For better and often for worse, I have a tendency to jump right into things. My first time writing for Arthur was one notable example. It was four years ago, during my first months at Trent when I took that particular leap. I knew right away I wanted to write for the student press but was intimidated by seasoned student writers who seemed to know Trent’s political turf inside and out. How could I compete? I held off until midway through the first term when I got my big scoop. The Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) National Chief was coming to Trent and no Arthur reporter was covering it; I had to do it! Without knowing what I was doing, I showed up early and wrote several too many pages of notes. I stayed after the talk, but was too nervous to ask then AFN Chief Phil Fontaine any questions (not to mention, I couldn’t think of any).
Writing for Arthur for the past four years now, as both a volunteer contributor and a paid reporter, I’ve (mostly) gotten over my fear of interviews. However, I do still get nervous when I see a fellow student reading an article I’ve written on the bus. Nonetheless, writing for Arthur has been one of those plunges that have worked out for the best. It’s a chance to practice writing; a part-time job; a way to participate in the community; and it looks great on my resume. For those thinking of writing, here are some tips – gleaned from the internet, my grade nine English teacher, and all points in between – on how to do it well:
Write what you know. If you’re an English major, covering the latest research in molecular chemistry may not be the best place to start. But if you are a chemistry major, making that research understandable to the rest of us could be really interesting.
- Ask yourself: can this story be found somewhere else? Arthur is not students’ only news source. No one needs you to summarize news stories that major media outlets have already covered. Only cover a major national or international news story if you have a unique angle on it. Think about what’s been left out of the mainstream coverage or how it will affect the Trent and Peterborough communities. Then call up someone (a professor, politician, fellow student, etc.) with something to say about the topic.
- A compelling lead. The first sentence has to sell the article. If a reader’s attention isn’t grabbed by the first line, they’re not likely to keep reading. A captivating lead states even something mundane in an engaging way.
- Practice, practice, practice. This one is from my grade nine teacher. It was a revelation at the time; I’ve kept a journal ever since, and my writing keeps improving. If you don’t think you’re ready this year, practice on your private scrolls and consider submitting a piece next year.
- Interviewing: Do it. If you want to write restaurant reviews or poetry, this doesn’t apply, but when it comes to reporting, you’ll need to master this skill. Posing your own unique questions to those involved in a news story will make your article your own. This can be intimidating (it sure has been for me). Let yourself be nervous and do it anyway. Even if you’re covering a national news story, you are sure to find someone to comment on the issue. I once snagged a phone interview with an Ottawa lawyer in a federal court case just by sending an email. Never assume someone won’t talk to a student reporter.
- Ask open-ended questions. The goal of an interview is to find out what the interviewee thinks. Don’t ask yes or no questions; “yes” and “no” are not the most illustrative quotations. What, when, where, how, and why questions will elicit quotable answers that tell you what the interviewee thinks. Be short and to the point. The interviewee needs to understand the question and remember it as they go about answering.
- Use only the best quotations. The quotations you publish should be the most compelling and the most clearly stated words the interviewee said. If they used an interesting turn of phrase, use that. Don’t over-quote; you’ll need to do some analysis as well as re-iterating the interviewee’s comments.
- Keep it short and simple. After you write your first draft, pare it down ruthlessly. Long-windedness is a sure-fire way not to keep readers engaged. Your goal is to capture the reader’s attention immediately and hold it for as long as possible, before an inevitable distraction arises. Aim for a maximum of 20-25 words in a sentence. You won’t capture every nuance, but simplification is an evil necessity of journalism.
- Get a second opinion. Always read your pieces over multiple times and ask a friend to give you their opinion. They may raise an interesting perspective you haven’t considered, suggest re-wording a sentence or two for clarity, or even have a good title for your piece. Don’t take criticism personally; use it to improve your writing.
- Lastly, ignore all of this advice if it doesn’t suit you and write something anyway.