Category Archives: Writing Remarks

Writing Remarks

How To Survive Columbia Journalism School: A Non-Exhaustive Guide

#DailyWings: “I’m a story-teller. I tell stories. In some stories, I am the story. But the story transcends me. How? Hear my stories.” Guy at your J-school

Happy November! It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally finished putting together this blog post about my experiences at Columbia Journalism School (as promised), along with several nuggets of advice for prospective students — brought to you by the Class of 2016. :)

For those of you who might be new to my blog, I’ve talked about my journey to New York City in previous posts. I often tell people that going to graduate school for journalism was one of the best things I’ve ever done, even though it was also one of the most difficult. I had already obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is considered an excellent program and taught me the fundamentals of professional writing, editing and reporting. Columbia Journalism School was on a whole other level — basically UNC’s j-school on steroids.

Before we dive in, there are a couple of things to keep in mind: One, I’m mainly focusing on the M.S. program, which is designed for students with various levels of journalism experience. The M.A. program is geared toward experienced journalists who want to focus on a particular beat. There are also the dual-degree and PhD programs for people looking for an even more specific educational experience. Two, while I think the j-school (like many things in life) can definitely use some improvements, the quality of your experience largely depends — up to a certain point — on how much effort you’re willing and able to put into it.

Because I’d just spent four years writing local news and magazine features, I knew that I wanted to acquire some new skills in graduate school. So I took an advanced photojournalism class, two investigative reporting classes (including one focused on the health care beat), Multi-Platform Design & Storytelling, and Narrative Writing.

Columbia j-school is difficult mainly because of the massive amounts of work you’re expected to complete in just 10 short months. In some ways, I wish it had been a longer program (perhaps even two years) so we could dive deeper into our classes and our master’s projects. And while Columbia’s roster of journalism professors is top-notch, you might click more with others. I was incredibly lucky to have some amazing professors who taught me almost everything I know today about what it means to be a good reporter, particularly Karen Stabiner, Bruce Shapiro and Howard French. You also get access to excellent career counselors and services that continue even after graduation.

One thing I’m really grateful for is that going to Columbia Journalism School helped me reach some of my biggest dreams — even ones that I didn’t even know I had until they happened. I got to do a lifestyle fellowship with Bustle.com (my dream next step at the time), and I interviewed celebrities like George Takai, Grandmaster Flash and Andrew Lloyd Webber for stories that I’m really proud of. I also published my master’s project in the New York Times six months after school ended.

A common question that people ask me is: What do you get out of j-school — contacts or skills? Depending on how much you’re willing to work and network, the answer is both. I mentioned earlier that you (mostly) get out of the program what you put in. J-school doesn’t guarantee you a job or major byline. Rather, it gives you the lessons and tools you need to be a great journalist. You also need to be willing to put in passion and work.

That means gathering sources, leaving the Upper West Side to do reporting elsewhere in the city, looking for stories in unlikely places, editing story packages for hours, and following up with contacts you meet at events. Unfortunately, this takes a lot of time and energy. It’s important to check in with your physical and mental health — in fact, I’d say always make some time for self-care.

You’ll eventually have to make some sacrifices, especially when it comes to how best to spend your time, which really sucks but might serve you better in the long run. Some advice-givers might say, Go to all the events. Do as much as you can. Take advantage of everything. I agree with that only up to a certain point. If you’re caught between going to a cool-sounding event and editing a video for another grueling four hours, go to the event. If the j-school is hosting an entire conference and all of those panels sound interesting, pick your top three — really listen, take notes, and connect with the people who are at those three events.

Another question people like to ask is: Was it worth $60,000+? It’s a tricky question, and honestly, it’s going to depend on your goals. Do you aspire to become an investigative reporter? Are you interested in data journalism and media innovation? Or do you want to become a media mogul and run your own multi-million dollar publishing company? At the end of the day, what do you hope to get out of attending graduate school for journalism?

And even if you’re a seasoned journalist, you will still learn a lot depending on the classes you take. I’d previously taken several writing classes at UNC including news writing, magazine writing, copy editing, feature writing, and community journalism. I also had an interest (and at least some level of skill) in photography, but no formal training. So my medium of focus at Columbia wasn’t writing — it was photojournalism. I took a couple of intermediate photo classes and completed a photo essay for my final master’s project, which eventually got published in The New York Times. (Thus, what many people don’t know is that my Times piece was primarily adapted from a photo project).

