Culture & Art / Lifestyle / Society

One year running a magazine, 10 lessons for young writers and journalists

by Marie Baleo

Image by Doug Robichaud on Unsplash.

Image by Doug Robichaud on Unsplash.

On 16 February 2015, my friend and I co-founded an online magazine. A year later, I can safely say this has been an extraordinary year, in contrast to my earlier 20s, spent in front of a computer at my consulting job, drinking beer with young people in sticky Irish pubs, daydreaming on trains, metros, and buses, and thinking about what I could possibly do when I grow up.

This pleasant little routine was implemented when I was 22, perfected when I was 23, and elevated to a state of fine art in 2014, at age 24. By the end of that year, I noticed that Christmas, which had long been a prime source of joy, didn’t quite do it for me anymore. Instead, I grew obsessed with the prospect of New Year’s Eve, and what it symbolized: a new beginning, a new chance, new plans. It did not take a genius to see that as much as I was leading a life that could, by all accounts, be described as satisfactory, I was bored.

Luckily for me, a mere month into 2015, I was able to emerge, if only for a minute, from a lifelong state of believing I was better off alone always and would one day magically amount to something, to realize that I was absolutely nothing and would remain nothing until I worked hard, possibly even with other people. I used that brief moment of lucidity to heed the call of my friend Marion Bouvier, who wanted me to come along on an exciting ride.

Marion and I, who had met as college students and gallivanted around Paris high on fast food and excitement, were going to create an online magazine.

Marion, who lives abroad, called me on my cell phone. I remember this distinctly, in the way we always seem to remember pivotal moments before we even know how important they will turn out to be. I was nervous and apprehensive, in the way that only things I deeply want can make you. Marion had many ideas to run by me: she had a name, a logo, a slogan, a short note on who we were going to be, and why we were going to do this.

One year later, we at Nótt Magazine have published over 50 articles and infographics by six contributors and received thousands of clicks from all over the world. Over time, our writing has become sharper (I think), our topics more interesting, our readers more faithful. At the end of this inaugural year, we are young and inexperienced as ever, humbled by the amount of talent around us, and excited for the future. We have erred and succeeded, doubted and blindly advanced. This year has taught us a lot, and I would like to share these experiences with you.

Lesson n°1: Writing, editing, and promoting your work is strenuous, and there is never enough time.

Marion and I have published dozens of articles, most of which have been over the 2,500-word mark. In my wildest dreams, I had never imagined the amount of time I would spend researching, reading, taking notes, copy-pasting, quoting, styling text, looking up synonyms, translating convoluted French ideas into convincing English, preparing Facebook posts, tweets, retweets, finding people to tweet our articles at, writing Google Plus posts (yep), LinkedIn posts, checking our stats, refreshing our stats, refreshing our stats on the metro, refreshing our stats in the office bathroom, refreshing our stats on a bad date.

Remembering a dubious sentence, editing it at 4am in the dark on my cell phone.

Saying the words “Hi! I’m the cofounder of a new online magazine” dozens, hundreds of times, to people at conferences, exhibition openings, friends of friends, neighbors on the train, anyone really.

Reading the news all the time searching for new ideas, all the while feeling the distinct irony of writing news articles based on news other people have written about first.

Doing this, and working a full-time job, while still brushing your teeth at least twice a day, is a challenge that requires a level of organization I, a person who doesn’t own a trashcan or an Internet connection and sometimes doesn’t empty her (physical) mailbox for months at a time, did not necessarily have.

Yet organization is one the most important skills a young writer or journalist can have, right after grit and writing skills. Which brings me to:

Lesson 2: You suck at writing, at thinking, at everything really. And it’s OK. Just keep going.

Imagine you are a gifted karateka, who has been practicing a kata in the comfort of your club for months. You have received praise for your technique and are now about to take part in a small competition, where you are up against equally gifted people.

As you perform the introductory salute, your heart begins to pound and your mouth to feel dry. Everyone is observing you – friends, family, teachers, clubmates, and a whole faceless crowd of strangers. You are suddenly conscious of everything: the fact that you are sweating, how small you feel, how you should probably have rehearsed more.

You are now acutely aware of a series of gestures that was once so natural to you, so evident that you barely thought of it. Every motion becomes a bottomless well of self-doubt. Your movements betray your self-consciousness, some of them are imprecise, even wrong. You now feel like you are teetering on the edge of absolute disaster. Everything you do is bad, and you know it. You can’t wait for this to end so you can find a hole to crawl into for all eternity.

This is exactly what writing and publishing an article feels like, as a young, inexperienced writer.

Fake it till you make it, amirite? Image via StartupBros

Fake it till you make it, amirite? Image via StartupBros

When I wrote my second article and saw many readers had shared it and seemed to enjoy it, I thought I was a writer. I thought I was a good writer, even.

I was wrong.

The more you write, the worse you will feel. As time goes by, you will realize just how appalling your writing is, how hesitant your grammar can be, how unoriginal your best ideas usually are.

When you write, you will feel your friends, family, the magazine’s followers and all the people who Google Search their way to your articles standing behind you, looking over your shoulder, thinking you should try out something else, perhaps knitting, or yoga.

You will meet regularly with your new friend, Embarrassment. You will wallow in self-pity, which Jim Harrison once described as the most self-destructive of human emotions, a thought that does not prevent you from wallowing some more.

Jim Harrison

When in doubt, listen to Jim Harrison’s advice. Image via Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

And then you’ll get back to writing. At midnight, you will think, “I have to stop and go to bed now, tomorrow is a work day”. You will think, “yes, that is definitely a shitty first draft, and I could do better”. You will keep going.

