Tools of the Trade, or Why You Need to Keep a Nail Clipper Handy at All Times

Journalism is an ancient profession dating back to the early heliomongrel days. (I made that word up, but it sounds old. Also, vaguely veterinarian.) Reporters tapped out articles using a stone tablet, which meant editors did not exist (air five, anyone?). Thankfully, as professions go, journalism has progressed to where it can now serve as an adequate form of income and not just an opportunity for people to flog you or hang you on a pole outside of their hut for making an error.

Still, for anyone new to the field, things can be a little daunting. Let’s say you have just registered for a blog. Now what? Do you buy a fedora and a spiral notebook? (No.) Do you start pelting Apple with e-mails asking if you can test an iPad? (Please don’t.) Do you take a speed-typing class so you can blog every 14 seconds about inane subjects? (Not really, but apparently people have done that.) It’s often hard to know exactly what you should do first – or second, after you have bought a MacBook.

I’m a big believer in mentoring, and by “big” I mean I have had too many tacos. Over the years, I have tried to aid the burgeoning career of young writers, mostly by telling them how incredibly difficult it is to get Apple to respond to my e-mails. I will admit I sometimes make up random tips to see if they have any discernment or wherewithal.

“Wait outside the office of the Microsoft PR organization. Pick out the oldest person in the group after they get done with a meeting, and slip them some money to see if they will tell you anything about the next version of Windows. Also, pant heavily even if you are not out of breath.”

A few have been arrested using this tactic. Some are still in prison.

I don’t claim to be an expert in the field. I think the Columbia Journalism Review is a gadget blog. Last week, I tried to explain what I do in professional terms to someone who was interested in getting a job at a nationally-known magazine or world-famous newspaper.

“I keep FedEx busy,” I said.


“In the last month, I purposefully tried to run a snowmobile out of gas to see whether the gauge was accurate, then I installed a thermostat in my hallway. One of my editors asked me to wear nail polish to test a laser keyboard for accuracy and to see if it reacted more to skin tone or finger movement (thankfully, my wife did that test). I wrote a review of the new Vampire Weekend. I played ping-pong with my son. He won.”


“I’m a professional router installer. My side job is writing about them.”


“I’m a whiz at processing e-mail.”

Shaking his head, he walked away with a look that would make the expression “deer-in-the-headlights” offensive to deer. He’s now planning for a future in social work or the legal profession.

But I’m here to help where I can. So I have decided to make a list of the tools you need if you have just started out in this wonderful line of work.

Here goes.

1. A good nail clipper

As Gandalf would say, keep them tidy, keep them trim. (I mean if he was talking about fingernails, not the the Ring of Power.) Amazingly, if you do trim your fingernails on a regular basis, you will find you can type faster and more accurately.

2. Extra seat cushions

They comes in handy. See, you will be sitting for long periods of time. Think: months. I have not moved from my chair since 2004. Once, when I was at the airport with my wife, I overheard a marketing executive describe to a colleague what it would be like to speak at an upcoming conference. He had two pieces of advice. First, he said, make sure you lead off with a joke. Second, speak loudly because most of the journalists are fat, tired, and old. I thought, my gosh he nailed it.

3. Coffee

I have been known to beg for free coffee on Twitter. I have even named specific brands. It is really more like a jet fuel for the mind, an elixir to stir up the mind and promote creativity. If you do not already drink coffee, please consider the field of law enforcement or retail sales.

4. Donuts

They kind of go with the coffee, right? In just about every movie I’ve ever scene where there is a journalist involved there is almost always a donut co-star. You’ll be working late at night, wishing you were doing some sort of investigative bio or uncovering a secret criminal conspiracy and not live-blogging a Samsung event. Donuts help.

5. A time machine

These help with deadlines. Check with Iran, they just invented one.

6. Wikipedia

This is one of your most indispensable tools. There are millions of people involved with the site and they all have advanced degrees, at least if you consider “having a Gmail account” an advanced degree. Some of this encyclopedia is accurate. Part of the joy of using it is discovering what was written by a professional ghost writer on behalf of the profile subject and what was written by a monkey with a good spell checker.

7. Beer

8. A dictionary

Spelling is kind of importent.

9. A large mirror

A like to keep one of these so I can check and see if I’m still breathing. Yup, we’re good. Pressed up against a tight deadline, like a baboon with his face plastered against a glass wall, I like to check and see if all the blood has drained out of my head. Once, I was working so late and typing so fast, I didn’t notice I had fallen asleep. When I woke up, the article I was working on was better than most of the stuff I do when I’m awake.

10. Sigur Rós

I hate to think of this Icelandic band as a “tool” – especially when there’s another band with that name. But having a droning percussive ambient rock band handy is good for your productivity level. Also, they sing in gibberish so it’s not distracting like, say, punk rock or Bob Dylan.

Any other tips? Let me know by e-mail.


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