The bottom line: Columbia Journalism School is really difficult and you might feel like a failure most of the time (just because there is so much to do and not enough time), but the truth is that pretty much everyone in j-school is going through similar stress, so you’re not alone. And while those of you who are already enrolled might feel the way I did during the first couple of days (that is, a pony in a world full of unicorns), remember that you applied and got in for a reason. And that reason is because you have something unique to offer the world of journalism

For this next part, I asked my fellow j-school classmates for their insight into everything from the application process to the difference between full-time and part-time programs.* Keep in mind that this is a non-exhaustive guide; also, depending on when you apply and other various factors, your experiences may be very different from what you read below. Take whatever advice that works best for you.

On applying:

For the writing test, brush up on major news events (both in the US and around the world) and key figures in politics, sports, Hollywood, etc. as much as you can. Reading the news helps so much; if you do that, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

It’s okay if you don’t have a journalism background. Don’t be deterred if you don’t have a journalism degree or haven’t done a lot of journalism already. They’re looking for people with critical thinking skills and motivation. They’re also looking for a student body that’s diverse, or maybe has characteristics that aren’t overtly related to journalism.

Columbia is hella expensive, so apply for as many scholarships and other financial aid as possible.

On the community:

It’s definitely better to be collaborative than competitive. That said, don’t be a dick and pitch someone else’s idea as your own. I saw that happen twice (from two different people) while at the j-school.

Read your professors’ books and articles so you have something to make awkward small talk about if you end up in the elevator together.

Get into a class with Kevin Coyne. I so wish I had taken his class, but was fortunate to have him as a master’s project adviser. He is so incredible. A great balance of nurturing and helping you to push boundaries with your writing/reporting.

Talk about the stories you’re working on. You never know who might have a contact to a source(s) you need. In return, talk to your fellow journos/classmates about what they are working on to see if you can help. If possible, pitch everything you write at Columbia Journalism School to a news outlet. How? Same way you find sources. You can find editors through guest lectures, friends, professors, mastheads, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. Don’t be scared to cold pitch!

On differences between programs:

The master of science (M.S.) program only lasts about a year, which is shorter than a lot of graduate programs. So cherish your time and challenge yourself.

PT: I could write a whole long post about the part-time program, but I’d say my biggest advice for part timers is to take advantage of as much as possible. We’re there for two years… soak it in.

PT: Everyone should benefit from each other’s background and experience. Lots of part-timers are career changers or already working in the field. But there are more international students in the full-time program. One of my favorite parts of seminar and production classes was getting to mix in with so many different people with so many rich experiences.

PT: You have to choose classes that fit with your schedule… so if you work M-F, you’ll take evening classes (sucks when it comes time to choose S&P because there are only so many offered in the evening). The essentials classes are pre-scheduled and are all during evening hours. It definitely doesn’t feel like the full-time program…but if you have a job it is a lot to carry.

FT: On one hand, it was really hard to do it all in just 10 months. It’s stressful and takes a toll on your physical and emotional well-being (just being real). On the other hand, you’re hyper-focused on the program and you don’t have any other jobs, commitments, etc. to distract you from journalism. At the same time, I also recognize that being a full-time student is a privilege; not everyone can afford to go to graduate school full-time without having a job or some sort of income in the meantime. So do what’s best for you.

On reporting:

If you’re new to journalism, make sure you get practice in the basics — Learn what to do in a breaking news situation, learn to read court documents, things like that. Read and watch local news — It will help you learn the city and develop a sense of the day-to-day stories that people care about. Not every story is going to be a 1,500-word feature.

Talk to anyone who will listen, especially people who aren’t reporters. It will help you figure out what to focus on and what questions you need to answer.

If you have background/strength in some other area, consider making it your beat, even if it’s not what you want to do long-term. Having that expertise could set you apart during the job hunt.

As far as master’s projects go, I wish that before I’d chosen a subject on my own, I’d reached out to some editors and asked them, “What’s something you’ve been wanting to look into, but haven’t had the time and resources for?” Now that I’m turning around features on a much shorter timeline, I often find myself wishing I had six months to work on stuff, even though it felt like torture at the time.

Drink a lot of water and stay hydrated. Seriously. I always forgot to drink enough water. Make time to exercise–run, walk, play a sport–even if it’s just an hour a week. Anything to get you outside and out of the cubicles.

*Some entries may be edited for length.

Many thanks to my fellow j-school friends from the Class of 2016 for responding to my random Facebook post asking you to relive your j-school days (and nights) for this blog post. You all rock.

