We Don’t Need No Education

It’s strange, sometimes, thinking about the things I’ve learned while making a living as a writer. I have no formal training as a journalist — a fact I think is occasionally shockingly obvious — yet I have, somehow, managed to make it as a professional writer for more than a decade by this point. (And as an unprofessional one for years before that; some might claim that I’ve never fully stopped being unprofessional, of course.)

A lot of that is down to luck, as much as anything. I really do have a career that has owed a lot to being in the right place at the right time, and from making connections accidentally, because I thought I was just making friends and then they asked if I’d want to help them with something in exchange for money. The lack of forethought and planning in my career is genuinely impressive, and similarly embarrassing; if my career had a theme song, it’d be Big Star’s “Thank You, Friends” on a loop, with extra emphasis on that “Thank you again!” refrain at the end.

But there’s also been more than my fair share of learning on the job, both through direct and intentional teachings — at Time, I had an amazing editor who taught me all kinds of things, not least of which how to structure and rework thinkpieces so they weren’t just me going “Oh! And!” over and over again — and from picking up on context clues left out by accident in the middle of a conversation.

One of those was a conversation before taking a regular gig at a site, when I learned the definition of shortform web versus longform — of course, this was in itself six or seven years ago by now, and the goal posts have shifted more than a little in that time. But I remember having to mask my feeling of, oh, now I get it, I didn’t know that, thanks when the prospective editor told me that he wanted multiple shortform pieces from me daily, no longer than 400 words. “You tend to write around 600, and that’s just too long for people reading quickly,” he said, a fact that got filed away and sticks in my head when writing professionally even now.

Most of these posts here, by the way, are between 300 and 400 words. Anything longer, and it feels like I’m taking up more time than a random thought deserves.

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