Craft Lesson: Adjust Your Attitude

Craft Lessons

When I think of the hundreds of journalists I have coached over the years, the best ones impressed me with their intellect and creativity. But what stands out most are not these strengths, important as they may be. Instead, it was their attitude that made them special.

Five decades of working with writers and editors have convinced me that attitude—a way of thinking that is reflected in a person’s behavior—matters more than talent. 

Talent may open the door, but attitude gets you inside the room.

Journalism is a craft. It relies on a set of skills: reporting and researching, writing and revision (and more revision), understanding of structure, and facility with language, syntax, and style. Mastery requires years of study, work and above all, patience. 

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell cited research that found achieving mastery in any field requires 10,000 hours of work. There’s no doubt that becoming a good journalist takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort. “Do the work,” no matter how tedious, is Bryan Gruley’s mantra when he wrote long features for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine and now as the author of thriller fiction.

Without the right attitude and the willingness to make that commitment, the chances of success are slim to none. 

ATTITUDE PAYS OFF

David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, best-selling author and associate editor of The Washington Post. But what I remember best was what he had to say when I interviewed him after he won a $10,000 American Society of Newspaper Editors award for deadline reporting. 

His prize-winning 1996 story—about the return of government officials killed in a plane crash to Dover Air Force Base—was a stunning meditation on fate and loss reported and written in a matter of hours. 

The weather was cold and miserable. Maraniss wound up with pneumonia. But he covered the story like an eager intern. 

GIVE AND GET 

Maraniss often devoted months to investigations and series. But when news broke, he was one of the first to pitch in.

“Usually when there’s some kind of major event happening, I either volunteer to help out, or they ask me,” he told me. “Even if I’m doing a series, I say, ‘Look, if you guys need me, I’d be happy to do something.’ I try to be in a position to say yes…”

“So many reporters keep banging away at their editors and having frustrating confrontations about what they have to do or don’t have to do,” he said. “I’ve always found it much more effective to do what I want to do by doing some things for them. There’s a fair exchange.”

In a field where so much—success and rejection, for starters—is out of a journalist’s hands, attitude is one thing we can control. We can decide whether to offer help, as Maraniss did, to procrastinate or commit to one more revision or learn from others, rather than be consumed by jealousy about their achievements. 

AN ATTITUDE CHECKLIST

  • Attitude makes the difference between giving up and sticking with a story.
  • Attitude means making one more phone call, writing one more draft, burrowing into your story one more time to refine and polish it.
  • Attitude means fostering a collaborative relationship with editors rather than a toxic one.

In the end, attitude is what makes the difference between failure and spectacular success.

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