Thursday, September 30, 2004

PJs should write

It's important for PJs to know how to write well. Not simply good enough for a story to see ink, but good enough to get and keep readers' attention. It's a skill like lighting or developing film. It can and should be learned by all PJs.

Sometimes a PJ is the only person who has access to the story subjects (in foreign countries). Occasionally, the PJ is the only person who's initially motivated to get a story to print (great shots – no reporter available). PJs at smaller newspapers tend to write more stories. PJs at larger papers are surrounded by great reporters who live for big stories. However, a rare major story can still land on the PJ like a boulder. If PJs don't know where to start, they're in trouble.

For freelancers, writing is a critical skill. Several magazines ONLY accept story packages (photos and text). If PJs can write, they earn more money and make wiser use of their time.

I suggest most PJs should take a Journalism (J-102) course at a community college or university. J-101 is typically "mass media" and is nice to know, but it doesn't get into the mechanics of writing as quickly as J-102. Otherwise, PJs should at least get an introduction to reporting book and read it while working toward a PJ job.

Then, read. Read newspapers to learn style and brevity. Critically analyze each story as one would a photo. Pick it apart to understand its lede (the beginning), structure, use of quotations, transitions and pace.

Next, ask questions. See the list below.

PJs can also do this with a magazine. I've found stories written in a newspaper format can easily adjust to a magazine, but the opposite does not hold true. In either case, keep it simple and sharp. PJs want the story to be understood by most people. Again, this isn't dummying down. It's good, tight writing.

Editing lessons
When I was in college, I was the news editor and later the editor/semi-publisher of the independent campus newspaper. It taught me never to want to be an editor again.

At a college newspaper, most reporter applicants were journalism students and understood basic grammar, AP style, as well as reporting and editing techniques. However some had obviously never read a single newspaper. Nonetheless, it takes more college reporters to fill a newspaper than professional reporters because the writing and editing process takes much longer for new reporters.

Consequently, I needed a plan to save myself editing stress and get stories to the press quicker. So I came up with the following checklist. There should be some items added, and I've already deleted one item because the style books have changed. But for most PJs, this should be an adequate checklist before turning in a story.

Writer's PJ's pre-editing checklist

* Have these answers been provided?
* Are there active verbs? (Is the subject doing the action?)
      Active: He hit the ball.
      Passive: The ball was hit by him.
* Does it make sense?
* Does it have a quotation? – It shouldn't.
* Does it ask a question? – It shouldn't.

* Are there five sources?
* Is at least one of the sources a student (or local resident)?
* Is there a conflict?
      Woman vs. Woman
      Woman vs. Environment
      Woman vs. Herself
* Are the characters revealed?
* Are the quotations legitimate?
* Has the writer removed herself/himself from the story?
* Is all jargon defined?
* Is the story objective?
* Have both sides of the conflict had a voice?
* Is the story grammatically correct?
    (Are there any fragments, comma splices, dangling participles?)
* Is each prepositional phrase necessary?
    (Can it be re-written without the preposition? Can the whole phrase be dropped?)
* Is every word necessary?
    (Check every "the," and remove every "that" which is not in a direct quotation or can't be defended.)
* Have all the questions been answered for the reader?
* Has the story been spell-checked?
* Is the story written in AP style?
* In news stories particularly, the writing should evoke exclamation points. Therefore, remove exclamation points.
* The word "said" may be used throughout the entire story. Don't worry about repetition because "said" will be ignored by the reader. For written documents, use "states." Characters in compositions (plays, books, poems, etc.) "say" because they will always say the same thing to each reader.
* Be specific and use common language.
* Be aware of the reader. If the average reader can't understand the story, the writer failed most readers.
* Quotations move the story, not stop it.
* Transitions move the reader through the story.
* Read the story aloud. Listen for odd phrases or rough areas. Then, fix them.
* If a sentence can't be read aloud on one breath, break it down.
* Finally, is this story better than your last one? Why/why not?

Enough for now,

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