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Society of Environmental Journalists conference 2010: what children’s writers can learn from SEJ

Cheryl's Musings: Society of Environmental Journalists conference 2010: what children’s writers can learn from SEJ

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Society of Environmental Journalists conference 2010: what children’s writers can learn from SEJ

photo (2)I just finished my time at the 2010 SEJ (Society of Environmental Journalists) conference. My head is spinning with information and ideas—a good sign, since I wasn’t sure whether to come to this conference. I mean, look at the title: Society of Environmental JOURNALISTS? I don’t think of myself as a journalist: I’m a writer. A children’s writer, a medical writer, a science writer, a nature writer—but not a journalist.

This conference made me question that assessment of myself. I write for magazines (journals); I do interviews and research; I fact check and look for bias. My first day here, a fellow attendee quizzed me on what kind of writing I do. When I finished, she said “I think you are a journalist. You just don’t know it.”

It’s an interesting question, because in the past few days I learned that journalists receive different training than “writers” do—and I think we writers (yes, even children’s writers) can learn a thing or three from them. Here are a few for starters:

  • Journalists don’t let sources review their articles after writing. Okay, I’m not completely convinced this is the way for children’s writers to go, since we generally don’t write controversial pieces; but it’s worth giving some thought. As writers, we don’t want our sources to change their quotes to make themselves sound better or to backpedal and say something less opinionated (and possibly inflammatory). On the flip side, I always give my science pieces to the researcher I’m covering so he or she can check it for accuracy. The magazines I write for want to know that the articles have been fact-checked and would prefer not to have to do the footwork to get that done.
  • Journalists have access to a vast network of resources for when they have to write a piece quickly. The SEJ listserve is a treasure trove of experts—other writers—who can point fellow members in the right direction when they need help or connections. I’ve been impressed with the openness and warmth of this group, too. They remind me of children’s writers…<grin>
  • Journalists expect people to talk to them. Maybe it’s because they write so many different things and often need to turn a piece around quite quickly. I noticed this before when journalist-turned-children’s writer Liz Rusch spoke at my local SCBWI conference, and noticed it again at this conference. Many children’s writers seem to be shy about bothering people, asking for expert opinions, asking for interview time—and we need to get over it. It’s not just that
    “most people are willing to talk to children’s writers” (the usual advice I’ve heard, at least) but that we’re doing important work. Scientists and researchers, especially those receiving public funding, should be willing to communicate with writers about their work.

I’ve learned so much over the past few days that it will take me a while to process everything. I’ll share more as I do. But to sum up: am I glad I came to this conference? You bet! Not only that, but I’d highly recommend this organization and its annual conference to anyone who writes nonfiction for young people. I’m planning to see you all there in Miami in 2011!


PS: Above is a picture of me with my friend and freelance writer extraordinaire Wendee, who encouraged me to check out SEJ and come to this year’s conference.

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