So You Want to Be a Writer . . .

By Jack Cashill

There’s a lot more to writing than, well, just writing. Especially in this media epoch.

I often hear from people who want to be a writer or who have children that do. Having made my living as a writer for the last 35 or so years, I am well-positioned to provide advice. I would be in a much better position, however, if I knew what advice to give.

Everything has changed in those 35 years, and, I suspect, everything will change at least as much in the next 35. My first bit of advice: stay nimble.

For grins, I pulled up the University of Missouri catalogue from 1982 to see what the solons at its famed J-School had to say about the future.

“Journalism courses require the use of the typewriter,” they told us. By the second semester, students had to be able to type 40 words a minute. I never learned. I still can’t type 30 words a minute.

Some years ago I turned to Mavis Beacon to teach me to type. At the time I was unaware that the kindly African-American lady on the box was actually a front for the white, male Berkeley computer geek who created the Mavis Beacon program.

Cultural appropriation? Yeah, maybe, but it was pretty clever. At the time, I felt a wee bit woke for contributing to Mavis’ bootstrap business. I suspect others did too.

After several days of slogging through the program, the faux Mavis reminded me that you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I was unable to switch my brain off hunt-and-peck.

Second bit of advice: writing speed is a matter of thinking, not typing. Typing speed is really only an issue for secretaries, stenographers and Jack Kerouac wannabes. Said Truman Capote famously of Kerouac and his fellow Beats, “That’s not writing; that’s just typewriting.”

One equally quaint instruction from the 1982 MU catalogue was this: “The journalist is first of all an observer, then a reporter, only lastly an analyst and advocate.”

This understanding (and typing) kept me out of J-School. Forty years ago, journalists actually reported the news. I never wanted to be a reporter. I wanted to be an analyst and an advocate, but no one was hiring analysts of my political stripe not named William F. Buckley.

Third bit of advice: forego the dream job for a day job. My first salaried job as a writer was in advertising. I was 35. This was a desperate career move, but a good one.

Fourth bit of advice: expand your repertoire. Through my ad job, I learned video production, a useful skill for a writer. In the early 1990s, I wrote and co-produced a documentary as a side gig and got it aired on KCPT.

Fifth bit of advice: do your creative stuff on the side. For years, I did everything on the side. Although I produced a dozen or so more documentaries, there was no money in it. Advertising still paid the bills.

In the mid-1990s, the University of Illinois advertising department offered me a professorship. My accidental career as the rare creative director with a Ph.D. made me the pretty new girl in class. My future colleagues wooed me with promises of a light teaching load in a department proudly indifferent to its students.

I turned them down. I could have taught everything I knew about advertising in an afternoon.

Sixth bit of advice: don’t let your kids major in any advertising program anywhere.

I did, however, teach an ad copywriting course at a local university. I gave it up after a semester. To be a good copywriter, I realized, you have to be a good writer to begin with. I had too few of those. Seventh bit of advice: better to study carpentry or plumbing. Those you can master.

In the late 1990s, I decided to see if I could write a novel. I wrote in the mornings before work. When finished, I read it and didn’t hate it. I looked for a publisher and found one. I was lucky. Eighth bit of advice: finding a publisher for a first book is very hard. Some 19 publishers turned down Harry Potter.

As I was finishing the novel, I discovered Google. I now had at my fingertips more informational power than The New York Times newsroom had just 10 years prior. I could and did start writing for national publications.

Ninth bit of advice: freelance writing does not pay the bills. My steady relationship with Ingram’s and a spouse with benefits made my career shift possible.

As the century turned, I started writing books of non-fiction. I have written a dozen since. Tenth bit of advice: meet your deadlines. That’s the surest way to get another contract.

I took as my mission the chronicling of the obvious. It amazed me how many big stories the major media ignore for fear that the facts would undermine their worldview.

Eleventh bit of advice: if you defy the orthodoxy, expect hate mail. The haters inevitably accused me of writing a given book for the money. As I explained, if I were in it just for the money, I would have stuck to advertising.

Mainstream journalists routinely dismiss those of us who challenge their take on events as “conspiracy theorists.” In truth, however, the word for “conspiracy theorist” a generation ago was “reporter.”

At MU’s J-School, old-fashioned reporting seems to have fallen out of favor. The current MU catalogue has dropped the “journalist is first of all an observer, then a reporter” mantra of a generation ago.

The change in culture manifested itself during MU’s 2015 all-campus meltdown. The public face of the new MU, communications prof Melissa Click, famously demanded “some muscle over here” to remove a student journalist observing and reporting on a protest she was leading. Irony, thy name is Melissa.

Under duress, MU fired Click, but Gonzaga U. quickly snatched her up. Twelfth bit of advice: you have a much more secure future if you err on the side of wokeness. 

About the author

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.

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