Journalism: My 30 writing tips

I offer the skills I have learned in the past two years. Some I had to learn the hard way, while others I acquired naturally. One thing I learned at the very beginning is writing is no walk in the park, as some people may think. In no particular order, I list the skills one would need to be a good writing journalist:

  • Have good grammar, punctuation, and spelling (Clean copy). Example: “K. Williams a Toronto video editor won several awards.” has poor punctuation. Instead, use “K. Williams, a Toronto video editor, won several awards.”
  • Don’t fall in love with your copy. Just because your family and friends may think you are the best writer they know, it doesn’t always mean your editor will feel the same way. Know that you will make mistakes. Not everyone will love your writing style. I could show this blog to an editor. They would still make corrections.
  • Be aware of which months to abbreviate when using dates. In CP style, you can still say November 2019 when you refer to the month, but you never write November 19th 2019. You would instead put Nov. 19, 2019. With shorter months such as June and July, never abbreviate them. July 19, 2019, is what you would put.
  • Know how to abbreviate states and provinces correctly, particularly if you are referring to less-known towns. You wouldn’t necessarily say Toronto, Ont. but you would write Amherstburg, Ont. because Amherstburg is smaller and not as well-known. When you say Ontario in general, use the whole word. Example: Doug Ford cutting funds in Ontario is not okay because he has affected numerous jobs.
  • Make a clear focus statement with the word because with all story ideas. With this method, it is easier to come up with interview questions because you have an organized focus. Example: Cory writes focus statements because they help him write stories.
  • Do not use a focus statement as a lead. For example: “Cory wrote a story because he wants to educate others.” may be a good focus statement, but not a particularly useful lead. A better lead may be “Cory wrote a story about weather to help people learn about it.”
  • Use simple language and make sentences as unwordy as possible. Example: “J., with his audience, impacts them with his articulate speaking and outstanding sense of humour.”, is not simple and too wordy. “J. gives a funny speech to the audience.”, would be much better. Also, avoid using words such as “really” because they are not necessary. “Really good” vs. “Good”? Good is all you need.
  • Contractions are okay to use. When essay writing in high school, your teacher may have told you not to use too many contractions. With journalistic/conversational writing, however, you can write contractions. We want to make writing simple and to the point.
  • With rare exceptions, use an active voice as much as possible. Avoid passive voice. Example: “N. is loved by the cats.” is not active. It’s less engaging. “The cats love N.” is the better option. Also, for the most part, it is better to avoid “ing” verbs unless if they are in the right context. For example: “Cory sits down.” is better than “Cory is sitting down.” The present tense is generally better than the past tense, as well.
  • The Subject Verb Object rule (SVO rule) is the method that can eliminate your use of passive voice. Example: “Kit ate her cat food.” Determine what your subjects, verbs, and objects are every time.
  • Stories must have at least two sources. Why is this? Because people have different views on everything. The information you would give with only one source may not always be accurate or reliable. What J. Smith may say about one thing is not necessarily what W. Kraus might think.
  • Try to use a variety of both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are human sources, people you would reach out to for stories. Secondary sources are articles, websites, and books (Non-human sources). Sometimes, particularly with extreme scientific stories, it’s tough to find human sources. Otherwise, try to connect with human sources to your best ability.
  • Don’t use yourself as a source unless if you speak through personal experience through say, a feature story, an opinion piece, or a written documentary. When you present facts, always cite sources through either links or say, “According to Hall,” for example.
  • Especially for broadcast writing, try to use one idea per sentence. You wouldn’t want a news reporter to lose his/her voice as they say too many words too fast. Example: “Heavy rainfall and winds target Cuba before they track north toward Florida, and eventually, the Mid Atlantic.” is too long of a sentence. “Heavy rainfall and winds strike Cuba. The rain and winds will move north towards Florida and the Mid Atlantic.” is easier to read.
