For the next few Wednesdays, I'll be featuring writers I like and how they hone their craft, use the internet, get writing ideas from life, and rake in the dough.

During a journalism career that has spanned 40 years, Tom Walsh has worked as a front-lines reporter for newspapers and magazines in Chicago, New York, Dallas, Washington D.C. and, most recently, rural Maine. As an educator, he has taught journalism to both undergraduate and graduate students at colleges and universities in the United States and in Ireland, where he earned a master’s degree in science communications from Dublin City University in 2002. He's won numerous awards (34 actually) including some for his Ellsworth American investigative report series "Hard Look".
A native of the Midwest, Tom Wash now lives on the Maine seacoast, where he pursues his interests in astronomy, photography, sailing, kayaking, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, cooking and fiction writing.

You've been a journalist, a freelance writer, and now a communications person at a nonprofit. If people are considering any of these three careers (and the differences between them), what are the perfect traits/experiences of the kind of person who can work happily in these jobs?
All three fields require the basic skills of a journalist, including an ability to write clearly, concisely and correctly. These “three Cs” are the gold standard by which your work will be judged in any of these fields.
Front-lines community journalism requires two very different skills, and the best reporters do both of them well. First, you need to know how and where to collect information, which may involve research, interviews with knowledgeable sources, or, more typically, both. The second involves knowing what to do with the information once you have it, which includes mastery of grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (Can you name the parts of speech? Hint: there are eight.).

All three of these career fields also require you to work under deadlines, sometimes very short deadlines. The best reporters do their best work under time pressure. A freelancer won’t get another assignment if s/he fails to meet an editor’s deadline (I always submitted my freelance assignments weeks or months before they were due). A public information officer at a non-profit often has to work to meet a reporter’s deadline.

All three career paths require the ability to work on multiple projects simultaneously. What appeals to me most about the work I do is that no two days are alike. As a news reporter, there are days (and nights) when no two hours are alike, as events (a plane crash, a drowning, a school board meeting) often dictate what you write and when you write it.
We're talked before about freelancing not being a steady job. How were you able to ride the waves of varying income?
Freelancing is a tough gig until you’ve endeared yourself as a writer to a few clients with deep pockets and an endless supply of assignments. I would suggest that, in getting started, you work a “real” job part-time and freelance part-time. Or, work a “real” job full-time and freelance as you can find the time before or after work.

As you build a client base, you can jettison your “real” job and freelance full-time, which I did for about three years, mostly writing health and travel pieces for a number of different magazines that paid very well — $1,000/story. T

he key to getting assignments is having great story ideas and presenting those ideas in queries that reflect your enthusiasm for the topic and your understanding of the publication’s needs (Don’t suggest a feature on growing roses if that topic was covered in last month’s magazine). Queries are bait, and, if the editor bites, you need to agree to an editorial approach that meets his or her needs.

Once you get buy-in, get to work. Do not write one word without reaching this consensus and agreeing to a deadline and the amount of compensation you can expect. Ultimately, the key to getting subsequent assignments is writing great stories and delivering them on time. As for the income roller coaster, it can be a scary ride. One year I made $18,000. The next year I made $135,000, which included $31,000 for one major project that required 250 hours of research an writing.

If $125 an hour sounds like a lot, it’s not. The U.S. income tax system does not provide any incentives to be self-employed (as most freelancers are). In fact, it penalizes the self-employed. Your basic federal income tax rate goes up by 15 percent, as you, not an employer, are required to make quarterly Social Security payments. When prospective clients would balk at my hourly rate, I would explain that only half of that money winds up in my wallet. The other half is consumed by federal and state income taxes.
What's the craziest thing you've ever done to get a story right?
Not only was it crazy, it was illegal. I did a five-year stint as a bureau chief for a daily newspaper in a college town. The University of Iowa in Iowa City was deeply involved in space physics research and had been since the early 1950s. When the space shuttle Columbia was brand new, this team of UI scientists built a payload that would be flown into orbit by Columbia. 

I wrote quite a few stories about their work with NASA, and they invited me to tag along for the launch and the real-time data collection they would be doing at Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The paper agreed to foot the bill, and I flew to Houston the morning of the afternoon launch. I stashed my bags at a nearby hotel, grabbed a camera and my notebook and arrived at Mission Control within an hour of the scheduled launch.

