My road to becoming a weekly columnist for the Beaufort Island Newspaper has been a long and often surprising adventure. From a high school storyteller, to an Army pilot who wrote dozens of professional articles, to writing proposals and every kind of business-related plan, I never thought of myself as a writer but rather a person who writes as an important part of my work.
In my career, I’ve written business plans, lesson plans, practical exercises, and dozens of other things required in the business and education fields. Yet I did not consider myself a career writer or even a good writer. After founding three successful small businesses and serving as a police officer, I began to believe that maybe I could eventually write something newsworthy, educational, and valuable for the public.
After five decades of working and writing, I slowly became aware that, even without a degree in journalism, I might be able to become a novelist, newspaper columnist, and a small publishing company owner. I retired in 2014 from the aerospace and defense industry and founded Tigers, Vikings, and Vipers Publishing LLC – the tiniest publishing firm in the world. I published my first military history and action novel, “Blades of Thunder (Book One)”, in 2014, and I have been a freelance weekly newspaper columnist for the Island News since 2020. My columns cover veterans’ benefits, leadership, law enforcement, hospice, end-of-life planning, and employment.
I have thirteen pieces of advice to share with other veterans seeking to become writers and journalists.
1. Follow your bliss.
I love to help other writers, but warn them that while advice is easy for anyone to give, it is much harder for the receiver to select what suggestions are worth remembering. The one piece of advice I feel is unquestionably good is for people to do what they enjoy doing, so long as they can also support themselves and others for whom they are responsible at the same time. If writing is your bliss, then learn about writing – read, take courses in writing, read, practice writing, read, pursue writing, read, practice, read – and never give up.
2. Do not forget to meet your other obligations.
Writing is in competition with my family, my dog, exercising, my weekly columnist duties and deadlines with the Island News, my house chores, and my other tasks and responsibilities. It is so easy to justify not having time to write or market your writing. The bottom line is writers need to eat healthily, exercise, pay their rent, have medical insurance, have reliable transportation, and support their significant other if they have a spouse, partner, or children. So, until your writing generates enough income and security, you will probably need to hold other jobs to “get by” while working to become a successful journalist.
3. Be honest, ethical, kind, understanding, compassionate, accurate, and fair.
Journalists should never forget that their first obligation is to tell the truth. I try my best to seek reliable and accurate facts when I am writing. I also do my darndest to write in terms that can be fully understood and assessed by my audience. Being as transparent as possible about sources and methods is also essential in journalism. Maintaining allegiance to the audience and to the truth should not be forgotten.
Although it may not always be possible to avoid hurting feelings or publishing something that may prove to be less than totally accurate, I firmly believe that journalists must do their best to be as kind, compassionate, ethical, factual, understanding, and honest as possible. Journalists can accomplish much of this by being straightforward when presenting evidence, facts, and sources.
4. Avoid propaganda, advertising, fiction, sensationalism, and entertainment.
Journalism is storytelling with a constructive purpose, not fiction or advertising. Yet journalists are not free of bias. To counter their biases, journalists must strive to use objective methods, like consistent testing of information, in every part of their research. They must also represent interviews accurately, as interviews are essential in journalism.
5. Serve as a fearless and selfless independent monitor of power.
Remember that honest journalists are one of the best and perhaps the most important checks on those most powerful in society. In the USA, we journalists are what I call the fourth check on the powerful. The branches of our government and our citizens need a free press to keep evil in check. We are counted on to ensure those with the most power, be it of numbers, wealth, or other factors, are held accountable.
Journalists must serve as an honest and ethical watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. We must be the trustworthy voice for (and to) everyone, especially the voiceless and weakest members of society.
6. Write about what you know – it’s easier (but not easy).
I find that writing about what you know about and are interested in is easier than covering other topics. For me, that’s writing about:
- Leadership, military science, and my experience in Vietnam and Iran;
- Helping veterans and their families;
- Hospice and end-of-life planning;
- Aeronautics and logistics;
- Law enforcement and the challenging and often dangerous work police officers do;
- Business Process Re-engineering and Lean Six Sigma; and
- My childhood experiences growing up in rural South Carolina and the beautiful and historic city of Charleston.
7. Writing about what you do not know is not that hard.
Even with the above point, my advice is not to fear writing about things you don’t know. It only takes research, interviews, observations, and patience to write about subjects in which you are not an expert. A common saying in the industrial sector is, “Even people who know nothing about a process can observe the process and see things that others who work there every day cannot see.”
Honestly, I find out every time I write that I do not know enough about the subject, no matter what experience and credentials I possess before I start writing!
8. Write every day, at the same time, and turn off your cell phone.
Write in the morning while you are fresh and not tired or stressed. Use an outline (if you prefer) to plan your article. Make notes on the details and ideas you have when looking for ideas. Practice being courageous and exhibiting contagious enthusiasm for your work. Just start writing.
9. Do not think about your talent or capability.
Talent, skill, and capability will come with time. The most important part is to get started and keep your hands writing or typing. Use the five W’s of answering who, what, when, where, and why to help you develop your story.
10. Develop a journalist tool kit.
This kit might include a dictionary, a thesaurus, a notebook, and all the best articles and books on writing you can find and read.
11. Join professional writing organizations aligned with your interests.
Military Veterans in Journalism (MVJ), Military Writers Society of America (MWSA), American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), America Press Institute (API), Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), and others are a goldmine of helpful information, education opportunities, advice, grant opportunities, conventions, and more.
12. It is possible to make a living with writing.
You do not have to write a best-selling book to become a successful author, nor do you need to be a journalist for a large newspaper to make a living as a writer. There are almost limitless opportunities for journalists to supplement their income as a small-town newspaper contributor, a freelance writer, a proofreader, and any number of other jobs while they’re working toward making writing sustainable.
13. As a veteran, you can bring good things and a unique view to journalism.
About seven percent of the US population living today has served in the US Military. I believe veteran perspectives are important in each field of journalism because:
- Veterans were taught to focus on attention to detail and journalistic writing demands details and facts. We are self-disciplined to follow proven processes and objective methods that lead to successful results.
- Veterans believe that the past is our heritage, the present is our challenge, and the future is our responsibility.
- The vast majority of veterans are honest, ethical, moral, and hard-working men and women who have been ambassadors of goodwill in each country where they were stationed.
- Veterans bring a unique view of the world to journalism – a view based on both civilian and military education, vast amounts of training, frequent world travel, a pledge to selfless service, an oath of allegiance to the United States of America, and a broad view of the tragedy and insanity of war.
- Veterans are among the only few Americans who have seen the challenges of starvation, illiteracy, rampant lawlessness, brutality and dishonesty, terrorism, and a myriad of other challenging circumstances.
- Few citizens have seen the importance of our alliances and partnerships with other countries like our military members.
- Veterans have worked alongside other government departments to provide disaster relief and uphold the national defense. Veterans have worked frequently with the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce, and many other parts of our federal and state governments.
The Bottom Line of My Experience, Observations, and Advice
Get as much education as you can in writing and English. Recognize you are not free from bias. Be transparent, fearless, and honest. Be selfless, enthusiastic, kind, compassionate, and empathetic in your writing. Write like crazy. Interview and ask all sides for their comments and observations. Do not just write about problems and failures, but also write about successes. Be a faithful and courageous watchdog and, finally, do not let self-interests compromise your work.