Every so often I’ll get an email from a college student or would-be writer asking for tips on getting started in journalism, and I feel like it’s the least I can do to answer them.
Trouble is, generally I can only offer one piece of advice: write loads of shit on the Internet and hope by some bizarre twist of circumstance someone picks up the phone and asks you to write some books / a newspaper column. That’s what worked for me – but I realise that, as practical career advice goes, it’s shit.
But this morning I received a slightly different request. An email from a Communication major at the University of California San Diego (Go, Tritons!) asking for my thoughts on the whole personal vs. professional blogging thang.
I quote (hoping she won’t mind)…
“Currently I do a lot of “lifestreaming” at my blog here [redacted] but I’ve been concerned lately about how that might affect my professional career, especially as I’m considering going into tech reporting.”
Well now. This may surprise regular readers but, not so very long ago, that question occupied my mind quite a bit. Not because I’ve ever really had any balance between my personal and – uur – professional life but because I didn’t used to be entirely comfortable with people who read what I wrote publicly, knowing too much about me privately.
Yeah, I know, stop sniggering at the back.
For years, I made sure there was very little personal stuff about me online – not so much as a photo – lest someone decide that by, I dunno, reading a newspaper column that I happened to have written they were somehow entitled to a window into my soul. I was also slightly paranoid that appearing anything less than professional would seriously damage my chances of getting work.
But that was then and this is now.
Now, I don’t give a shit. And the reason is simple: I made a serious decision not to.
I wasn’t entirely unprompted by circumstances – see The Book for some of the more salacious details – but sufficed to say, I thought long and hard before finally choosing to put myself out there, through the book and through the blog and through any other media I chose. To bulldoze the wall between the personal and the professional.
Now, having made that choice, if I want to write about the BBC’s digital strategy one minute and the pits of my alcoholic self-loathing the next, I can. I make no claim to be professional so it doesn’t matter. People know what to expect and their either hire me or they don’t based on that. If the writing stays decent and I hit deadlines, all is well; if not, I’m fucked. Apart from that, my time is my own.
Equally, if people want to criticize me online then – short of libel or hypocrisy – that’s their right. I won’t read it, of course, and I certainly won’t respond, but I’ll probably notice the bump in my Amazon ranking or RSS subscribers and I’ll smile a little smile. And then I’ll get drunk again and kill another puppy or whatever it is I supposedly spend my evenings doing.
But here’s the rub.
You knew there was a rub, right? Otherwise it wouldn’t be advice.
Since writing The Book, I’ve talked about this with several people in the same position as me; people who have either chosen to put themselves ‘out there’, or have previously written anonymously about their private lives and then were outed. The realisation is the same; this is the only job any of us will ever have from now on.
None of us will ever be able to run for Prime Minister, and we’ll always be ‘that guy’/’that girl’, for better or worse. Equally, it’s unlikely we’ll ever be a staff-writer for the Wall Street Journal or have a desk job of any sort. If we suddenly decided that we wanted a career in a big organisation, working up through the ranks to the boardroom – or if we suddenly decided that our privacy was hugely important to us – then there’s a very good chance we’d be fucked.
But that’s fine by us. We’ve made our choice. Now we make money just being ourselves. And when we’re speaking, drinking, fucking or thinking, we’re also working. It’s rather nice.
But if you’re not sure whether you want your life to be like that, especially if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a woman writing about a “man’s” world like technology then for God’s sake, keep your freaking head down.
People love a scandal; a secret revealed. If someone with a desk job is exposed as an unprofessional hopeless drunk, the revelation could easily be career wrecking. If a woman writing about technology doesn’t have skin as thick as a killer whale then the personal attention and criticism could easily be soul destroying.
It shouldn’t be like that for women, but it is.
So – yeah – this is my advice to the Communications major, such as it is…
If you do well as a writer, and live an interesting – and not entirely perfect – life, you’re going to put people’s noses out of joint. Otherwise you’re not doing your job properly. And when that happens, they’re going to come after you personally, especially online and especially if you’re a woman. If professionalism and social anonymity is your thing then you’ll want to make sure there’s as little ammunition out there as possible for them to throw in your face.
On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with attention, then the good news is that confident, smart women who can write and don’t fear the wrath of Valleywag will never struggle to get a gig. Look – for wildly different reasons, and yet broadly the same – at three examples from my own blog roll: Sarah Lacy, Zoe Margolis and Ruth Fowler. All write brilliantly, all get tons of personal crap thrown at them, mainly by jealous losers, and none will be going hungry any time soon.
That’s all I got. But let’s throw it open to the floor. If you’re a personal/professional blogger, send me your thoughts and I’ll post them soon.