Clippings: On writing for myself — and others

Lots of ink has been spilled defending the belief that today’s young people are meaningfully different from the generations that came before them — the idea that smartphones, reality television and campus protest culture have stunted millennials’ growth, and rendered them vain and oversensitive. Count me as one young person who finds that narrative overblown.
In most respects, I’m skeptical of the idea that much of substance separates my behavior from that of my elders — or that there’s anything negative about the differences that do exist. Yet as an aspiring journalist, one nagging insecurity has followed me for awhile — an insecurity that, I have to admit, seems related to my modern, social media-heavy upbringing. It’s about my inability to follow one of the oldest writing adages there is: to “write for yourself.”
Listen to any accomplished writer look back on their career, and it’ll probably be among their first pieces of advice. To develop your own authentic voice, after all, you can’t be reliant on pleasing a captive audience. Instead, you must practice writing for its own sake, focusing on the ideas and stories that actually matter to you. If your interest is genuine, and your dedication is real, they say, it will come through in your finished product.
This is advice I’ve failed to heed. On every website where I’ve ever published content, I’ve been able to track feedback from my peers in real-time: view counts on YouTube, upvotes on Reddit, likes on Facebook and Instagram. The gratification has been instant; the quality of my work has been quantifiable.
Then, six weeks ago, I arrived at the Independent. I’d already practiced some print journalism through my work at The Campus, Middlebury College’s student newspaper, but that was different. At school, copies of our newspaper litter the dining hall tables; the people we write about are students and professors who we walk past each day. The feedback, in other words, is almost as immediate as it would be online. At the Addy Indy, by contrast, the people I’ve covered are strangers to me, as are the vast majority of our several thousand readers. Although I see my name in print several times each week, writing stories has felt a bit like shouting into the void. Paradoxically, although this is without question the largest audience I’ve ever had, I’ve never been more clueless about who’s reading my writing, or what they think of it.
And, I’ve realized, that’s allowed me to write for myself in a way I never have before. Covering FDA maple syrup regulations, or chain-link fence art, or a TV-watching duck in Monkton, I harbored no illusions that legions of my Facebook friends would catch wind of my groundbreaking work and start singing my praises. Instead, I can jot down words unselfconsciously, focusing only on the nuts and bolts of effective journalistic writing: crafting an interesting lede, integrating quotes, conveying the information fairly and accurately.
And that’s why it was jarring when, the other day, I learned that a story I’d written on Bristol’s Old Farts Club had reached almost 6,000 people over the Independent’s social media channels, several hundred of whom had shared or reacted to it as well. No doubt, this is thanks to the Old Farts themselves, who are beloved figures in the area. But for me, it was an important reminder that the audience for the Independent is very real indeed, even if the effects of our stories aren’t always immediately visible.
I’m not just writing for myself, of course, but for the thousands of others who call this county home. Print journalism has shown me that you can do both at the same time — even the world’s best social network could never have taught me that.
Summer intern Nick Garber is a rising senior at Middlebury College.

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