a peek inside the fishbowl

23 Oct, 2015

One thing I never learned in J-school

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Publishing/writing/career stuff

I learned a lot about journalism when I was studying at Carleton. My four years there included a lot of communications theory but also a lot of very practical lessons in how to interview people and craft a story, but one of the most valuable things I learned about the interviewing and writing process didn’t happen during my time at school, it happened years after I left.

One of my first freelance articles was for a restaurant trade magazine. This was many years ago, but I was asked to cover a chef’s conference in Gatineau. I knew very little about food, and even less about the food scene. I was painfully aware that this article, seeing as it was for a trade magazine, would be read by people who know more than I will ever know about the business.

And so, with notebook and a pen (and about a dozen spares in my purse) I showed up at this conference. I was sick with anxiety, in fact, I arrived painfully early and hid in the bathroom for the first little while. After cowering in a stall for who knows how long, I gave myself scolding, sucked it up, and forced myself to march out into the conference. There was a huge escalator in the foyer – I remember all these men going up and down – almost immediately I fell into step with one of the few women who was there. Later on I sat down with her for a chat about the challenges of being a female chef in a male dominated industry. Surprisingly, it was pretty painless.

My biggest problem wasn’t my inexperience. I figured I could write something good, but I afraid of looking like a total idiot. And so, as I went around the room, I decided it was okay to admit that I didn’t know very much about the restaurant business. Amazingly, it worked. I’d walk up to someone and introduce myself as a freelancer working on an article for such-and-such magazine. Then I would ask them to tell me what was new, what it was like to be a chef, what conference sessions they were excited about, and what their biggest issues were in the restaurant business. I never pretended I knew about the industry, in fact, I said outright that I know next to nothing but that I was very interested. And you know what? Everyone I spoke to was so kind to me, and patiently explained what I needed to know. Everyone was cool, and I had no reason to be worried or afraid.

I’m had lots of time to think about my experience since then and I learned a couple of excellent lessons that day. (1) Never pretend to be smarter than you are. If you don’t know something, admit it, otherwise you run the risk of looking very foolish. (2) Most people are very happy to talk about themselves and about their passions. So if you ask good questions and pay attention, your story will practically write itself.


3 Responses to "One thing I never learned in J-school"

1 | Misty Pratt

October 23rd, 2015 at 1:23 pm


Great tips. I’ve researched a piece to death, only to realize the actual story has nothing to do with all my knowledge of the facts :) My job is to figure out an interesting story, and have other people teach me all about the subject! Not that I’m a journalist…just someone who loves the writing process!

2 | Cindy Graham

October 23rd, 2015 at 3:05 pm


Such good lessons for the writer, and anyone feeling anxious about showing up in a new and unfamiliar environment for any reason. I always enjoy your posts, Andrea, but this one will resonate with many, I’m sure.

3 | andrea tomkins

October 24th, 2015 at 9:26 am


Thanks guys. And Cindy, you are right. There are lessons here that definitely can extend to anyone in a new situation.

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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