Writing coaches typically spend too much time teaching techniques and too little time adjusting attitudes about the writing process.
Cub reporters and novice writers usually suffer the same symptoms: They don’t read enough, dislike legwork, elevate style over substance, back into stories and advance their own interests.
They also misperceive the role and responsibility of editors.
Nothing new about that, of course. But the computerization of the newsroom has intensified these symptoms and misperceptions. Beginners think Lycos is legwork and email, an interview.
These notions come at a bad time. Technology has downsized editorial staffs, especially at magazines, so fewer editors are available to mentor interns and recruits.
Beginners used to learn by experience, often with editors at their sides, adjusting attitudes.
That has to be done now in the classroom.
Below are ordinary attitudes about the writing process, followed by adjusted ones.
The writing process is a series of steps. Writers who take shortcuts usually stumble.
But the biggest stumbling block is mental.
SEVERAL COMMON BAD ATTITUDES
1. Don’t read other writers’ work at your publication. Why show interest in anyone else’s writing or waste time reading it? Use that energy to promote your own copy with editors and to admire your own published work.
2. Don’t do research. Why bone up on your topic? Readers will remember your byline because of style, not substance.
3. Don’t do interviews. Why talk to sources when you can be writing? The sooner you start, the sooner your byline will appear in print.
4. Don’t change “style.” Why write according to tenets of objectivity or tone of voice? You’ll end up sounding like every other writer in the newspaper or magazine.
5. Wow your editor by setting mood. Why reveal everything in the lead or introduction or explain terms, jargon, or technical information? Better to hook readers with technique.
6. Don’t analyze headlines in newspapers or compose titles for magazine pieces. That’s the editor’s job. Let them earn their pay.
7. Finish as soon as possible. Why give competitors the edge? Submit your work when you finish a draft that pleases you.
8. Don’t worry about misspellings, grammar, or length requirements. Why worry about typos and verb tense? Why count, cut and add words when doing so hampers creativity? As long as your words “flow,” editors will be pleased.
Dispelling the above myths is half of the attitude adjustment. The rest is process and includes these steps:
1. Read the work of other writers. Professional writers are avid readers because they love words and facts, gemstones of journalism. They analyze quotations, paragraph structure, form, diction, length, and more. They discern editorial standards: How did this writer inform, enlighten, or entertain readers? Is the story the right length for the topic? Should the writer follow up with a more detailed or edifying account? And so on.
2. Research your piece. To write or report effectively, know as much as possible about the topic. You can also determine in advance whether editors will be interested in your idea. If they printed a piece similar to yours, read it to see if you can add a new angle. Access databases and back issues to identify other published works on the topic. That will hone your idea so that it is more insightful or effective.
3. Invest in interviews. If you read and research, you will come across sources who can provide expert comment. Find contact numbers on the Web or in directories and set up face-to-face or telephone interviews. The more sources you contact, the more you will know about your topic and the more reliable your piece will become in the process.
4. Use an appropriate voice. Think in terms of voice rather than style. Voice is the “sound” on the page or screen. Editors usually want an objective or authoritative tone for news, but relax those standards with features or columns. You should be able to describe voice with a few adjectives – conversational, factual, witty, etc. Is your voice appropriate? If not, conceive another tone or change the slant.
5. Ground your piece with a clear lead or introduction. Editors often hate mood and call that “backing into a story.” Use opening paragraphs to convey what your story is about (topic) and what it is about really (theme). Then define terms and translate jargon and technical information and anything else potential readers might not immediately recognize or know. That helps clarity and readability.
6. Conceive a headline or title that foreshadows content. Analyze headlines in your newspaper or target market for style and tone of voice. True, editors often compose titles at newspapers or change them at magazines. Studying the relationship between headline and lead helps you compose better leads. Magazine writers compose titles to convey tone, topic, and theme to editors, engaging them from the start.
7. Let your piece cool. You’ll feel exhilarated simply because you finished a manuscript. That does not mean it is good. Resist the urge to send your work to editors the moment you complete it. Don’t worry about competition. The easiest way to give competitors an edge is to send editors sloppy copy.
8. Polish your piece. Sharpen transitions. Excise padding. Use livelier verbs, more accurate nouns. Read copy aloud to sustain voice. Fix bad syntax. If you don’t know how to spell, look words up. The same goes for spelling and grammar. As for length, remember that editors want it all – all the news that is fit to print and all the news that fits. Target specific sections of a magazine – a column, say, or a filler or feature. Count words. Match them.
That’s the spirit.
Attitude really is everything. Those who adjust theirs impress editors. They muster the energy to do legwork. They set or maintain standards. They beat rivals the old-fashioned way, earning their stories and the readers’ respect.
Michael Bugeja is associate director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.