Journalism 101: What NOT to do

by

Reporter

I am a mid-career journalist. I was a teacher for several years before I jumped ship and tried to craft a career as a writer.

Because I did not have a journalism degree or many contacts in the field, I felt like I was starting at the bottom of a ladder with missing rungs and splintering wood.

I harassed everyone I knew for help. Tips. Phone numbers. Email addresses.

I hand wrote notes to writers I admired. I left voice mails after hours for editors I hoped to write for one day. (Too afraid to call during the day when they might actually pick up).

Getting on is a hustle.

Now, I’ve made my way a bit. And surprisingly, I’ve become one of those people that new writers want to know.

[Sidebar: this is very bizarre to me. Inside, I still feel like the editorial assistant at Billboard who lives in her cubicle and writes music reviews for Blackspot at XXL in the middle of the night. I don’t feel like a published author and freelance writer. I don’t feel like I am the sort of person one should look up to in this game.]

But occasionally, I do have writers who email me with general questions about the game.

Before starting this blog, I got about 3-4 emails a month from new writers who needed advice. In fact, my first ever post addressed an email I received from a would-be writer named Jenny.

Today, I’m averaging five emails per day. A kid from UCLA looking for an internship. A teenager who just got his first national magazine clip who is serious about his business, (I swear I’m gonna email you back. You’re dope.) A young lady torn between two jobs. A college senior in New York at an internship for the summer who just wants to meet for coffee one day to talk. A colleague with a potential book deal on the table who needs top secret help on coming up with a price.

I take this things seriously. When I was starting out, it meant SO much to me when people took time out of their day to help me, even a little tiny bit.

So, I do my best. I am slow on the email. (Real slow). But I manage. And when I do get back, I try to deliver more than just a one line generic comment. I take my time and think about what I really feel your next course of action should be. And I give you my honest opinion on what you should do. If I have names of people you should talk to, I give ’em. If I think you’re ready for an agent, I’ll give you some names. Shout out to [name redacted] who just signed on with my agent. YOU GO GIRL.

Yikes.

472 words in and I haven’t made my point.

My point is this. My email address is aliyasking@gmail.com

If you need me, hit me up. Seriously. I’ll do my best. And I mean it.

What not to do?

Well, here’s the thing.

I got this very sweet email recently from a college student in NYC for the summer.

She told me I was a dope writer. (*blushing*)

She said my writing is one of things that keeps her going at school. (Awww!)

She said she’s been following my career for years. (Little old me?!)

She called my writing authentic and honest. Made her feel like she was talking to her best friend. (*wipes tear)

Writers are a neurotic bunch. Blow some smoke up our asses and we’ll melt before you and move heaven and earth to help you.

I was IM-ing with my friend “Anna” later on that day. And she told me about a wonderful email she got from a writer in NYC for the summer.

Ahem.

You guessed it. Anna’s writing was also authentic and honest. Anna’s writing was also getting her through school. Anna’s writing also made her feel like she was talking to her best friend. Something extra for Anna though. One of her profiles was the best music profile she’d ever read. like, ever.

Umm. Okay.

I’m not saying she can’t respect and admire us both. I love Karen Good and Danyel Smith and Valerie Wilson Wesley and Clover Hope and Miles Marshall Lewis and Michael Gonzales and Tannarive Due and a host of others.

But you have to walk a fine line when you decide to communicate with writers.

I won’t front. I felt duped when Anna told me about the email she got. The young writer’s sentiments were so over the top that I thought they were reserved for me. I was embarassed that I even got gassed like that.

I’m not special!

And I know I’m not special.

And I am so okay with that.

When you reach out to folks, dial it down a bit. Definitely be honest. Throw some compliments out there. But don’t go to hard. And for heaven’s sake, wait a few weeks before you send out a similar email to another writer.

We ALL know each other. ALL of us. We’ve all dated each other. We’ve been roommates when we first started out. We all went to the same parties back in the day, freelanced for the same editors. And we talk. A lot.

I’m still going to stay in this touch with this young lady. It was a minor misstep on her part. Not the end of the world at all.

If you’re reading this, don’t freak out. We’re still cool.

And to my up-and-comers, when you email me at aliyasking@gmail.com, I am officially absolving you of any need to gas me up before asking me for help.

Start your email off like this:

Hey Aliya:

I read your post on What NOT To Do. So I will not tell you anything about how much I love you work.

Now, on to my advice. Can you please help me with….

Are we all on the same page? Awesome!

Dear readers: Have you sent out an email that may have been a little bit more fawning than it needed to be? Do you think I’m just too sensitive and it was no big deal for homegirl to send out similar emails to me and my friend? How do you normally approach someone you don’t know for advice or guidance?

I’d love to hear from you…

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21 Responses to “Journalism 101: What NOT to do”

  1. Alisha Says:

    Good one! Thanks for that. I try not to overdue it (maybe it’s pride), but tell me if I am! Ironically though, I was looking high and low for Karen Good’s email yesterday to tell her what an awesome job she did on the MJJ story in Essence. I’m pretty much obsessed with him at this point and it brought tears to my eyes.

