Posts Tagged ‘st. louis’


7 steps to a better résumé

Resume adviceWhether pitching for a full-time job or a single project, writers and editors use an assortment of tools and tactics to connect with potential clients. Social media, word-of-mouth advertising, personal correspondence and networking events are great for this; they help sell your personality.

When it comes to selling one’s skills, however, the best tool remains a clear, crisp résumé.

Résumés date back more than 500 years to Leonardo da Vinci, who is believed to have written the first one, but they were informal in style and substance until the 1950s. Today, there are three basic types: the functional résumé, listing work experience or skills categorized by skill area or job function; the reverse chronological résumé, listing work experience by date, starting with the most recent, and going back 10 to 15 years; and the hybrid résumé, which mixes the two types.

The typical résumé is short — two 8½-by-11 sheets of paper in length, at most — and direct, highlighting active verbs and essential keywords related to the job sought. Even video résumés are succinct, lasting no more than 60 seconds.

That’s because brevity is a courtesy in the current job market, as employers and potential freelance clients may receive dozens if not hundreds of applications for one position or task. Given this flood of applications, nothing guarantees that those résumés are read carefully.

But there are a few things résumé writers can do to boost their chances:

Have a clear focus —Résumés are supposed to land an interview, not land a job. Think of writing one as tapping an employer on the shoulder for a quick introduction. Using that approach, the résumé will likely sound more precise than plodding.

For video résumés, have a prepared script and memorize it. Reading from a prepared script or cue cards makes the performer’s eyes shift, giving the impression that the job applicant is distracted or untrustworthy.

Use clean typography — Certain styles of type read better in print than online, and vice versa. Because employers often ask that résumés be emailed, then print out a hard copy for use in a face-to-face interview, it makes sense to employ a type style that works well in both formats. Ariel, Times and Verdana best fit this purpose. And don’t cram information onto the page; leave room for white space to assure a fresh, inviting look.

When making a video résumé, dress as you would for the interview and use a background that lends itself to the theme of the position sought. For example, regarding writing and editing jobs, backgrounds that include books, magazines or other scholarly items add a formal, cerebral touch. Avoid using a plain white or monochrome background, as this can flatten a person’s appearance on camera.

Use clear language, avoid pronouns — Precise, polite English conveys professionalism; jargon and slang do not. Keep a dictionary and grammar guide close by. Steer clear of writing “I” or “me” because they are redundant in a document lacking any other characters. Use “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or any preferred title, if it is known. Include this courtesy in cover letters and contract bids.

An applicant’s demeanor matters, too, almost as much as proper language. A résumé that’s negative in tone or critical of former employers leaves the reader with a negative feeling about the applicant.

Use descriptive titles — Simply saying “writer,” or “editor,” or “manager” to describe yourself is not enough, as these terms mean different things to different people. A detailed title — end-user documentation writer, acquisitions editor, product development manager — suggests what tasks were involved in the role and paints an image in the employer’s mind.

Use bullet points — Long, gray blocks of type are boring and hard to read. Breaking out main tasks and talents in bulleted lists provides something for the eye to latch on to without searching.

Include specifics — As with titles, specifics are important when describing work history and personal goals related to the job sought. Emphasize achievements for each past position, expectations and aspirations for the new one. Tell an employer what you hope to bring to the job and how you may be able to solve problems related to it. If there are statistics that suit this purpose, include them.

Of course, effective use of detail requires research. Investigate the history of the employer or client before starting to write, and find out more about the job itself through a Google search, and previous or current employees if possible.

Edit with care — Nothing devalues résumés faster than poor spelling and poor grammar. Incorrect names and titles can land résumés into the trash, too. So, read through every word, every sentence, at least two or three times and check all facts, then find someone else to read over your work. Inaccuracies cut deep enough through an applicant’s professionalism to also mar one’s personal integrity. Leave prospective employers and clients thinking you’re invaluable, instead of indifferent.

David Sheets is a freelance editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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It’s National Grammar Day (insert exclamation point here)

This is it, the day all word mavens and grammarphiles relish with a fervency everyone else reserves for major national holidays, weekends, and end dates on the Mayan calendar.

It's Grammar Time!Yes, it’s National Grammar Day, and if you think itinerant commas or cliches stand a ghost of a chance on this auspicious occasion, think again. It is a day that all of us should spend paying greater attention to the craft of good communication and do, as Grammar Girl urges, “March forth … to speak well, write well, and help others do the same.”

That includes using “their” when “there” or “they’re” doesn’t work, correctly distinguishing “to” from “too” from “two,” slicing off dangling participles, and excising unctuous conjunctions, among many other attentions to linguistic and syntactical detail.

The day’s designation isn’t bound by law or scripture, but motivated by common courtesy. In our information-crazy world, precise use of language rises to the level of imperative. To serve society and convey respect for others, we are obligated to employ language precisely, appropriately. Poor grammar muddles our messages and implies ignorance or arrogance. It can cost reputations and dreams.

Journalists understand this perhaps better than most people, but as we enter the age of “citizen journalism,” when so many American citizens possess the tools and potential to stand in a position of authority on news, the grammar imperative becomes acute. The serious task of news gathering also demands serious presentation. Careful use of language conveys not only necessary detail, but also personal credibility. People who use language properly will be assigned more authority than people who do not.

If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who reads resumes for a living how many job candidates are passed over because of spelling errors and misplaced punctuation.

So, take care today to watch what you write and say. Recognize this sixth annual National Grammar Day by putting usage among your top priorities. If you’re smart, you’ll strive to turn that attention to detail from headache to habit.