Writing is a masochistic endeavor. You will know this, and, accordingly, you will keep coming back for more, with ever-growing enthusiasm and passion.

Lesson 3: Journalistic ethics are not optional, and you aren’t born with them, necessarily.

Here is a list of things I have discovered, and which I will spare you the discomfort of discovering on your own terms:

  • Don’t claim facts like you’re the voice of God based on stuff you’ve literally just read on Wikipedia. The Internet is a lifesaver, but it is also your greatest enabler if you’re sloppy and lazy, which you should never be.

  • Do not plagiarize. How would you like it if someone stole your ideas and your writing?

  • Do not slam anyone without first asking for their point of view. Defamation is not a good look on anyone.

  • Don’t interview someone when you haven’t bothered to prepare semi-relevant questions beforehand, because even a first OKCupid date doesn’t sting as much as that does.

Lesson 4: Excellent writing can be (and perhaps must be) achieved without using five-syllable words, even if it goes against every fiber of your young, insecure being.

Read the Elements of Style, religiously. You will forget about 90% of the book’s recommendations. Read it again.

Lesson n°5: Take every opportunity you can take. Say yes to everything.

This is your face from now on. Image via IMDB.

This is your face from now on. Image via IMDB.

For one, this will allow you to indulge the pathological curiosity you, as an aspiring journalist, were probably born with.

It will also allow you to meet people, find new opportunities, ideas, stories, and build a (necessary) network of contacts.

Lesson n°6: Write for a reason, and make it a good one.

If there is anything I have learned from listening to experienced journalists in their 50s, it is this: traditional journalism jobs are dead. Few are the chosen ones who will join a newspaper as a young full-time employee and climb the ranks to editor like Bob Woodward at the Post.

Woodward & Bernstein are sorry you still think journalism has a future, and frankly they’re a little disappointed in you. Image via TimesUnion.

Woodward & Bernstein are sorry you still think journalism has a future, and frankly they’re a little disappointed in you. Image via TimesUnion.

Most likely, a path in journalism now means a long and lonely struggle as a freelance writer for multiple publications, or writing for free as a hobby while holding on to that day job for dear life.

Writing is for people who are bored to death by the thought of doing anything other than, well, write. It is for people who are passionate about writing, about sharing information, about investigating. It is not for people who are passionate about money (unless you are an aspiring financial journalist!) Lucrative career paths abound – this is not one of them. If you think you may ever aspire to wealth, change tracks now, or hope for the best.

Lesson n°7: Don’t read the comments and don’t feed the troll.

New friends await you in the comments section. Image © Dam Corporation via GoodHousekeeping.

New friends await you in the comments section. Image © Dam Corporation via GoodHousekeeping.

Nothing will prepare you for the amount of troll-hood you will encounter as you tentatively unleash your musings upon the people of the Interwebz. Your ideas are sh*t – they thought you should know, so they spent 15 minutes writing the most writhing response you will ever read. But rather than give constructive, thoughtful advice, some will hurl personal insults, brazen assumptions about what you are, and degrading comments. This is more likely to happen if you write about “triggering” topics like feminism (yes, gender equality is triggering, somehow), politics, religion, or sex. Rule of thumb: if you wrote about something that is not usually considered an appropriate dinner party topic, skip the comments section.

Lesson n°8: You will face rejection and meet unreliable and sleazy people.

Aspiring collaborators will collaborate, exactly once. Then they will disappear under a rock from which no amount of gentle emailing, “best regards”, and “dear Amy”s will extirpate them.

Journalists with years of experience in famous media outlets will submit cover letters in which they omit verbs (grammar: check), misspell your magazine’s name (spelling: check), or forget to include the resume and clippings you expressly requested (attention to detail: check). And while we’re on this subject: people will generally not answer your emails, no matter how long and courteous they are, or how desperate you sound. You will have to learn how to insist, and most importantly, how to handle rejection.

Dear young female journalist or blogger, some men understand you want to write articles. They think it’s adorable! But do not for one second think you, a young woman with the nerve to think you may be able to write, will ever be taken seriously. But could they take you out for a drink sometime? It will be fun, they’ll give you advice on that magazine of yours. Yes, they’ll definitely read that article you sent them. They haven’t had time yet, but they’re free for a drink tonight if you are?

In the face of this kind of behavior, you will have to learn to keep believing in your skills and to ignore these individuals.

Lesson n°9: But you will also meet some incredibly generous, helpful and supportive individuals.

Writing articles and promoting them on social media yields a significant amount of social interaction. You will meet many people, both online and in the “real” world, and have many fascinating conversations. You will encounter a variety of viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives you could never have imagined. And most of all, you will not believe the number of people who will go out of their way to lend you a hand. Because you’ve learned lesson #8, you will wonder, suspiciously: what’s in it for them? The answer: nothing.

These people will selflessly introduce you to equally interesting, impressive people, many times over, with seemingly no reward. They will forward and share your articles, without you asking them to. They will send you interesting stories and article ideas. They will tell others about you and your magazine. They will be better than anything you had ever imagined.

Then, there are the friends who will casually admit that they read all of your articles, and who can’t imagine how surprised and thankful you are. So does your entire family, from your grandparents to your mother, who shares 90% of your posts.

This is the most enjoyable lesson for a young, cynical journalist: against all odds, altruism is alive and well. Which brings us to:

Lesson n°10: Journalism is a highly human business.

We write about people, for people, and thanks to people. That fact alone is enough to get up every day and face the white page. Go forth and conquer!

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