I went up to the security desk and told the armed guard there that I was a reporter who needed to link up with the University of Iowa team. Not a chance, he said. Reporters are not allowed within Mission Control, he said, pointing on a map where the press center was located. I was pissed. I had just flown 1,000 miles to be with these Iowa scientists and report on their reactions to the launch and the performance of their instrument, and I couldn’t do that from a half-mile away. I also couldn’t call my editor and say “Guess what? I don’t have a story. They wouldn’t let me in.” With about 10 minutes until liftoff, I went into the men’s room, took off my dress shirt and went back to the same security area in a T-shirt, this time wearing sunglasses. “Hi,” I said to the same guard. “I’m with the University of Iowa team. Can you point me in their direction?” Amazingly, he did.

I arrived in their pod within two minutes of the launch. I had, in effect, snuck into one of the most sensitive government buildings in America under false pretenses. Wrote some great stories, too.
You've had quite a rich work experience. What life experience has most enriched your ability to write well? 
Two things, really. I suffer from a chronic mental illness that I call “terminal curiosity,” which is essential to being a journalist. Everything interests me (except math). And I’m a voracious reader of all things non-fiction. Over time, journalists and other writers become generalists; they know a little bit about a lot of things. The trick is knowing enough not to be dangerous, in terms of writing pieces that are shallow or, worse yet, down-right wrong.

The other experience involved a very solid grounding in two of the three R’s (I don’t do ‘rithmatic). I attended an elementary school that was language-centric. I spent years diagramming sentences and learning the endless nuances of the English language. Like golf or tennis or playing the piano (I do none of those things, by the way), writing is one of those skills that gets easier over time. The longer you do it, the better you get. As they say, there’s only one way to get to Carnegie Hall. Practice. Practice. Practice.
At one point in your career, you taught journalism in Dublin. Out of everywhere you could have gone, why did you choose Ireland? 
Ireland chose me, in effect. I was over there researching a historical novel in old dusty courthouses and library archives in Northern Ireland and stopped in Colraine to visit an old college friend who taught graphic design at a university there. He and I later took the train to Dublin, where he introduced me to a friend of his who, at the time, was the only PhD journalist in Ireland. He ran a journalism school at a new university, Dublin City University. We had a few pints at his local pub and compared career notes.

Before I left Dublin, he asked me if I would be interested in a teaching position. I had taught journalism at the University of Iowa some years earlier, as adjunct faculty, and really enjoyed teaching students how to write. It took a while to work out the logistics, but I taught at DCU for a semester, teaching  an introduction to journalistic writing course to freshmen and sophomores and a news writing course to graduate students. When the term was over, I was offered a tenured position on the faculty, but turned it down.

Dublin has its many charms, but it’s a city of more than 1 million souls. It’s crowded, noisy, polluted, expensive and hard to get around – all the things big cities can be. By then, I had lived and worked in Chicago, Dallas, New York and Washington, D.C. I had had my fill of cities. I subsequently spent two years earning a master’s degree in communications from DCU on a full-tuition scholarship – 30 years after receiving my bachelor’s degree.
I know you've been working on a historical novel for a while. Do you see it being published in the future?
No, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. I naively thought writing this book would be the hard part, not getting it into print. Wrong. Researching and writing it wound up being the fun part. Getting published proved to be the impossible part. There seems to be a Catch 22 in publishing: You can’t publish a novel unless you’ve published a novel.

I’ve learned that it’s very much a who-you-know network, even to hook up with a skilled literary agent, much less an enthused publishing house. I had an agent for a while, but he turned out to be an idiot. I haven’t given up, but the book’s been gathering dust now 12 years now. I’ll get back to it eventually. I’ve invested too much time and effort to just walk away from it.
Got any advice for the people out there who want to be writers but don't know how or where to start?
Get grounded in language. Read and re-read the writers whose work you admire. Take courses that require you to do a lot of writing, either in college or adult education. Ask the editor of your local newspaper (if you have one) if there’s anything you can do for him/her, and mention that the first one’s free.
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