If I could visit my younger student journalist self, I’d mark all of her articles in red ink. From badly written headlines to inconsistent Oxford commas to overuse of false ranges, there were mistakes I consistently made. To save others from cringing at their past selves, I’ve compiled a list of mistakes nearly every student journalist will make at least once.
Stop writing about (inter)national stories
Unless you have first-hand experience or a Master’s degree in a national or international issue, don’t write about it. Just because you read a Wikipedia entry about the Israel-Palestine conflict doesn’t mean you have an educated opinion. Save your hot takes for campus, youth or education issues and let experts speak about topics you’re not well-versed in.
Relate your stories to readers
Remember that your readers probably have short attention spans like the rest of us. If you’re covering a meeting, relate the outcome to the day-to-day lives of students. What will a tuition increase translate into yearly? Why is having one food provider on campus a bad idea? What will happen if there’s a strike?
Your articles shouldn’t all be coverage of an event on campus. Dig around and see if there’s more to a story. Research history, relationships (For example the monetary kind. Don’t do a who’s dating whom segment.) and court cases. Ask about processes in place or lack thereof. Question where numbers came from or how they were arrived at. There is almost always more than meets the eye to every story.
Why does it matter?
Give your stories a 10-minute existential crisis before deciding to work on them. Ask yourself why the story matters, who it matters to and what the impact will be. Only write something if it’s appropriate for your audience, beat or interests. Similarly, if you’re writing something because you’re close to the story, it might be better to recognize the conflict and hand it over to someone else or kill it altogether.
Not all headlines are created equal. While you can be punny in print, online headlines need to be descriptive and enticing. A three-word headline can’t provide enough information for the reader to want to see more.
Lack of art
Articles with photos or art in them get a lot more views. While you should try to avoid stock photography, art doesn’t have to be perfectly representative of the article. Take a bunch of photos of students, textbooks or your campus and plug them at the top of the page whenever appropriate. You can use photos from other CUP members, too.
By the way, don’t steal someone else’s work. If you don’t have time to take your own picture, use creative commons on Flickr or Wikimedia. Credit every photo, always. If you don’t, you’re stealing.
Misspelling of names
There’s basically nothing worse than misspelling a name. There’s no excuse. Don’t do it.
Get the other side of the story
Similarly, always get a variety of perspectives. Be it the subject of a story or someone with a different opinion, your report can never be one-sided. Sending an email doesn’t count as contacting, by the way. Use the phone, use your legs.
If you use […] or [ ] more than once in an article, you’re over quoting. There is nothing wrong with paraphrasing your source. People don’t often talk in a way that’s easy to put on paper, if you can say it better you should. That being said, be careful and diligent about paraphrasing.
Bonus tip: You can’t just copy and paste a quote from somewhere else, that’s plagiarism.
Keep your sentences short and easily digestible. You’re not writing an essay, you’re writing an article. Ask yourself whether there are any words in a sentence you can drop. My pet peeve is overuse of the word “that.” You also don’t need to find alternatives for the word “said,” don’t use “laughed,” or “insisted” or “wailed in a ghastly manner” after a quote.
Inconsistency in style
This is a big one, so I’m going to break it up into three. If you paper doesn’t have a style guide of it’s own you stick to every issue, buy and use the CP Stylebook. Your future employers will love you for it.
- Dates. Pick one date format. Most publication won’t use days of the week. CP style abbreviates months and doesn’t use ‘th’ after numbers if it’s a date like Dec. 12. However, if you’re only writing the month name, spell it out. Stick to one way to represent date range. It should be 2001–14 not 2001–2014.
- Punctuation and grammar. Decide whether you will use the Oxford comma and stick to it (CP doesn’t use it). Use em and en dashes consistently. Know what I’m talking about and Google it if you don’t. Know what a comma splice is and avoid it at all costs. Use Canadian spelling.
- Tenses. Traditionally news articles use the past tense and arts articles use present tense. Whichever you decide to go with, make it consistent. There are too many articles where they’re used interchangeably. Don’t do that.
Whether it’s an opinion piece, a news article or a concert review, you have to fact-check everything. You’re not in the clear just because a source made a claim you quoted him or her on. It’s your job as a journalist to prove every single fact. If you can’t prove it, don’t write it.
If you’re a journalist, you’re bad at math. It’s a fact of life. If you had to do math by yourself for your article ask someone else to look it over. Be weary of statistics. Use legit sources like StatsCan and steer clear of numbers from blogs or anything over five years old. Always say where your statistics came from.
Done? No you’re not.
Read your article one more time after you’re satisfied with it. When you’re completely finished with a story, walk away from the screen for five minutes. Before reading it again, change the font or print the story out, this will help your brain process it differently and find any small mistakes you might have otherwise missed.
Use this checklist for every article. Get the CP style and read it, highlighter in hand. Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) about mentorship opportunities or article critiques. Always recognize your mistakes and strive to make less of them.