interview erin mundahl writing

Writing for a Living: Interview with Erin Mundahl

Since graduating from Hillsdale College in 2014, Erin Mundahl has worked in different angles of the news industry, both print and online. Immediately after graduation, she interned for a website called Red Alert Politics, which focuses on political news for a younger audience. She then interned at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, before leaving for a journalism fellowship at The Weekly Standard. Currently, she is a reporter for InsideSources, a start-up news website. She also enjoys freelance writing, since it allows her to cover stories that might not be the best fit at her current publication.

What was it like transitioning from writing Hillsdale essays to writing for your job?

Each of the places I have written for has a slightly different audience and focus, which in turns affects the style of the writing I do for them. Oftentimes this is a subtle shift though. At Hillsdale, you wouldn’t turn in the same style of paper for a Biology class as you would for an English course. Writing outside of the academic world is similar in that sense. At the Business Journal, pieces were quite short (generally less than 400 words) and kept to a strict “inverted-triangle” form. All of the important information was in the first two sentences, with the less-essential details following after. By contrast, the Weekly Standard, as a magazine, has more room for pieces based on style.

Although there are some stylistic differences between academic writing and journalism, for the most part, these changes are easy to make. It’s natural to change your tone between writing an email to a friend and writing a paper and the shift between academic and non-academic writing feels similar. The biggest difference is turn-around time. Right now, I need to write a story a day, which means not only writing, but also research and sourcing out new ideas. The ability to sit down and finish 500 words very quickly is essential in a way that it wasn’t during my time at school.

What is your writing process?  How do you get from a blank page to a finished piece?  What do you do to overcome writer’s block?

Perhaps to the chagrin of writing teachers, I don’t generally outline on paper. Many of my pieces start from questions I have about an event or what someone said. These aren’t just “was this factual?” questions, but also include additional background: Has anyone else said something like this? Has there ever been a similar situation? What happened then? Generally that research uncovers some angle or story that I think is interesting. I try to make my piece then highlight those elements.

In the journalism world, this is the point to also let your writing “show” conclusions rather than “tell” them. While opinion journalism has its place, it’s important to be able to showcase facts. If your conclusion makes sense, the reader will arrive there without your having direct opinion. One interesting example of this is this 2010 article about rapper M.I.A.’s activism for the Tamil Tigers. Although the writer never says the rapper is out of touch, the details about what she orders during their interview proves the point.

As far as writer’s block, a lot of it can be avoided, for me, by being willing to write out of order. If I do start to feel stuck, I try to jump in on the most interesting detail. That probably won’t be the first paragraph, but once I get started, I find it easier to move things around.

What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started working to improve your writing?

I think that the trickiest thing for me to learn was the art of the lede. A lede isn’t the headline, but rather that first catchy sentence that introduces the topic in such a way that the reader knows what is happening and wants to keep reading. Unlike an introductory paragraph though, it needs to do this in one or maybe two sentences. I had to write a lot of stories before I got a feel for the directness of a good lede.

I guess that means: practice writing, particularly the parts that don’t make sense!

What authors do you read for their writing style, or publications for their writing quality?

I tend to drift between genres, but right now I have been growing to appreciate the essay more and more. Two of my favorite essayists write for The Weekly Standard: Matt Labash and Andy Ferguson. I also read The Atlantic pretty regularly for their long-form pieces.

What have you written that makes you proud — and what still makes you cringe? 

 The first piece I had published as an intern at Red Alert was something about Jimmy Fallon dancing in tight pants. Sadly, it’s still accessible via Google! I am proud of some of the Casual essays I wrote for The Weekly Standard, but the piece I probably look back on most is a commentary piece I submitted to the Minneapolis paper while back in Minnesota working as a barista. It ran verbatim and that moment of seeing my words in print was a great feeling.

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