Six Lessons Writers Can Learn from the Life and Career of Ruth Bader Ginsberg

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Like most people I know, I was devastated to learn of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She had been a mainstay on the U.S. Supreme Court for several decades, and only the second woman to serve behind Sandra Day O’Connor.

Her passing has made me think about my own legacy. What kind of impact do I want to make in my career as a writer? I can’t possibly live up to the same standards of success as RBG, but certainly I can make the world a better place in my own way through my writing.

Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg

As writers, we can all learn something from Ginsberg through her experience as a law student, an attorney, college professor, circuit court judge and Supreme Court Justice. Here are a few of them.

1. Don’t let rejection deter you from your goals. Ruth Bader Ginsberg graduated from law school at a time when women weren’t allowed to practice in law firms. She applied to hundreds of law firms and was turned away because she was a woman. RBG altered course and did what most other women who graduated law school did – she went into teaching. But she used her legal education to take up the fight for gender equality so that women wouldn’t experience discrimination like she had.

As writers, we’re bound to receive hundreds of rejection letters. But that shouldn’t mean we stop writing. Don’t let rejection deter you from writing. There’s always something to say, something to write about, even if others don’t want to read it or publish it. Keep writing. Somewhere there is an audience for your work.

2. Find a cause to be passionate about. After her numerous rejections by law firms, Ginsberg found her cause – gender equality and civil rights. And she persisted in her fight for equal rights throughout her career.

Writers too can find a cause to be passionate about. Whether that cause is social equity, climate change or rescuing homeless pets, your passion can fuel your writing. Write essays, letters to the editor, opinion pieces, even short stories that carry a theme around your cause. Use your words to fight for a cause that’s important to you.

3. Have a Plan B. I heard an interesting story during RBG’s televised memorial last week. Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, once asked Ginsberg, “Where do you think we’d be if we had been accepted into a law firm? We’d most likely be retired from a law firm.”

In other words, neither woman would ever have been named to the Supreme Court. Their rejection by so many legal firms proved to be a blessing in disguise for it paved the way for a different legal career path.

As writers, it’s important to view repeated rejection as a sign that it may be time to change course, to redirect your energies elsewhere. For example, if you keep looking for work in the corporate world and keep getting turned down, it may be a sign that your talents are needed elsewhere, perhaps in a new industry or as a freelancer. It’s up to you to figure out how and where. Sometimes rejection means a better opportunity awaits you in a direction you never considered.

4. Do your homework and get the facts. For every case Ginsberg ever worked on, she needed to do research. Her ability to review past cases, study data, and conduct interviews was key to making her case in a court of law. As a Supreme Court Justice, there were numerous cases to review, hearings, review testimonies and more reading and research. Only then was she able to provide her judgment on key issues.

As writers, especially those in journalism, research is a key component of your work. It’s necessary to get all the facts, interview credible sources, and be thorough in your investigation. Presenting factual data helps establish your authority and credibility. People will want to believe you because you’ve taken the time to do your homework.  

5. Work for the common good. Whether through her teaching, trying cases on behalf of the ACLU, or hearing cases as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsberg made sure she made decisions that benefited all people. She was committed to making the world a better place.

As writers, it’s important to write for the common good too. Use your words to persuade, examine, educate and inspire others. Like RBG, be kind and helpful to others, even if they don’t share your views.

6. Surround yourself with a strong support team. Ginsberg’s husband Marty saw Ruth’s potential while they were in college together. Many years later, when RBG was nominated for the Supreme Court, Marty became her cheerleader. Because she didn’t care for schmoozing, Marty met with Senators to persuade them that she was the right person for that role.

Writers can benefit by having one or two people in your inner circle who will go to bat for you, who will cheer you on when you finish that first novel, promote your work, and give constructive feedback. We all need that one person who supports our work and who sees our potential long before we do.

Throughout her long and productive career, Ruth Bader Ginsberg made a big difference in many people’s lives. As writers, we can all learn to approach our life’s work with the same grace, compassion and wisdom that made RBG so successful.

Tips for Finding Credible Sources via the Internet

Bear with laptop

A woman I met in a writing class was working on a book project. She had never done anything like it before, so she didn’t know how to go about researching her topic. “How do I find good, credible sources of information on the Internet?” she wondered.

Good question. The Internet, for all its accessibility to the information highway, has been known to play host to some faulty, inaccurate data, enough so that it has been the brunt of jokes. The fact is you can’t assume that what you read on the Internet is true, accurate, trustworthy, or worthy of being shared.

But fortunately for many of us writers, there are plenty of credible sources. You just have to know where to look for them and how to vet them. Here’s a list of sites I regularly seek out to find a credible source to interview or do background research.

* Trade associations, which cover industry news. For example, the National Association of Realtors covers the housing market, while the American Hospital Association obviously covers news about hospitals. If you don’t already have a contact there, reach out to the media relations department who can put you in touch with the best expert for your project.

* Government agencies collect data and conduct research about everything from energy consumption to employment statistics. If you need data to back up your research, agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Trade Commission will be strong bets.

* Universities often produce studies or have think tanks on-site. Professors with special expertise in certain topics or who are involved in research studies are good candidates for sources.

* Book authors often have specialized expertise. Check Amazon or Barnes and Noble for recent releases. Note the name of the author(s) and check out their website, if they have one. If they’ve written a book or published an article, they’re experts and they’re worth interviewing.

* Magazine, newsletter and website editors cover the topics of the day. They understand the issues facing their industry and are usually open to offering their perspective.

* Quoted experts in news articles. As you read articles on your topic, note the experts who are quoted in the story. What company or industry do they represent? What expertise do they have? Follow up with them via their website or connect with them through social media. If they’ve done one interview, they are likely willing to talk to you.

* Think Tank organizations and other research firms, such as Pew Research Center provide massive amounts of studies and data, and their researchers are often quoted in news stories.

* Not-for-profit organizations and foundations, such as American Heart Association, can provide a unique perspective. For example, the director of a silent film group can provide a historical perspective on the passing of a well-loved actress.

For most writing projects, I usually begin by contacting the media relations department. Describe your writing project and be specific as you can about what information you need. They will usually direct you to the right expert. If they don’t have someone available, ask if they can refer someone else. But be patient. It may take a few hours or days for them to get back to you. If time is a factor, make sure you tell them that you are working on a deadline.

Once you’ve collected your sources, don’t set up interviews right away, unless you’ve talked with them previously and know them well enough to contact them. You need to be sure they are legitimate sources for your story.  A source that hasn’t been properly vetted can weaken an otherwise well-researched story.

If the information you find is too good to be true, or promises more than they can deliver, think twice before sharing it. Be sure to confirm the accuracy of one source by using a second, and possibly a third source.

Check the Better Business Bureau to determine if there are any complaints against the company or source. If there are, they may not be the best choice of expert to be interviewed.

Do a Google search of topics and individuals. You might be surprised what pops up. For example, enter HCG Diet in the search space, and the list will reveal both positive and negative reports, which suggest that the diet may not live up to the hype. On the other hand, by seeing both positive and negative responses, you may find sources who are willing to discuss opposing perspectives, which can make your story more well-rounded and credible.

In the long run, your story is only as good as the sources you use.