Help a young journo put herself through news writing bootcamp.
July 30, 2008 8:33 PM   Subscribe

I need resources to improve my news writing. I'm already working in a newsroom, so this isn't a"halp mee, I wants to be a writter" post. Rather, I want to increase my fluency in the basics so that tight, accurate prose always flows naturally, even under deadline. I'd also like to increase my vocabulary and craft skills as a writer so that when I'm less pressed for time, I can really make the language dance.

I'm a program assistant on a high-profile TV news program. I research stories, update the program's website and look after some of the logistics of getting the program to air. I'm working towards a career as a TV or radio news producer, and I've already worked casually on a factual radio show, producing presenter-driven interviews from scratch. I've had good feedback about my work so far.

Here's the rub: I didn't study journalism. I'd like to do a postgrad degree eventually, but at the moment that's not an option. (And frankly, although I'm glad journalism exists as an academic discipline, I don't think every journo needs a degree in it).

Anyway, no-one has complained about my writing, but I want to set aside some time each week to really perfect it as a craft. Journalism students do this through writing drills and constant assessment. Journalists at other organisations receive on-the-job training, but my employer doesn't put a lot of resources into that. So I'd like to do it by putting myself through a sort of ad-hoc writing bootcamp.

I know the mechanics of grammar and style. I'm the newsroom nerd who knows the style guide by heart and I'll quote Strunk and White ferociously if provoked. I can pick the flaws in bad writing and I take joy in beating it into shape. But I still don't feel as though I have fluency in news writing, to the point where it comes naturally under deadline. I want good, tight news writing to become so second-nature that I can do it on two hours sleep, in a crisis, on a subject I know nothing about or in a war zone with bombs raining down all around me.

As well as drilling myself in the basics, I'd like to improve my vocabulary and the 'elegance', for want of a better word, of my prose. Although broadcast writing favours '5 cent' words over obscure ones, I still want to be able to convey the most subtle of nuances when necessary, without reaching for a thesaurus. And yeah, one day I'd like my writing to be as concise, thoughtful and elegant as the New York Times and BBC journalists I admire. Help a young journo get started along that path.

I'm interested in:

- Writing drills for both broadcast and print journalism, from reputable sources. Actual course notes from good J-schools would be awesome.

- 'Five points' style exercises, where the student is given a disorganised list of information points and asked to turn the list into a well-structured story.

- GRE-style vocabulary tests - particularly those which focus on the subtle nuances of descriptive words, rather than archaic words for objects and concepts I'll never need to write about. I'm more interested in the precise difference between succour and sustenance, for example, than I am in learning the correct name for a three-barbed fish hook. The GRE isn't used in Australia, and there are so many of these tests online that I have no idea which ones are reputable.

- Journalism textbooks with a focus on practical writing exercises rather than theory - particularly UK or Australian ones.

- General advice from working journalists. How did you get the fundamentals of good writing under your belt? What was it like for you when good writing became second-nature? Once you're so experienced that you don't need to think abut the basics, how is the writing process different?

All resources are welcome, but those with an Australian/UK English bent would be particularly helpful. Thanks!
posted by [ixia] to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Poynter Institute has fantastic tips and good weekly newsletters on a variety of topics. The organization is a non-profit out of Florida dedicated to excellence in journalism. They also own the St. Petersburg Times, though that's irrelevant for this topic.

I worked as a reporter for three years. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is do daily crunch work (cop logs, routine city council stories etc). I don't think, based on what you said, that this is in your job description but maybe you can find something similar based on what you do now. Those small stories really hone your writing and make you better at what you do.

Audit an advanced reporting class if you can. Make sure it's an emphasis on newspaper writing and not magazine or TV; you'll get a better quality class out of it. This is where I learned those type of drills.

Good luck!
posted by Happydaz at 8:46 PM on July 30, 2008

Best answer: Oh, also, I found once the writing itself became second nature, the reporting (the information gathering part of the work, in other words) became a lot easier. Once I knew what the story was, I could make a mental image of exactly what the story would look like. Then I merely needed to find the people to fill out the various parts of that story. Obviously, this doesn't work so well for a complex issue, as the idea of what the story is might change as you continue your reporting. But for everyday pieces, having an image of what my story would be made it easier to report on.

