Roughly once a week I get queries from younger people about how to “break in” to the stodgy, poorly compensated, high-octane, glamorous world of foreign-policy commentary. (And now maybe I’ll get them from furloughed federal employees!)
Forthwith, my tips:
Read. You need to know stuff. You need to know what’s happening in the world and what others think about what’s happening.
Write. Make it a habit. Start a blog. Send long emails to your friends telling them what you think about the foreign-policy news of the day. Compose learned limericks about the likelihood of Middle East peace. Whatever. Just write.
Submit your writing for publication. Well, yeah. As the Powerball slogan says, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” You don’t want your immortal limericks to go unpublished, do you? So polish ’em up and send them in to editors of magazines, journals, newspapers and websites you like. What are they going to do, reject you?
Learn to take rejection. Unfortunately, they are going to reject you, at least some of the time. They’re going to explain, nicely or not so nicely, that they don’t publish limericks, or that they only publish limericks written in French, or limericks that aren’t lame, or whatever. This will happen to you. When you’re just starting out, this may even happen a lot. Don’t take it personally. Try again. If they offer suggestions, pay attention. And don’t give up. Keep sending in your queries.
Write interestingly. Here’s the fundamental problem with 99 percent of foreign-policy commentary: It’s deadly boring.
On some level, this phenomenon is utterly mysterious. As Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf recently mused to me, this is the most fascinating subject matter on Earth, yet it seems to generate the most ungodly tedious writing. Weird, no? Look what we’ve got to work with: We have spies, soldiers, civil wars, tragedies, triumphs, repression, famine, the devious workings of international diplomats and even the omnipresent and eternally interesting possibility of global suicide via WMD, climate change or some still-unthought-of horror. For a writer, what’s not to love?
On another level, the boring commentary phenomenon makes perfect sense. Most of the people with a strong interest in foreign policy live or want to live in Washington. Most work for the U.S. government or for stodgy think tanks. Those who don’t work for the U.S. government or stodgy think tanks usually aspire to do so in the future. And we all know the first rule of governments and stodgy think tanks: Whatever you do, don’t be interesting. Don’t do anything that will put the secretary in a spot, discomfit your boss, trigger the wrong kind of congressional interest or alienate one of your current or future think tank funders.
Thus, we get the press release thinly disguised as commentary, or the ponderous set of policy recommendations that just so happens to bear an incredible resemblance to those preferred by the White House, and so on. But there’s an inherent conflict between playing it safe and saying something someone might actually want to read. If you want to be published, and you’re not the secretary of state, you need to speak in your own voice and offer something that goes beyond the conventional wisdom.