Joe Lynch

Paging back through my notes after the trip once I got home really made me realize just how much information I was exposed to each day. While I was aware I took a lot of notes and wanted to share them with other members of the staff, it hadn’t quite dawned on me just how many notes I had and just how much I wanted to share them, so I’m finishing going through my notes from Friday and Saturday and trying to get all of my ideas somewhere where I can share them.

Friday: Break With a Pro—Feature Writing

Think about what you like, and then make it

If you go to your English teacher and ask how to get better at writing, what will your teacher tell you to do? Read more, obviously!

Since journalism is as much a form of writing as poetry or novels or research papers, the same principles apply. If you want to know how to write better news stories, read your newspapers.

While you’re reading, think about the thoughts in your head and make a note to yourself when you think something like “I wish they did more coverage of X” or “I really love the idea the reporter had with this story, but they could have done Y instead.”

Think about how the newspapers you read could be improved to feel more special or be more interesting to you, and then make your own stories that way. If you like something, odds are a lot of other people do too, and you, as a journalist are in a unique position to act on that.

Dealing with people is a skill

The idea of dealing with people is often an overlooked part of being a journalist. From managing crowds while taking photos of an event to working with editors to interviewing sources, for being a writer, you do a whole lot of talking!

Dealing with people in any manner which you see fit for the situation isn’t something that you just know how to do immediately, it’s a skill. And like any other skill, the only way to improve it is to work on it.

Don’t avoid talking to someone or taking on a tough or big interview because you think you’ll mess up, because the only way to get the confidence to keep talking to people more comfortably will come from you talking to them.

Do something to look ahead for the year

At the start of a calendar year, school year, or even something on a smaller scale like a semester or quarter, it’s useful to write a story about upcoming events because it will serve you and your writers a dual purpose: One is it’s a story, and the other is it will help you organize. Writing a story is always a story, so if your paper needs an extra slot filled in, looking ahead could be a good option to fill in that space, especially if there’s something notable coming up that may have slipped peoples’ minds or may generally have low amounts of public awareness, so bringing people’s attention to something coming up may be interesting.

However, the less obvious (but probably more important) side of this coin is that it can be a useful organizational tool. If you get everything in a row for the next few months, your writers can refer back to the article and write a story about something you mentioned once it becomes relevant again, and having a good amount of things listed means they’re less likely to be missed or forgotten by the time they come up again.

Friday: The History of Design

White space

White space is good in a design. Even if it feels empty, thoughtfully placed empty areas are useful to bring the reader’s eyes where you want them, and if you don’t have enough white space, everything becomes cluttered and tiring to look at, which gives you the opposite effect.

Contrary to its name, white space can be white, black, or a shade of gray, just as long as nothing is in it, but be sure to avoid using bright colors like red, orange, yellow, or green to fill blank areas, as they can also be stressful on a reader’s eye.

Coolness counts, readability matters

Being creative is the most important part of designing a page. If everything looks the same, nobody will want to look at more than one page, so being varied, thinking outside the box, and trying something you haven’t seen before is crucial to keeping a yearbook or newspaper interesting.

But no matter what, always keep in mind what the end product is: a story presented in a unique way. It’s easy to get sucked into a design and lose sight of the fact that you need to also include text in there somewhere, and cluttering a page too much can distract from the story you’re trying to supplement with your design.

While the page you made may look cool, the priority is always being able to read and make sense of the story that goes with it.

Friday: Write it Right, Write it Tight

If you don’t need it, lose it: Give every word a purpose

As a journalist, you are writing to be understood and succinct. If you’re too long-winded or confusing with how you write your story, people will stop reading it. Flooding your writing with lots of flowery language may work on your English teacher, but if it obfuscates your point, you’ll lose your target audience: normal people. Boil down legal jargon into simple words and ideas for them, take out unnecessary adjectives, and split up your sentences so they have one idea per sentence to make the story short, easy to read, and effective.

“Said” is perfectly fine

A frequent “deadly sin” of journalism (more on those later), is using any word other than “said” or “says” when attributing a quote in an article. While synonyms may be the best way to add color to a story in fiction, journalism deals almost exclusively with “said” with very few exceptions. If you picked a good quote to use and you have good photos which capture the mood of the event, they can do all the talking for you, you don’t need to make it any more obvious for the reader, in fact, if you use the wrong synonym, it can detract from the quote rather than supplement it, so use “said” when attributing quotes and let the rest of the story show the mood.

Think your mother loves you? Check it!

Never make any assumptions in your story. Even if it’s a basic fact you assume to be common knowledge, it’s best practice to assume your reader knows nothing about what you’re writing about and to fact check every detail you mention. Fact checking everything ensures you’re reporting only the truth, which is the most important part of a story. When you’re interviewing sources, ask them about small details or other things you might assume to be true and let them verify the information. If you don’t ask about it, you can’t write about it.

The Stepladder: Editing within the realm of possibility

Imagine your quality of writing as a stepladder with 10 rungs. 0 is someone who doesn’t speak English; nobody on your staff is at 0. Ten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist; nobody on your staff is a 10 either. If you’re tasked with editing a copy you get from Jimmy the Freshman (we all know who Jimmy the Freshman is) and his piece is a 2 on the stepladder, be realistic when you’re editing.

You can’t turn a piece of writing that’s a 2 into a 7, its just not possible. When you sit down to edit, try to make it a 3, or even a 4 sometimes, but know it can’t be a 7 no matter how much time you spend trying to make it one, so stop trying.

A level 2 and level 7 piece of writing are two different pieces of writing, so when you’re editing, thank your writer for coming in and submitting a piece they wrote on their own time, and try to bring the writing up by one rung, not 5. The writer will get better as long as they keep writing, so make them better and give them the time and the welcoming environment to do that.

Don’t “bow wrap”

In 5th grade, we all learned how to write a 5 paragraph essay. An introduction where you summarize your argument, 3 supporting paragraphs, and then a conclusion where you restate your introduction in slightly different words. That conclusion is what you write for an English class, not a newspaper. Remember your space is limited and it’s not worth your reader’s time to aimlessly write the same thing over again, so cut it out if it doesn’t say anything new.

Friday: Up Your Interview Game

The 3 types of sources

There are 3 types of sources you could interview for a potential story: the expert, the authoritative figure, and the bozo.

Despite how the naming of the bozo may imply, all 3 are necessary for a well rounded perspective in your story. The expert is someone who is directly involved in your story and has an exceptional base of knowledge in the topic.

The expert is your runningback who made the game-winning touchdown, your actor in the play, or your organizer of an event. They can answer the big questions and will most likely give you the most interesting perspectives and experiences.

The authoritative figure is someone who knows a lot about an event, but through a degree of separation. These are the coaches, the directors, the principal who approved the event, or the teachers who sponsored it. They still know a good deal of information and can cover a lot of bases when it comes to important, factual knowledge about what happened, but maybe on a less personal level.

The bozo is someone who is only tangentially related. Bozos are members of the student section, someone in the audience, or someone attending the event that got organized. They offer perspectives of varying levels of validity, but their thoughts on an event are still important. Even if they don’t include anything valuable, they still prove that people care about the event you’re covering even if they weren’t directly involved; bozos prove your story is important.

An ideal story includes all 3 angles.