    Thanks for taking your time to help us all though. I’m sure it can become a full-time or atleast a part-time job.

  2. Baa-ith Says:

    Thank you! And yes…you really are THAT dope!!!

  3. slavismyname Says:

    Umm, yeah, I have done that with the pitch letter I sent you for review. I’ve learned my lessons. Nas-Damian Marley album is still not in stores and I still don’t have a story, albeit VIBE went out of business.

  4. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Slav: you didn’t overdo it with genuflection in your email. But alas, my advice was on point about the Nas-Marley album.

  5. Eunice Says:

    You are dope, and I forgot to tell you that in my email. :) I just jumped in there and started talking like I’ve known you 20 years. LOL All of you guys who have written in Vibe or Essence are dope in my book which is why I’m bugging ya’ll on Facebook. LOL

    Oh and slavismyname, someone finally bought Vibe and it will be back in print later this year. Yippppeee!

  6. slavismyname Says:

    @Eunice: Yeah, I know Intermedia/Uptown bought VIBE. Omitted that because the old staff is gone and I’m not sure who is coming back – if at all.

    Aliya, I’m up looking up genuflection in the dictionary, lol. lawd.

  7. Haftime/Heather Says:

    Wait. I really do think you, Clover, Karen Good, Danyel Smith, are “dope,” “authentic and honest,” writers who “keep me going…”

    OK, I kid.

    But mass, cut-and-paste emails are definitely a no, no. There are many writers I admire but all for very different reasons. I wish I could say I don’t fawn over them when I get around to asking for advice, but I do.

    I’m a journalism groupie.

    Some of my friends wanted to be like Oprah. I wanted to be like Danyel Smith and Mitzi Miller. I can’t say that I’ve ever emailed a writer just to tell them how great they are. But Twitter has been a great way for me to strike a convo and connect with the scribes I grew up admiring. The “big time” writers I have relationships with now (including AK) I mostly met on Twitter.

  8. la negrita Says:

    I’m going to reserve judgment, because I’m not exactly sure I haven’t done this haha. Admittedly, I’m good for mass e-mailing certain things. I’d like to think my letters are so unique that nobody will notice, but you never know. I’ve had a pretty good success rate when it comes to hearing back from people I’ve reached out to and just figure ‘x’ is too busy if I don’t.

    Then again, I *love* to personalize my communication. It makes me happy. :) Sometimes I think I overdo it in terms of not keeping it 100% professional, but it takes a lot of work to be stuffy. Writers and editors are people too. :)

  9. KD Says:

    I read this nervously on my bb praying I wasn’t guilty of a don’t. Thankfully, I’m in the clear-granted I don’t send many emails. Perhaps a post on how to keep in touch with editors without feeling(or actually rather) like you’re bothering them with updates on your marginal college or entry level career (‘Yep I’m still in college and..still interning’) is in order?

    I don’t think you were being too sensitive but I don’t think everything she said was over the top. We do follow your careers. Aspiring journalists are trained to read bylines, mastheads, revolving door headlines and linkedin profiles. You write for all my favorite magazines so you’re kind of inescapable. I even was asked to do pre-first round edits on one of your stories at an internship (Cory Booker?) and I have seen you speak enough times that I could probably tell the tale of your first assignment at The Source.

    I think some editors forget that to most journalism students, they have more celebrity than celebrities themselves. I nearly peed my pants when Susan Schulz made a comment to me on the chicken in the Hearst cafe or when I realized Cyndi Stivers wasn’t waving to the person behind me. You guys are kind of a big deal.

    I like posts like this, they don’t teach networking in college but it is on the shortlist of key media skills. Keep ’em coming.

    – KD

  10. felicia Says:

    Ha. That’s hilarious. Probably more so because it’s never happened to me! You know you’re big when…

    Keep the great posts coming!

  11. la negrita Says:

    “Perhaps a post on how to keep in touch with editors without feeling(or actually rather) like you’re bothering them with updates on your marginal college or entry level career (’Yep I’m still in college and..still interning’) is in order?” –KD

    I agree. I’ve communicated with or met people who said “Keep in touch!” And while they may not always mean it…I always take them up on the offer! But after a while I start getting insecure like: Am I getting on their nerves?? And times like now when I have nothing major going on…what the heck do I say?? Especially when we don’t know each other that well. Lately I’ve been letting my network seep through my fingers, and that’s a huge part of it.

  12. la negrita Says:

    “I think some editors forget that to most journalism students, they have more celebrity than celebrities themselves.” –KD

    So true! I’m a total fan girl and I have no shame. I recently met a local journalist at the NUL conference. I didn’t know she was going to be there…I just happened to be walking around scanning the different booths. When I saw her, all I asked was for a picture, lmao. She’s in broadcast so I really didn’t have any trade-related questions for her, but inside I was like: OMG, it’s YOU!!!!! Haha, pure hilarity.

  13. Nadine G./ @MadFreshDaily Says:

    LOL @ ‘what NOT to do’.

    Umm, I started loving the writers behind the hip hop articles way before I even knew that I wanted to write myself. Chairman Mao, Andrea Duncan, Saptosa Foster, Danyel, YOU- Ms. King sooo many others! LOL. I thought I was too cool for the over the top fawning though. I’m usually a lot more subtle. I thought everyone was introspective and thoughtful but I was MOST moved by dream hampton.

