In the mailbox is a polite letter from a young man wanting advice. He is wise because he has come to the right place. Advice is the speciality of this department, offered free on almost any subject under the sun, even on subjects of which I know nothing.
In this case, the polite young man wants some tips on how to become a success in journalism. This is simple, because your humble agent is a world authority on how to become a success in journalism, if not in life. To wit:
Always wear shoes that are smartly shined. It is the first thing a female notices when she meets a man. A wise woman never marries a man who is ill-shod.
Stay away from journalism schools. You can’t teach journalism any more than you can teach how to make love. You either got it or you ain’t. A matron once asked Louis Armstrong what jazz was. He replied that if she had to ask, she’d never know. It’s the same as the chap who asked J. P. Morgan what a
yacht cost. He was told that if he had to ask, he couldn’t afford one. Journalism schools fall into the same category. _
Never wear button-down shirts with a suit. Verboten. Most of American malehood doesn’t understand this. It’s still verboten.
Never accept a present from a politician that can’t be consumed at one sitting. The thing to tell the politician is this: if it s a gift, it s too much; if it’s a bribe, it’s not enough.
Never argue with a woman. No good has ever come from it. You know the definition of an editor. That’s a guy who separates the wheat from the chaff. And prints the chaff.
Learn to listen. The greatest shortage in the world is not someone who can explain computers or VCRs; or cheap plumbers; or honest lawyers. The greatest shortage in the world is good listeners. Most people, when you are telling them about the leg you broke on the ski hill, are not really listening. They’re just waiting for a break in the conversation so they can tell you about the gall bladder operation they had four years ago.
Most people in the world think they are misunderstood. Especially cabinet ministers and high executives. If you simply sit there—interspersing “Gee” or “Golly” or “I didn’t know that! it s absolutely amaz-
ing what they will blurt out, all in the belief that at last they ve found
someone who will listen. That’s how bartenders make their money, just mumbling “Uh-huh” while swabbing the bar and listening to unhappy husbands. Throw away your tape recorder. Listen.
To quote the immortal Satchel Paige, “Never look back. Someone may be gaining.” Never wear cuff links with a sports jacket. Verboten.
If a politician asks if he can tell you something off-the-record, excuse yourself and go to the loo and don’t come back.
The definition of an editorial writer is someone who comes down out of the hills after the battle and shoots the wounded.
Get a good, broad education—while avoiding journalism school—in history, economics, some psychology might help. You don’t need English classes, since you’re enamored of literature anyway.
Travel. It’s the finest education there is. The reason for travel is not to learn about other countries, but to learn about your own. The more you travel the more you will understand Canada— not an easy country to understand.
Don’t get married until you’re 30. If you do, you won’t have the time to travel, and therefore educate yourself. Never join anything. If you do, sooner or later you will run into the uncomfortable fact that you will have to write something about one of your new friends—stock fraud, faked expense accounts, groping the waitress, whatever—and you will have lost a friend. The only friend a newspaperman can have is another newspaperman.
Read. If you don’t read, you can’t write. Be suspicious of everyone. If you watch more than four hours of TV a week, you need serious help. Stay out of the office as much as possible. Newspapers were better before the telephone was invented. It meant you actually had to go out and meet people.
Take long lunches. You may die of a shotgun wound inflicted by an irate husband, but you will never die of a heart attack if you have long lunches. Long lunches are good for the heart.
Be wary of journalists at the press club who tell the best stories and can talk very well. Most journalists who can talk very well don’t write very well. They leave it all at the bar.
Stay away from people you have never seen laugh. They are dangerous, as well as boring. There are more boring people in the world than there are good listeners.
Never—ever, ever—in your writings use the two most useless words in the English language: “should” and “must.” It has the same effect on politicians as when your mother told you that you “should’ wash behind your ears and you “must” not go out with that girl whc arrives on a motorcycle. “Should” and “must” should be eradicated from the dictionary.
As the wise man said, you have two ears and one mouth. Use them in the same ratio. Pretend that the “I” key on your typewriter/computer doesn’t exist. Devour five newspapers a day. Never play poker with a man named Doc. Never order a martini in a town that still has a high-
school band. If your mother gives you her age, check it out.
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