’ve been making my full-time living as a writer since I graduated college and took a job at a small weekly newspaper.

3. Where was your first writing position?

I covered everything but sports for the Pembroke Reporter. It was small-time stuff but I still feel like I learned more about writing and reporting in the first six weeks there than I did in four years of college.

4. How did you get your first writing job?

It was a fairly tight job market and I sent resumes and clips all over the country. I felt pretty lucky that the best offer I got was also less than an hour from where I grew up. I probably acted like I was smarter and better than I actually was.

5. Did you do internships when you were an undergraduate?

I interned on the sports desk of a daily newspaper, and spent a ton of time working for the school newspaper at UMass-Amherst.

6. What jobs do you feel exist in the writing industry currently?

I think the outlook is better than a lot of people would have you believe, and certainly better than it has ever been in the years since I’ve graduated. People are finally figuring out how to make money from online publishing and the trend to lift the stigma of self-publishing gives long-form writers more opportunities and more control. It’s a very exciting time to be a writer as we have more and more opportunities to tell stories and find an audience.

7.  What does a career path in writing look like? ( from the bottom of the pyramid to the top)

Not even close to the top and, in fact, because I didn’t want to become an editor, I still essentially do the same thing I did when I graduated college: I find stories, report them and write them. Along the way that’s covered newspapers, wire services, magazines, a book and now blogs and online news sites, but the process is essentially the same.

8.  What is the balance between writing and teaching like?  Which do you enjoy more?

Teaching, overall, has been a good thing for my writing. It forces me to make better use of my time and having a chance to talk with people and talk about writing a few days a week makes me that much better. You start to do things out of habit but when a student asks a question about why you do something a certain way, it forces you to reconsider what you do, how you do it and whether or not there is a better way to do things.

9. Do you read anything specific on a daily basis to keep up with the writing industry?

I read a lot of tech news these days because that’s what I cover and want to see what my competitors are doing. I always have two or three books going and read the New Yorker and Vanity Fair for magazines. I still read newspapers – I at least scan the New York Times and Boston Globe each day and catch up with everything I missed on weekends. Online I read a lot of blogs and a lot of local news.

So the short answer is I read whatever I can get my hands on.

10. What kind of changes do you see happening in the writing industry in the next 10 years?

We’re on the verge of a real sudden and interesting shift in that online outlets are starting to publish more and more long-form journalism and essays. The general rule of thumb has always been the shorter the better online, but now publishers are starting to see that longer articles – 1,000 words or more, and in some cases up to 10,000 words – have a longer shelf life.

Most online writers will still make the majority of their income from writing lots of shorter pieces, but it’s reassuring to see that there could still be opportunities for people who want to try their hand at long-form writing.

The other big thing is self-publishing and e-books. It’s still too early to say what will happen but, very roughly, I expect it to somewhat mirror the music industry: there will be fewer superstars but more opportunities for people to find a niche audience and make a living writing to that audience.

11.  What kind of changes have you already witnessed?

See above.

12. When you are not teaching, what does a typical day consist of for you?

Ideally, I get most of my writing done early in the day. I try to write at least 1,000 words a day, which includes research and interviews and revisions, so I can sometimes be chained to the desk until 7 or 8 at night after starting at 5 or 6 that morning. Then some days everything lines up: people call back when they say they will, editors keep douchey questions to a minimum and I’m done for the day by noon.

13. What type of writing do you enjoy the most? (freelance, blogging, or researching and writing novels?)

I was diagnosed with ADD a couple of years ago. I think the nice part of my job is I don’t have to choose any one form and can jump from one to the next. They all have their pros and cons, so I try to do them all.

14. Has writing your book or your web writing differed from your original expectations?

Writing for the Web has been a little bit more rewarding and interesting than I would have guessed, and writing the book was abit more disappointing than I had dreamed it would be.

15.  How different would your life be if you didn’t write?

I’d probably have more friends but I’d also be painfully boring.

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