Book Review: “Fakebook,” Memoir of a Social Media Prankster

#DailyWings: “Social media has given us this idea that we should all have a posse of friends when in reality, if we have one or two really good friends, we are lucky.” -Brene Brown

Some of you may know that I spent the better half of my senior year in college writing an honors thesis on social media personas. The idea of online personalities has always intrigued me, ever since I discovered Neopets and realized I could build character profiles not only for the virtual pets, but also for myself as an online user.

In this millennium, it’s easier than ever for people to customize an identity for themselves through blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other online social tools, even cloaking certain sides of who they are (which may or may not be a subconscious act). In this way, social media acts as a “veil.” My thesis was about the bridge between bloggers’ online social media personas, the way their readers (“followers”) perceive them to be and how they view themselves.

I’ve been asked before, “Where did you get the idea for this thesis?” While my majors/genuine interest in journalism and psychology kept me interested in the topic for nine months, the idea itself started cooking after I randomly met a young nomad on campus the spring before senior year and then, around the same time, learned of a memoir called “Fakebook.”
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What I Learned From the April A to Z Blogging Challenge

#DailyWings: “Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.” -George Eliot

…and with that, April is over.

If you’ve been following my “Blogging From A to Z” adventures, you probably noticed that I totally bombed the challenge after the letter “L” (“H” if you don’t count the “IJKL” catch-up post).

Once my mid-April trip to a wedding in the mountains rolled around, time for blogging just went *poof* Really, I come back after being on vacation for two days and it takes a week to catch up with everything in life! By then, I had no idea how to get back onto the “A to Z” train (what can you abbreviate using MNOPQRST?).

Even though I didn’t reach the end of the “A to Z Challenge,” I have a lot to be thankful for and want to share my gratitude with the following groups of people:

Thank you to everyone who followed my “A to Z” anecdotal posts. I had SO much fun writing about my childhood, and loved reading the comments you all left me each day.
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April A to Z Blogging Challenge: F is For Fangirl

#DailyWings: “There are too many books I haven’t read, too many places I haven’t seen, too many memories I haven’t kept long enough.” -Irwin Shaw

Blogging From A to Z is an annual month-long challenge in which bloggers around the world are invited to write a blog post every week day for the month of April, with each day corresponding to a letter in the alphabet (26 week days = 26 letters). For this year’s A to Z challenge, my theme is personal anecdotes, or “childhood memories.”

In my last blog post, “E is for Eyes,” I mentioned that my sub-par vision as a kid was due to my tendency to stay up late and read books under the covers. Those adventures I embarked on with characters like Harry and Ron, Meg and Calvin and the worlds I discovered with them were sooo worth getting glasses (and even worth getting caught once in a while!). You know I just had to dedicate an “April A to Z” post to all of the books I loved to read as a child and made me fall in love for reading, writing and everything related to words.
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April A to Z Challenge Theme Release: Childhood Anecdotes as Literary Prose

#DailyWings: “The days are long, but the years are short.”
-Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know that I haven’t been blogging as much this month because I’ve signed up to participate in April’s A to Z Blogging Challenge! For this month-long blog event, “A to Z” bloggers are challenged to write a blog post every week day for the month of April, with each day focusing on a letter in the alphabet (there are 26 weekdays in April and 26 letters…get it?). This particular blog challenge, founded by, typically garners more than 1,000 participants. I’ve been following “A to Z” for quite a few years, but I haven’t had the courage to sign up until now.

For my own sanity, each “A to Z” blog post won’t exceed 500 words. My main goals for participating in this challenge is to 1) interact more with you all and the rest of the blogging community, and to 2) simply have fun writing.
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One Lovely Blog Hop: 7 Interesting Facts About Me

#DailyWings: “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.” -Kenneth Grahame

For those of you who are finally getting warmer weather, welcome to spring! I live in North Carolina and it’s been absolutely lovely the past couple days. At one point, the temperature dared to reach 71 degrees, with the sun’s rays peeking out from in between the clouds as if to ask permission. I took a walk.

If the area where you’re located is still trapped in cold winter, hang in there! I read that even the snow in Boston is starting to melt (finally). The good news is that Daylight Savings set our clocks forward on Sunday morning, which means many of us get to come home from work while it’s still bright outside.The time change has also seemed to (hopefully) kick me back into regular blog scheduling mode; the loss of a single hour’s worth of sleep this morning has reminded me of all the time that’s passed by since my last blog post.

