Style, the law, and good writing

The two best tools for freelancing are a good idea and a comfortable place to write. Cobble together those things with confidence and conviction, and there’s no limit to a freelancer’s potential.

As far as the rest of the tool list, it varies for each writer. Some prefer pen and paper to keyboard when crafting first drafts; others are particular about the word processing software they use. Still others extend their devotion to include the hardware itself: PC or Mac, tablet or laptop or desktop system — it all matters only in the final product.

However, there are a few tools, mainly reference material, that freelancers probably should warm to before they sit down to write. These materials tackle presentation and precision, probe the law and explain the journalist’s right to information. Not every freelancer will need all of these, mind you, but those intent on practicing journalism alongside the best reporters out there will find them to be valuable assets on the journey to discovery.

Style guides — Clarity and consistency are hallmarks of good writing and reporting. Making sure copy is clean and crisp is the least that freelancers can do for their readers, and editors, as those qualities are what keep audiences engaged from first paragraph to last. No matter how good the story, if it’s not easy to read or understandable those failures will reflect on the writer long after the story is tossed in the trash.

Of course, a dictionary and a good thesaurus are crucial to have on hand. But consider, too, style guides and manuals that detail the writing standards established either for general good communication or for specific publications, such as medical and legal journals, academic and government documents, as well as magazines and newspapers. Freelancers should assess the style preferred by a particular publication before sitting down to write, because sometimes improper style is enough for an editor to shelve or discard a story.

Journalists everywhere tend to consider The Associated Press Stylebook as gospel and have now for decades. Though each newspaper or magazine may also publish a “house” style guide for reference points close to home, adhering to AP style should be enough. For general non-journalism purposes however, the Chicago Manual of Style is one of the oldest and most widely used guides on the market, and includes a wealth of detail the AP guide does not. And rising fast in esteem, the Yahoo! Style Guide covers a wide range of topics regarding digital and online media.

Among the field-specific guides are the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, the American Medical Association Manual of Style, and The Gregg Reference Manual for business writing. But to satisfy uncertainty about which guides are out there, a long list of links to them can be found at

Shield laws — Also known as “reporter’s privilege,” these amount to legislation existing in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia that protect journalists from revealing confidential information or sources in court. Essentially, they prevent courts from forcing journalists to testify about how they obtained information related to a story. The laws vary with each state; there is no broad federal protection. Some shield laws apply to civil but not criminal cases, while others prevent revealing sources but not other information. Freelancers should educate themselves on the law in their respective states and the states they may visit to do their reporting. The nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is a good place to start.

Freedom of Information — Enacted in 1966 to promote and enforce government accountability, the Freedom of Information Act originally required unfettered access to much unreleased information and documentation that was in federal control but since has been amended several times. Consequently, variations on access exist not only in Washington, but also throughout the country, compelling many states even to establish their own “sunshine law” guidelines. As with shield laws, the degree of access can vary widely between states. The Society of Professional Journalists has a section of its website devoted to this topic and includes a drop-down menu listing links and contact information regarding sunshine laws in each state, as does the Reporters Committee.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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  • good article.. very useful and appreciated it..thanks


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