  • Ensure there is a reason why people are reading your story today. Don’t create content that is obviously dated unless if there is a recent study about it. I made a terrible mistake when I did a story about “2018 tornadoes” in January last year. I felt embarrassed. How did this happen? With my autism, I, unfortunately, took the class expectations too literally when learning that Sheridan Sun Production is not the same as News Production. I didn’t read between the lines. Despite this, I still got a decent grade on the story because the content and my journalistic skills were at least passable. If you’re unsure whether a story is newsworthy, consider the following factors: Proximity, prominence, timeliness, oddity, conflict, human interest, extremes/superlatives, and impact.
  • Be sure your story ideas are not only new but also significant and interesting. Don’t create stories that center around overly-obvious facts such as “You need to study at least a few hours a day in college.” A story about how studying has made differences in students’ lives compared to no studying, or perhaps an unusual method of studying, by using a few human sources, would be more effective.
  • Use angles instead of broad topics. For example: A story idea about Don Cherry’s firing is too general. If you have an angle, such as how Don Cherry’s firing has affected regulars who watch Hockey Night In Canada, it’s less broad. The topic may have more significant, interesting, and new information.
  • Make sure your photos have captions and credits/sources. If you have a picture of two organization leaders standing by a sign but do not name them or indicate who took the photo, it makes you less credible. For example: “R. Walton and his friend stand by a sign (No photo credit).” is not effective. “R. Walton and J. Johnson stand by the Harvard Library sign. Photo by S. Jones/Harvard Business Review.” is credible. When you find sources, both for interviews and pictures, always get their names and the correct spellings.
  • Use a variety of words. Be hyper-aware of synonyms. “Black flies go along Park A. They also go along Park B.” is a bad example because I use “go along” twice. “Black flies go along Park A. They also fly in Park B.” shows more verbs.
  • Keep paragraphs short. Again, journalistic writing is not the same as essay writing. Get to the point. Depending on your article, it is best to use one sentence per paragraph.
  • Make sure your story is relevant to your audience. If you write for a college newspaper, you won’t write about how daycares have functioned in Ontario. The only exception would be if you specifically write the story for Early Childhood Education students.
  • Spellcheck is not your best friend. In high school, it was easy to use spellcheck and think, “Oh, my copy is just fine!” but with higher-level writing, it is more complex than that. Spellcheck doesn’t help with engaging writing, using the right words in the proper context, or even grammar and punctuation issues at times. Sometimes, you may even have a typo that spells out another real English word. Example: Kind and king.
  • Use writing apps/sites such as Grammarly or Hemingway if you struggle. Grammarly helps with grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Hemingway helps you understand the grade level of reading your writing would appear to the reader. The lower the level, the better. Eventually, especially if you apply for editing positions, you should learn how to write independently without constant help from these apps. If you struggle, however, they can be great improvement tools.
  • When you meet with human sources, always use quotes. Stories don’t interest readers as much if it’s constantly “Berry said that the Niagara area has tons of wineries.” Use ‘”The Niagara area has tons of wineries,’ Berry said.” instead.
  • When you use quotes, try to break them down if they go on for too long. Example: ‘”When I went to St. Maarten, I had tons of fun. I went to the beach, tried several restaurants, and visited both the Dutch and French sides,’ said Morrison.” is too long. “When I went to St. Maarten, I had tons of fun,” said Morrison. “I went to the beach, tried several restaurants, and visited both the Dutch and French sides.” It’s best to break the quote up after the first sentence.
  • With the second quote, however, it is not uncommon to see more than one sentence in it. Example: “A. works productively,” said Garcia. “He always shows up for his shifts early. Then, after his shift is over, he goes above and beyond and cleans up the counter area. A. is a pleasure to have at this fast-food establishment.”
  • For quotes, particularly for news articles, only use says or said. Whether past or present tense may depend on the story. Do not use verbs such as comments, mentions, or screams. For example, ‘”Phragmites are harmful,’ screamed Gardner.” is not publishable. ‘”Phragmites are harmful,’ said Gardner.”, is best to write.
  • Try to not use consecutive sentences starting with the same word. It seems monotonous. “I sat down. I had lunch. I then went home.” is too flat. “I sat down. Afterward, I ate lunch. Feeling tired, I then come home.” is better.
  • With news writing, one does not often use transition words unless if in quotes. However, with feature, opinion piece, or documentary writing, it is okay to use transition words often.

You may also enjoy: St. Maarten trip: Nov. 3 to 10, 2019

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