What with the snow days, UNC’s spring break and the NC Fellows Final Interview Day, I’ve had to put my site updates on hold. I’m hoping to become more consistent with my blogging in the future, even if that means fewer blog posts per week (as opposed to week-long hiatuses). Thank you all for sticking with me during this weird transition between seasons!

I’ve got a fun blog hop for you all today. My good friend Sara Letourneau, who blogs regularly and writes fantasy, tagged me for the One Lovely Blog Hop. Here are the details for this hop:
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Want to Join an Online Writing Community or Initiative? Here Are 5 Opportunities to Check Out!

#DailyWings: “What is so marvelous about living today is that it is possible to extend, like a flower, spreading petals in all directions.” -Carolyn Kizer

One of my main goals for the year is to branch out as a blogger and participate in multiple writing initiatives within the blogging community. This month, I’ve extended my Internet “feelers” out and, after mustering up quite a bit of courage and swallowing my anxiety, joined a few blogfests and social media writing groups.

A couple of these writing communities are widely known among hundreds of bloggers, while others are newer or comprise a close-knit group of people who know each other very well. Joining them has been a little nerve-wracking. It’s like you’re back in high school and approaching the different social groups during lunch for the first time; you introduce yourself and wait for a response, unsure of whether or not you’ll be welcomed.

The difference between high school and these online writing communities, though, is that you will almost never be met with rejection from the writers (unless, of course, you’re a troll who just shares personal promotions everywhere). I’m incredibly excited – not just because I get to make new writer friends, but also because this is a chance for my blog to be a part of something that’s bigger than itself.
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Guest Post by Sara Letourneau: A Pep Talk for Slow Writers

Are you a writer who needs more time to put words on the page? Does your heart sink when you see tweets or Facebook statuses like “Squeezed in 600 words during my lunch break” or “Added 1000+ more words to my MS in 1 hour,” because it takes you longer to reach either milestone?

If you are, you’re not alone. I’ve run into the same situation many times. Belittling ourselves, however, doesn’t make us feel better about our “lack of speed.” What will is embracing our unique writing methods while recognizing what needs fine-tuning.

Below are various bits of advice about balancing productivity with individuality that I’ve collected over time. Some are suggestions from fellow writers. Others are lessons I’ve learned on my own. Regardless, I hope you find them as helpful or reassuring as I have.
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Blog Update: Email Newsletter, Bloglovin & Exclusive Content!

#DailyWings: ʺBooks are the carriers of civilization…They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.ʺ -Barbara W. Tuchman

I want to say “Welcome back, dears!,” but it’s really me who’s been gone since late January. A lot of both personal and work-related deadlines piled up on me at the last minute, so I had to take care of those. I’ve missed blogging, but I have planned out a busy editorial calendar this month so you can expect lots of great content coming soon! Thanks so much for your patience.

Believe it or not, even though I haven’t posted in a while, there have been several behind-the-scenes changes to the blog over the past couple of weeks. As the blog continues to grow, one of my main goals is to foster a community where we – you and I – can interact and keep in touch with each other in a myriad of ways. In addition to my contact form and social media networks, I’ve set up a few additional services to help you to stay up-to-date with the blog, with just a few easy action items:
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My Bucket List of Good Books to Read: The TBR Book Tag

#DailyWings:Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

 Back in November, I saw that my good friend and fellow fantasy writer Sara Letourneau had posted the To-Be-Read (TBR) Book Tag on her blog. It was so much fun reading her post that I knew I wanted to do it, too! Who says you have to be tagged in order to participate in a blog tag? ;)

I don’t read as much as I should or want to. There’s not much time during the day for me to read for pleasure. Luckily, that’s what my lunch breaks at work are for. Right now, I’m re-reading “Fakebook” by Dave Cicirelli, a memoir about a social media experiment that inspired my senior honors thesis, “Behind the Blog: The Connection Between Online Social Media Personas and Reader Perspectives” (but that’s a topic for another day). I’ve been reading 15 pages a day, which I’m proud of. I hope to maintain this stride for a long time.

Reading, like writing, is an action for which you need to invest lots of time. But it’s worth it. There’s nothing better than getting transported into another dimension of time and space whenever you want to, even if it’s in your mind. You make new friends with characters and even the authors who create them. You can travel, fall in love and live a thousand lives when you read books. To me, that’s a priceless gift.

Today, I present to you my book tag Q&A:
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