You like to think of your talent as your own, but....

[This is another old post, from 2009.]

In my career, I've worked places where the best writing was encouraged, and in places where it was actively discouraged--where you were supposed to produce material that was bone-dry, or where sloppiness was encouraged, or where every story was supposed to follow the same format, no matter what. Not shockingly, the places I enjoyed working the most were the places where I produced the best writing. That was not simply because I like to win things or because I like to be challenged, but also because the people were just plain better to work with--they were smarter and more pleasant and didn't spend their time trying to kick everyone down to some allegedly desirable level of mediocrity. I remember when I applied to journalism school looking at the material I had produced during a fairly lengthy spell at a place where good writing was actively discouraged, and realizing that I would never send any of that material anywhere as a writing sample, because it was all God-awful. I also realized that, if I was interested in pursuing writing as a career, this would be something I would need to pay attention to--not just looking at a job as a paycheck, but looking at it as a source of clips. ("Clips," for the normal people, is a term used to mean the articles you actually write--and then clip out of the paper to show, say, your mom or potential future employers.)

Anyway, my point is that the place you work for can really affect the quality of your writing. I've recently discovered the Web site of a writer friend of mine who I have lost touch with, and this person has posted a lot of their clips on the site. A lot of this person's older work was for a publication that clearly put a premium on good writing, and those stories are quite good. But a lot of their newer work is for a publication that clearly does not--the newer stuff reads a lot like what is called "notebook dumping," which is what happens when a reporter just dumps everything from their notebook onto the page without organizing and pruning and massaging it into a proper story with a beginning, middle, and end, and all that good stuff.

I'm a little worried because this person is both a good reporter and a good writer, and they have a book coming out fairly soon, and I want it to be a good book that makes them more successful, not a clunker. The bad habits you pick up writing for kind of crappy publications can really screw you up (and the crappiness of a publication is not necessarily directly related to how much they pay, which complicates the issue even more when you're trying to make a living as a writer).