It’s early in the semester and students at the college where I teach journalism have just turned in their first articles for the student newspaper. Most of them are really good, but as always there are a few common mistakes that students make early on.
Here are some of the problems I see most frequently:
Long leads and long paragraphs – Remember, news stories should use a one-sentence lead. And paragraphs in news stories should generally be just 1 to 2 sentences each. I can always tell when someone has written their first news story, because it’s invariably full of giant paragraphs that look like they belong in a Jane Austen novel.
Articles that are more feature-like in nature, such as those found in the arts and entertainment section, can break these rules sometimes. But news stories shouldn’t.
First references to people – When referring for the first time to someone quoted in your article, use their full name and full job title. If they are a student, give their age, major and hometown. Note: It’s very important that you always give a full name. Hardly any news outlet anywhere, whether run by professionals or students, will allow the use of quotes from someone if their full name isn’t given.
Second and subsequent references – Once you’ve used a person’s full name the first time you refer to them, all subsequent references should use just their last name. So if the first reference is, “Jane Smith, an English professor at the college,” all subsequent references should simply be “Smith.”
Punctuation – it always goes inside quotation marks. No exceptions.
First person – We never, ever use the first person “I” in news stories. You might use it if you’re writing something like a movie review, but even then only sparingly.
Associated Press style – AP style errors are common in early articles but as a professor I tighten up on this as the semester goes on. So get into the habit of checking your AP stylebook whenever you are writing things like dates, times, titles, dollar amounts and so on. AP style is standard usage for 99.999 percent of all news outlets, so learning it isn’t optional. It’s mandatory.
Reporting – These are all issues that have to do writing news stories. But by far the biggest problem I see with newby journalists has to do with reporting. I get too many stories where it’s clear that the student hasn’t interviewed enough people or gathered enough background information to produce an average-length news story of say, 500 words.
Journalism begins and ends with reporting, and even the most talented writer can’t produce good work if he doesn’t put in the time on doing interviews and finding information. So the thing I most often tell journalism students is this – do more reporting.