Writing environment: the basic things

My year in Lithuania. Image by Kristina Simonaityte.

My year in Lithuania. Image by Kristina Simonaityte.

My year at Grynas.lt and at home in Lithuania is coming to an end. (I’m leaving for Masters in the Netherlands – more on that in future posts!) So this is going to be the last instalment in my short series about environment writing. For now. I say this because recently, when I’ve been telling people about my imminent departure, everyone’s asking if I keep writing. And I usually say yes – I do enjoy writing very much. There is something very satisfying to be able to lay down your swirling thoughts on paper/screen, while also learning new things yourself and improving the knowledge of others along the way.

That said, recently I’ve been reflecting a lot on this past year (probably not surprisingly) – was it a good idea to do what I did, did I invest my time and skills wisely, what new things did I learn.

First, I don’t think I’ll ever write as intensively as I did throughout this year. If you take away all the foreign news pieces that I did and worked on most of the days, there still were about one hundred longer, original reporting and investigative articles – so that’s on average 1 in less than 4 days. Which is still pretty crazy, I think! And I normally like to take my time with the text. I mean, I reread even my Facebook messages numerous times before posting, while a rare post for EcoPost is a result of, say, one or a few days work. More like weeks lately.

But I think that overall it did turn out alright.

Most of all because I got to meet and interact with so many very interesting people: I interviewed dr Birutė Galdikas, the orangutan expert; there are contacts of at least four different ornithologists on my phone, all very passionate and well-spoken people; I talked with environmentalists, climate scientists and foresters of Lithuania and one international climate change policy expert; I also interviewed some unexpected people – an owner of exotic spider shop, a keeper of traditional Lithuanian sauna, a maker of Lithuanian souvenirs from old basketball balls, an inventor of electric bicycle system, an insect photographer, a designer creating moss-powered batteries – and many many others, not to mention all the people I talked to for just a few minutes on the phone or exchanged quick email communications on a specific question.

My very last interview was especially rewarding. A few months ago a British expat, now living in Lithuania, posted on his Facebook wall a link to a newest touristy infographic on Lithuania saying that it’s completely rubbish and the things that Lithuanians think are interesting about their country are actually totally useless in attracting visitors. That was followed by a discussion with hundreds of comments – including one on how Lithuania has this brilliant nature and wonderful bird diversity at which birders from the UK and other Western European countries “would be licking their lips”1. There was also a name included, a person to be googled if interested in this particular topic.

It turned out to be another British expat residing in Lithuania and also an ornithologist (and just wildlife phanatic in general). That was enough to get me hooked.

A few days later I went on holiday but the thought of contacting the guy kept nagging me – and so I did right upon my return. It took some time for everything to come together (when I emailed him the very first time he was away in Central Asia) but I am very proud of the result and really enjoyed the whole of our interaction. The best bit: he has a wildlife reserve2 here – a private initiative like that in Lithuania is pretty much unimaginable, which makes it that much cooler. If I don’t get to publish our interview in English somewhere, here’s Jos some time ago talking about his reserve and how it came about.

As far as I can remember there was only a few occasions when these interactions weren’t pleasant. And yet I could still learn something from them.

Once the person on the other end, well, not yelled at me but, let’s say, got really frustrated with my questions. “Why do you assume this?! Are you an expert on this topic?!!” I, of course, am not an expert on moose population and management, but I’ve done my research (or as much as possible). If you think that the conclusions I’ve drawn based on the evidence available (most of it provided by your institution) are wrong, please do say so, I’m calling after all to hear your position on the matter – that’s basically what I said to her outburst. Our conversation then continued with her replying properly, however, I was still a bit shaken by the whole thing and barely followed it – I did actually think I was somehow in the wrong here.

Though, later upon listening to the recording of our conversation4 I could hear and feel how after my comment her whole stance changed. The fact that I did research the topic and looked up this and that and could argue my case and the question made that big a difference. A really small thing but it was pretty awesome.

***

Because of the work’s intensity and tight deadlines (and aforementioned liking of sitting on the text for as long as possible) I wouldn’t always be happy with the result. Actually there were many cases where I would think, it’s not that simple or there are many different sides to the story or it’s not all pros or I could definitely use one more opinion…

There was this example with biofuel crops. I went to an event at our Botanical Garden – they were unveiling a new and extensive exhibition of various plants that could be used to produce energy. I had to turn the text in very quickly afterwards and just didn’t have time to properly discuss the issues with biofuels. I also don’t know enough about it/haven’t studied the topic for a while to write a convincing paragraph just from the top of my head. And that was something that was bugging me later and that was something that I thought should have been included – to give the whole picture, which should always be considered.

A few more things. I normally email the links to the articles after they are published to people I interviewed. (So many emails! So many very interesting conversations!) They usually write me back to say their thank-yous and sometimes comment. And for me, it’s their opinion that always matters the most. If I were ever to meet these people somewhere on the street, I need not to be embarrassed by my writings.

