Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Journalism

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Creative writers have the potential to be great journalists, but the newspaper’s needs come first, and that usually means previewing/covering events or profiling people/businesses. People want to know what’s going on rather than your opinion on what’s going on.

Always ensure names are spelled correctly. Ask how to spell their name, even if it is Ann Smith/Anne Smyth or John Davis/Jon Davis. Typos are one thing, but it is a cardinal sin to misspell someone’s name.

Never conduct interviews through email. Do the legwork! Sometimes, in asking one question, the answer will lead to another question you didn’t already dream up. An interview is supposed to be a conversation, not a questionnaire. (That is asking them to do the work. Not cool.) Plus, you are cheating yourself out of honing a valuable skill. Anyone can send an email but interviewing well (feeling comfortable talking to strangers as well as making them feel comfortable enough to talk to you) takes a special soft skill. Phone interviews work but only if meeting them in person is an absolute impossibility.

Following an interview, before you look at your notes or listen to your audio, free-write everything you can remember before you write the story. This will help you get a feel for how you want your story to flow.

Don’t just copy and paste but rather, rewrite what you learn in a way you can understand. If you ever decide to tutor someone in English or go into teaching, this will help you explain more complicated concepts.

Regarding college journalism, it is better to review an event on campus versus a review of something (e.g., a community play) someone else is already reviewing. The purpose of the campus newspaper is to get as many student names and faces in it as possible.

As a freelance reporter, I have learned it is just as important to have questions ready as it is to know when to let them keep talking; often, they will answer more than one of those questions. Your subject will not always stick to the script. This can help you become a better listener, for you’re not just thinking about what you’re going to ask next, but you’re focusing on what they are saying at that moment.

Caption photos (or at least compile the information) the same day you take the photos. Remember, the information you use for the captions doesn’t have to be pulled from the article, which makes captions a great way to use information you couldn’t fit into the article. A photo captures the moment; a caption adds context to that moment.

If you like current events, hard news articles are for you. If you like history, feature stories are for you. Both have their place in journalism. I’m always a week late and several dollars short, so the story behind the story is my cup of coffee.

It is said that a newspaper story lasts for a day, but a short story lasts long after the author has passed away. Here are two pieces that were originally published in a newspaper and have stood the test of Father Time.   https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2019/12/in-a-word-eight-er-nine-tiny-reindeer/ and https://www.newseum.org/exhibits/online/yes-virginia/.

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