    She wrote this Vibe piece in ’96 that had me like, “Okay! This is what I’m doing.” So I always say that although I was always told that I should probably get into writing, HER writing influenced me to take it seriously. I never actually thought at the time that I’d ever speak with her.

    I was lucky enough to meet someone who had her e-mail addy while she was writing Jay’s book about 5 years ago. I was freelancing for an upstart in Atlanta, and I pitched a Q&A with her. I shot her an e-mail, she said ‘sure’, sent her number and EVERYTHING. LOL. I was 21 and I could’ve hit the ceiling, I was so excited. Anyways, she was great! Cool, laid back, hit me with advice, told me about small parts of her writing experience. I DID tell her that her work “was a large part of me wanting to write.” She was flattered.

    Since then I’ve been in contact with a few more of the journalists that I admire, through the most RANDOM situations. I spoke with Saptosa this year, just having the courage to reach out; Me and Mitzi have gone back and forth on Twitter; I met Shaheem last year through Sway, while I was waitressing, and he explained the industry to me at The Office at Viacom when I ended up visiting home the following week. I’m not at my goal yet, but I’m steady working so I know I’ll be there soon- without doling out extra ass kissing- copied and pasted. LOL.

  14. clove Says:

    I might have done this at least once in my lifetime haha. but I don’t think I’ve gone that overboard with the praise. one of my college journo professors told me the best thing a writer can do when cold emailing someone is to start with a compliment BUT to make sure it’s genuine. I think in my initial email interaction with aliya I mentioned that “you’re one of my favorite writers” which was/is true. I definitely pay attention to it when I get pitches myself.

    The girl should have at least tweaked the email a little… citing specific stories maybe :/

  15. Michael Says:

    LOL. Bless their heart, they’re trying to win, but Clove is right: tweak your notes a little.

    The writers that I have reached out to in that way, I had specifics.

    People who were successful that I felt could pass along advice, I had specifics, too, only
    I made sure not to seem like a fan and more someone who respected their hustle. There is
    a definite difference. I’d elaborate more, but this BB is putting my pinky in a bind.

    Great post, Aliya.

  16. dream hampton Says:

    hey nadine! and tee friggin hee Aliya. if u ever want an ego massage, come to twitter :)

  17. Nadine G./ @MadFreshDaily Says:

    LOL! And now… I’m mortified. See what you started Aliya? Hey dream! *beaming*

  18. Paul Says:

    Ever since the days in the basement of 612 N. Maple Ave. I admired your writing. I remember each of us reading our short stories to each other and saying, “That’s dope!” I even remember telling Mrs. Wesley that I had a friend… But you know how that goes.

    I remember you being on your grind trying to get on. I admire that. I lost my zeal for the grind, and I think that’s the biggest thing that seperates the people that make it and the people that don’t. You can have all the skill in the world, it means nothing without the hustle.

    Skill+Grind=Success
    Skill-Grind=Leaving success up to chance (rarely happens)

    Let me make one thing clear though. You ARE special. No, really! YOU ARE SPECIAL. I don’t get to read your stuff as much anymore, but when I do it always feels the same. I feel a connection. I love reading your work. It has nothing to do with you being one of my closest friends. You’re just good. That girl wasn’t really wack for what she did. She was wack for how she did it. Because I love reading Karen Good’s work just as much. Yall have that “Jill Scott” style type of writing. I feel like you are having a convo with me personally. That’s my style too. I love it. She just didnt have to stencil the damn accolades. If you’re a writer, word it differently.

    Artist don’t realize the effect they have on people. We’re not supposed to. Beause real art inspires others because you were inspired by God. So they are just seeing that in your work. How could they not be inspired? You have a gift. You, Karen, Dream (Love you too), Cheo, Toure, etc… (there’s so many others that I loved from The Source, I’m mad I forgot.)

    New School kids “dont have time” to hustle like that, so they feel like they can just cook it, chop it, bag it up, and put it out. Everything is done systematically now. People forgot about expressing customized adoration and admiration. There’s one hundred ways you can say one thing. Get your weight up youngins! As for me? I’m getting back on my grind.

    Thanks for all the years of good reading, Lee.
    Karen, I miss you. (sorry for getting personal on your blog, Aliya)

    “This is so necessary” -Jay Z

  19. jay1 Says:

    *takes notes

  20. trace Says:

    yikes. this happens even more when going through internship inquiries. the thought is on point, but the execution…man, the execution. hopefully it’s a lesson learned for all of us. both offenders and victims.

  21. Arlice Nichole Says:

    New kid here on this block

    To answer the question, I wouldn’t have sent similar e-mails because that would not have felt right. It may have just been homegirl’s nerves. I’ve sent and received e-mails from people whose work I really admire, and I’ve gotten nervous like we were face-to-face before.

    Anyway, I’ve read your work in my most favorite among the few magazines we have, and your writing is truly dope. I think it’s great how you make yourself available and use real world situations as teachable moments for your readers. Doubly dope!

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