Once I got a reply so nice that it nearly made me cry. (And the article topic was electric cars in Lithuania, of all things!) After emailing their replies to my questions, they asked me if I could send the article for them to check3. But I already had my deadline extended two, if not three times, so I submitted it to my editor right away but also emailed them explaining the situation.

After the article was published they wrote that they were very happy with it and that it was clear that there was no need to look it over beforehand. What they meant: I appropriately incorporated their quotes and while rephrasing some parts didn’t lost the original meaning. But these are the most basic things! Of course I would do it that way, no intention of trying to make it into something they didn’t mean, twist their words. But they clearly had such experience(s) before, which saddens and yet, given my experience, doesn’t surprise me at all.

As for another kind of comments, I almost never read the ones under my articles. Since they are all anonymous, people can get so mean and I usually don’t feel like learning how stupid, illiterate and useless I am – yes, the comments are like that even under articles on environment topics, go figure. Of course, occasionally you get constructive and valid criticism, but for those few gems it’s just not worth reading through all the sludge. Plus many people don’t even seem to bother reading the text, headline is perfectly enough.

And talking about headlines… Editors very rarely go with the ones that actually say what the text is about. Usually it turns out to be something really embarrassing, sadly. I talked about this in the previous part – you know, the awful click-baity type of titles that you just can’t help but click and then hate yourself afterwards for falling for that. Every. Single. Time!

However, I think that at least with most of my articles, or really the articles in our whole section in general, people get decent journalism on the other end of that rabbit hole (if they bother to read it that is, and not just go straight to the comments). Thankfully, I needed to actually complain about the title only once – as it was an outright lie. But normally, I just shake my fist, yell frustrated “Argh, stupid headline!” and move on.

***

In the first part of this series, after good four months of working, I observed that all in all I make an awful journalist:

You know why? Because most situations make me uncomfortable! That’s just how I am. I imagine journalists being all up in your face, having no shame, asking the most ridiculous questions because people are interested in that sort of thing.

However, throughout the year I realised more and more that I think the state of our media would be much better off if more journalists would be “awful” in this way too5. You know, all the things I said above about research, and thank-yous, and not twisting words, and sensible titles. And fewer ridiculous questions – our audience is much smarter than this.

And as for me, I hope in the future I’ll also get to write for other and more diverse outlets in Lithuania but maybe possibly abroad as well. And hopefully will also have plenty of time to really work on the text.

I wrote so much about myself, I feel like I should reward you for reading this far with some tips – both on how to get into writing but also what to keep in mind when already doing it.

Tips!

  • Don’t be afraid to email and ask about an internship or paid position even if one is not advertised – you never know, they might be so impressed that you might be offered a full-time position in no time ;)
  • Practice calling. This sounds a bit silly but nowadays people interact mostly through writing – I know a lot of people my age who hate calling or are even terrified by it. But it’s still a very important skill to have and calling is often much faster than email – and time is key when you’re a reporter.
  • Hone your Google skills. I can’t stress enough how important this is. You’d think that everyone knows how to google but that’s not the case – you really have to know how to search for something fast and effectively.
  • Be resourceful. It’s not just the search engine, there’s so many other important online tools. For example, opportunities to exploit many more news outlets through translating options. Also be able to exploit, other, non-online resources.
  • Fact checking and spelling. Don’t be sloppy. Making sure that what you write is accurate and mistake-free is essentially the main thing of your job – I’ve seen way too many really stupid errors that could have been easily avoided.
  • Research well. Writing on any topic you always need to be objective. Don’t trust a single source, whether interviewee or press release. Make the story as personal and relatable as possible but don’t lose the big picture (especially important when talking about global issues, e.g. climate change)!
  • Don’t be afraid to pitch ideas. If you write only occasionally, being published and read might, for example, help you land a job. If it’s already your day job, it’s important to write about things you care about yourself – it’ll be more interesting for the readers as well.
  • Always be on the lookout for ideas, possible topics, people to interview. For me Facebook and Twitter were invaluable sources in this regard. See the example above about the British ornithologist but there were many many more! You never know.         

1 This was a quote from Jos’ interview :)

2 Of course, it doesn’t have any legal protection from the state, calling it wildlife reserve just for convenience. 

3 Can’t wait to delete the call recording app from my phone!

4 A lot of people actually ask that, however, we in general are not very keen on doing this – I complied just a few times, mostly for my benefit, to make sure I got everything right, see embarrassment part.

5 Of course, there are good journalists in Lithuania, people I really admire, but in general situation is pretty icky at the moment.  And of course, in no way I am claiming to be a very good reporter myself – I don’t think that my style improved a lot over the year, it still feels somewhat wooden. In these blog posts in English or the letters I used to write to my family while I was living abroad I’m much more relaxed and lively. But then again, my job wasn’t writing opinion columns either, so maybe that’s OK.

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