7

I've asked the question a few times before about how to get published in newspapers and magazines, and the most common response has been, by far: "what are your qualifications to write about the piece?"

This had me interested.

What qualifications did Orwell have to write arguably the most famous essay of all time, "Politics and the English Language"?. He wasn't a linguist, nor a philologian. He was an Imperial Police Officer for the British empire. Imagine George Orwell pitching to the New York Times, and suppose their response:

"To whom it may concern,

I should like to write an article showing the nasty way in which the English language lives."

That would be the short version of it.

Imagine he didn't have any credentials at such a time, but wrote this as his first piece.

Assuming he got a response, which he would not, the editor should respond:

"What are your qualifications?"

"I am a police officer..."

End of emails.

What would his qualifications have been for writing about tea? I don't recall ever reading of him owning a tea shop. And what of his journalism in Wigan Pier? He hadn't trained under any journalist, nor did he go to journalism school, yet he wrote one of the most fascinating pieces of journalism ever written.

Do you suppose any newspaper would hire a non-graduate such as George Orwell to such an expensive story?

Nay, but they certainly boast about how incredible he was, and teach of his writings, which is horribly ironic, in my classes at university.

I'm curious if any editors here would even entertain reading a subject line such as "I have an article about tea."

George Orwell and P.G. Wodehouse, who was a banker, would be omitted entirely from our history if they were born recently rather than so many decades ago.

  • Actually, then and now, there's a substitute to professional reputation: Know someone who knows someone. Unfortunately I don't know if that was the case in the specific example you're asking about. – Peter Mar 9 '18 at 20:48
6

I think Orwell would still succeed.

For one, a century ago there were simply fewer qualifications to be had; and there has been massive "education inflation" since then; in the USA the number of Bachelor's degrees per capita has gone from about 4% in 1925 to over 30% today. Thus, what we would call "high school education" or "some college" (which Orwell achieved) was actually an elite percentage, equivalent (in percentage) to completing a Master's degree today. So really, Orwell was highly educated, for his time.

Also, Orwell was winning and placing highly in writing contests as a young teen; he won a half-price scholarship to a private school based on his father's personal contacts (his father was a writer) and his own writing ability (poetry), and Orwell was writing and publishing things long before he completed his education and went to Burma.

That route is still available today: For example, it is notoriously difficult to break into the screenwriting business, but there are at least three national screenplay contests in the USA that anyone can enter (with a full and completed screenplay), and the winner is definitely read by all the major studios, and almost always bought by one of them. Bingo, you've won a contest, sold a screenplay, and maybe it even got made. That's three credentials.

I imagine there are still contests like this for other types of fiction, short stories, etc. I recall buying a book of top-placing stories from such a contest; so there wasn't just one winner, but a dozen, and they got paid.

So like George Orwell, Win a contest or three, or in his case, come in second to your best friend: Orwell's best friend in school, Cyril Connolly, eventually became an editor and then published several of Orwell's essays.

So in the modern world, yes, a talent the magnitude of George Orwell would become famous and "get hired" or get published. Probably with a modern style and modern cultural sensibilities, of course. He could become known through winning contests; and there are many publishers for first time authors. As for essays specifically: It is not expensive in the modern world to start a blog and not difficult or expensive through social media (eg Facebook, Twitter) to become known for it; and virtually nobody demands your educational credentials before they deign to read. There are also many sites, e.g. Daily Kos and perhaps Huffington, that will take free contributions and would let a modern Orwellian talent quickly gather many followers, which are their own form of credential and a route to paid publication.

Venues that pay for pieces are nearly all for-profit enterprises interested in marketability, readers, some reason to believe people will like and read what they publish. So even if it is free; If a modern writer had millions of followers on twitter (Kim Kardashian has over 100 million), breathlessly waiting for their next installment, you can bet magazines would pay him for those essays, regardless of the author's education level.

| improve this answer | |
5

There is now and always has been a front door and a back door to every profession that is not government regulated. The front door is generally to go to school, get the appropriate qualifications, send in your resume, and hope for the best.

The back door is to know someone, to have a friend who knows someone, to meet someone at a party or a conference or a bar and hit it off, to be lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to get a story no one else has, to be famous for something else, or to be just plain brilliant at it so no one can ignore your work.

The back door is always the better way in. When people come to the back door with nothing to recommend them, they are invariably sent to the front door. Some do get in by the front door, to be sure. But the front door is really more about keeping the undesirables out. This is why the published qualification for most jobs are absurdly detailed and specific. No one could possible qualify, so we can justify turning away anyone we don't want.

Orwell was exceptional. Orwell would get in by the back door today, just as he would in any era.

| improve this answer | |
  • +1 but ... Not every profession anymore; at least in most Western countries you cannot be a lawyer or MD without credentials from a school with credentials (accredited), passing the bar or boards, etc. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 10 '18 at 11:07
  • @amadeus, which is why I said, every profession not regulated by the government. – user16226 Mar 10 '18 at 11:48
  • Ah. My mistake, sooorry! – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 10 '18 at 12:22
  • good explanation of the function of front-door requirements – michi Mar 11 '18 at 0:34
5

It's a simplistic answer, I know, but the qualification both Orwell and Wodehouse shared was that they were excellent writers.

There's a tendency to think of qualifications as pieces of paper issued by an academic body, but it's a much broader term. When the question comes up in an interview a skilled candidate can use it to show how they know they're good at what the job involves. A piece of paper from an academic institution is a nice shortcut, but it's not the only way to answer the question.

With academic study, the qualification is the time spent studying and the understanding of the subject obtained from that. The Degree (or other) issued is just an indication that this has happened. Any interviewer worthy of the name will not take a certificate as their only evidence of a candidate's suitability, and will ask questions to demonstrate understanding of the requirements of the job.

You've set up something of a strawman in the simple answers you've suggested Orwell might have given to the question. I think he would have played it differently and spoken evocatively about how his experiences had given him insight into language being used as a political weapon - proving his qualifications by an alternative method.

And if I was to say that a banker would have no knowledge of how the elite were more dependent on their servants than they might have wanted to think, I would expect people to look at me as if I was the smell of onions. [One for the Wodehouse fans out there...]

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.