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Breaking into Journalism with Guest Judge Melinda Wenner Moyer

The key to journalism is finding stories that need to be told and choosing the best angle to report on. “Story ideas, regardless of their scope, often stem from a reporter’s curiosity. Keep your eyes and ears open, and trust yourself,” says journalist and writer Melinda Wenner Moyer, Guest Judge for our July Journalism Competition.

Read on to learn more about different paths into the journalism industry, pitching to publications, and how to write a stellar competition entry.

Melinda Wenner Moyer

Breaking into the journalism industry can feel like a black box. What are some paths into journalism, and which one did you take?

There are so many paths to journalism; every journalist has a different origin story. One is not better than any other. I realized I wanted to be a journalist when I was 25 and was working in marketing for a biotechnology company. As part of my job, I wrote articles for the company’s sales magazine and I realized that I loved writing about trends in science. I applied to a handful of master’s programs and ended up getting my degree from NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (where I’ve recently taught, too). To share a contrasting story: My husband, also a science journalist, does not have a journalism degree. He started out as an intern at Popular Science magazine and learned on the job. He’s now a deputy editor at Quanta Magazine

This competition asks young writers to write about a newsworthy issue or event close to home. Where and how do you find story ideas?

I don’t write a lot of local stories (though I do occasionally contribute to my small-town newspaper). But story ideas, regardless of their scope, often stem from a reporter’s curiosity. Keep your eyes and ears open, and trust yourself. If you hear about or observe something interesting happening in your community, that could be the beginning of a story. Anything that makes you think, “Hmm, I want to know more about this.” Especially when there’s conflict involved — different opinions, different perspectives — and/or a compelling central character through which you can tell a story. Think about how the event or development relates to larger issues, too. Could your story be a microcosm of something much bigger? 

You’ve written for a lot of different publications! What is the process for pitching major publications? Any tips for where a new journalist might get started?

The process for pitching major publications like The New York Times or The Atlantic is not that different from pitching much smaller publications (like my local paper). I typically send an email to the editor of the section I’m pitching, introducing myself and sharing a sentence or two about my background if I have never been in touch with them before. Then, I jump into the meat of the pitch.

The goal is to get across what the story and its angle is, why it’s relevant to the publication’s audience, and why it deserves to be covered right now (the “news hook”). Try to be engaging but concise, doing your best to match the voice and tone of the publication. Be sure to pitch a story with an angle — not just a topic! — and report the angle enough in advance that you have a sense of what your overarching point or argument will be. “I’d like to write about spongy moths” is a topic. “I’d like to write a story about whether or not spongy moths will ruin our local forests” is a topic with a possible angle that hasn’t yet been reported out. “I’d like to write a story about the local scientist who has uncovered evidence suggesting that spongy moths could help fight climate change with their poop” is a story, and one I would love to read if it were true (sadly, I’m guessing it’s not). 

In addition to writing articles, you’re currently working on your second book. What is the book-writing process like? For someone who writes about a lot of different things, is it weird to dive so deeply into just one subject?

The book-writing process largely depends on the book! Some books involve a lot of travel; my books have involved very little. Some books focus on a single idea or argument; my books have centered around a single framework, but with each chapter covering a distinct topic. Some books are narrative-driven; my books are service-oriented, meaning they include lots of explanation and advice. Just as there are lots of different types of journalistic articles, there are lots of different types of books, and thank goodness for that.

I will say, book writing is very different from newspaper and magazine writing. It’s largely a solo endeavor, and one that requires lots of self-discipline because nobody is looking over your shoulder and making sure you’re doing what you’ve promised. I’m now 65,000 words into my book draft, and I haven’t shared a single word of it with my editor yet.

What are you looking for in a winning entry? Any other advice for the writers, especially those who are new to journalism?

There’s no one winning formula for good journalism. But I will certainly be looking for thoughtful reporting and clear, concise writing. I hope to be moved in some way, too — perhaps the winning entry surprises me, makes me think differently about something, makes me smile or frown, or takes me on a journey. 

My advice for new writers: keep writing! The more you write, the better you will get. Read a lot and analyze — what makes pieces compelling versus boring, convincing versus farfetched? Connect with other writers and editors. And when you’re hired for a story, do your best to be easy to work with and reliable. That’s just as important as (if not more important than) the quality of your reporting and writing.

About the Guest Judge: Melinda Wenner Moyer is a contributing editor at Scientific American magazine and a regular contributor — and former columnist — at The New York Times. Her first book, How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes, was published in July 2021 and won a gold medal in the 2022 Living Now Book Awards. She traveled to Guinea-Bissau for a Scientific American story that was featured in the 2020 Best Science and Nature Writing anthology. A feature she wrote about factory farming and antibiotic resistance in 2017 was a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and a story she wrote about the public health effects of gun ownership, which involved a road trip through the Deep South, won the 2018 Excellence in Reporting Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Melinda has been a featured guest on many local and national radio shows and news networks. She has a master’s in Science, Health & Environmental Reporting from NYU and a background in cell and molecular biology. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, two children, and her dog.

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