Gaining control of the writing process also made my sensory skills more important. I looked more carefully at what was going on around me, realizing I would be describing it in print. I paid more attention to smells. Etc.
posted by Happydaz at 8:54 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Art and Craft of Feature Writing


Writing for Story
posted by timsteil at 8:57 PM on July 30, 2008

Generally the best way to improve your vocab is reading, especially the Classics. You may or may not have tried this, I dunno.
posted by Autarky at 9:44 PM on July 30, 2008

I came across this 1906 book on Google Books a while back: The Newspaper Worker: Designed for All who Write, But Especially Addressed To The Reporter Who May Have Only A Vague Notion Of The Aims, Scope And Requirements Of His Profession by James Philip McCarthy. US, and obviously a bit out of date (it describes how to behave properly at a cotillion, in case you have to report on debutantes) but speaking of basic skills it has a section on rhetoric as it relates to writing. (I haven't read it through myself and I'm not in news anyways, so I'm not making a recommendation, just mentioning it as a resource.)
posted by XMLicious at 9:50 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: dig in to
posted by mrmarley at 1:08 AM on July 31, 2008

I like "Television News, Radio News" from RADA Press.

And it obviously depends on the voice of your program, but I think your copyeditor is likely to take out either "succour" or "sustenance", even if you use them correctly.
posted by Jahaza at 1:41 AM on July 31, 2008

Best answer: "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser is an incredible book on this topic. Mine is thoroughly dog-eared and highlighter-ed.
posted by jbickers at 3:30 AM on July 31, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the advice so far - I'll definitely be tracking down the books you've all recommended. To clarify a little, I'm specifically interested in resources to help me hone my writing in practice - ie, by actually sitting down at my desk and doing it over and over again. My hope is that eventually, news writing will become so easy and automatic that my conscious focus can shift to elegance, speed, personal endurance and whatever else future jobs require of me. I've read plenty of 'how to write well' guides and I like to think I have a reasonable grasp of the advice they give; it's the daily application of that advice I need some help with.

Happydaz is spot on in saying that doing the daily crunch work of general rounds stories would be ideal; unfortunately, that isn't quite in my job description right now. I have great research skills, but stories I've done from scratch have been long, complex and I've always had a bit of time to perfect them. I haven't yet had to pump out ten five-par stories an hour, every hour: this is exactly the kind of intensive writing practice I would like to simulate on my own time.

Jahaza wrote:
And it obviously depends on the voice of your program, but I think your copy editor is likely to take out either "succour" or "sustenance", even if you use them correctly.

You're absolutely right; those weren't good examples in this context and I sure as hell wouldn't use them at work. Our newsroom is very strict about conversational writing and I actually enjoy nailing down a complex story down with the simplest of appropriate words.

But let me be thoroughly pretentious and quote Hemingway for a moment:

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."

I'd like to be as sure as Hemingway is that I know those ten-dollar words and exactly how to wield them. Higher education in Australia doesn't put much emphasis on the art of rhetoric, so sometimes I feel I have a little catching up to do. I want to refine my vocabulary now so that one day, when I really, really need a ten-dollar word, I'll have plenty in reserve to choose from.
posted by [ixia] at 5:50 AM on July 31, 2008

I went to JSchool, and one professor instilled in us the importance of active writing. Basically write something in Word and grammar check it. You'll get a stat on what percentage of passive sentences your writing contains. Keep on rewriting until you get to 0%

He also demanded that we use as few prepositions as possible. Imagine writing without words like to, for, by, with, were, on, at, etc. Very difficult and we hated him for it, but I'm sure it improved our writing.

Passive writing: The ball was thrown by Jim. Active: Jim threw the ball.

Another example with lots of prepositions:
In January, the results of the exams written by the students were posted by the University.

The university posted students' exam results in January. (Didn't get rid of that "in", but it's more of a teaching tool than a real world requirement.)

The key is to write clearly, actively, and eliminate all unnecessary words.
posted by yellowbinder at 9:26 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

You won't benefit much from a bigger vocabulary. For news, you want words everybody will understand. Nine words out of every 10 should have just one syllable.

Vigor comes from nouns and verbs. Omit adjectives and adverbs. Especially, omit one-size-fits-all intensifiers, like "sheer."

Omit needless words. "Whether or not" says nothing more than "whether."

Most of all, read authors who make the language dance -- Joseph Mitchell, H.L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, A.J. Liebling, Mark Twain, Jimmy Breslin and John McPhee come to mind.
posted by KRS at 1:36 PM on July 31, 2008

That's a good point [ixia].
posted by Jahaza at 12:14 AM on August 1, 2008

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