David Sheets, SPJ's Region 7 directorDavid Sheets is a freelance editor, adjunct professor of journalism at Lindenwood UniversityRegion 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Freelance writers, this is your week

National Freelance Writer Appreciation WeekThis week, if you see a freelance writer, give ’em a hug.

Better still, give ’em a job.

The annual National Freelance Writers Appreciation Week starts today, and if you haven’t heard it’s a seven-day serenade to all the wordsmiths and keyboard-pounders who give shape and life to ideas on their own time, often on their own dime, so that others without the patience or aptitude to write still have a voice.

No proclamation made this week possible; no act of Congress, or act of God — just the goodwill and good sense of people who put a premium on well-rounded words and the diligent souls who smooth them into shape.

And there are many of these souls plying this heartfelt trade. Besides being responsible for the words you’re reading here, freelance writers create most of the grant applications, e-commerce strategies and advertising copy that shape our world. They break news and they build reputations; they churn out blogs and business plans, pastorals and poems. In fact, you probably can’t make it through the day without seeing a freelancer’s work in ink or digital print.

So, this week, show your appreciation by giving a freelancer more than just a smile. Become acquainted with and support such prime sites for freelancers as the Editorial Freelancers Association, Freelancers Union, and of course, become a regular reader of the Society of Professional Journalists’ own Independent Journalist blog.

SPJ also offers a Freelancer Directory, where one can shop for freelance help, as well as a Job Bank, where freelancers can shop in return. And there’s “On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism,” written and edited by SPJ-member freelancers and free of cost to SPJ members. However, a small donation for it is welcome from everyone, as the money goes to help support freelancers and their efforts.

David Sheets, SPJ's Region 7 directorDavid Sheets is a freelance editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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In social media, patience is spelled with five W’s

In a perfect world, our words shine like jewels the first time we write or say them.

The reality is, they demand special consideration before displaying them in public. For one thing, so many terms in English have multiple meanings; for another, so many readers own distinct perspectives and biases. Ask 10 people to read the same sentence, and they’re likely to offer 10 slightly different interpretations.

That’s why, in our electron-fast, social media age, extra seconds spent pondering our pedantry before tapping the Send button can prevent embarrassment and thus preserve credibility.

So, at a time we’re still weighing New Year’s resolutions, or wondering whether to uphold the ones we’ve made, consider putting patience high on the list. Armed with it, writers and editors more easily catch spelling errors, check or recheck facts, change tone, even adjust attitudes — particularly their own.

The trick, of course, is finding patience where none existed. Hours spent banging out social media posts as fast as they come to mind can cultivate writing that’s reflexive, not reflective.

It may help then to install social media speed bumps of a sort — a set of objectives that forces introspection. For this, we could adapt journalism’s famous five W’s:

Who — Think first, “Who am I trying to reach?” Though social media networks permit users to group their followers, most users don’t, and their networks are a mishmash of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. The result: just one post intended for a small group of followers could send others packing. Craft posts with the broadest possible appeal, frame edgier posts with self-effacing humor or courtesy, and restrict the hardest commentary to direct messages.

What — Make sure the point of a post is clear and consistent with the facts. Go back through other people’s posts, check associated Web links and references to see whether those people are interpreting the information correctly, and whether you’re doing the same and not relying on conjecture. Only then can you safely answer the question, “What am I trying to say?”

When — Speed is a drug in social media; we assume the faster we post, the more certain we are to ride the leading edge of news. Blame this behavior in part on traditional media, which instilled the belief that “scoops” or “beats” on breaking news were just as important as the information itself. In truth, no newspaper shut down and no TV station went dark from not having enough scoops. Today, the Web is rife with humor and shame over errors by news organizations that moved too fast to gather facts. Thus, the answer to “When should I post?” ought to be, “After I have all the facts.”

Where — The term “social media” is as broad as the horizon. It encompasses numerous networks, each having its own best practices and tolerances. Still, we consider Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others to possess the same reach and intent. But there’s a saying: Facebook is for people you already know, Twitter is for people you want to know, and LinkedIn is for people you need to know. Learn the point and purpose of each social network, then you’ll be able to answer “Where should I post?”

Why — I’d like to think everything I say via social media is important. We all do. Nevertheless, each of us encounters users who think otherwise. That constituency dwindles though with solid answers to “Why should I post?” Whereas flippant or rhetorical commentary only attracts more of the same, social engagement founded on research and reportage is shared and re-shared more widely.

David Sheets, SPJ's Region 7 directorDavid Sheets is a freelance editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Make a resolution to do better on social media

The Christmas decorations are coming down and the New Year’s fireworks are going up. Also around this time, long lists of New Year’s resolutions go up, too.

Diet and exercise top most lists, as do stronger finances and better personal relationships. One thing also worth reviewing among freelancers and maybe revising for 2013 is the way they present themselves through social media.

Numbers are why. As 2012 wound down, Twitter users churned out 175 million tweets daily. An estimated 625,000 new users joined Google+ daily. Facebook garnered about 850 million active users monthly. And LinkedIn added 50 million members in one year; it needed six years to get its first 50 million.

In other words, social media has skipped well past the point of novelty and entered the realm of necessity, especially for freelancers intent on attracting attention. So then, it pays for freelancers to paint a clean, clear portrait of themselves online, if they haven’t already, to keep that attention coming.

A few crisp strokes can do that. These should encompass:

Profile photos — There’s a reason it’s called “social” media. Nevertheless, a lot of serious people trying to do serious business still hide behind the faceless default icon all social media platforms employ, the result being they don’t gain digital friends or, more importantly, win jobs, says Nicholas Salter, a professor of psychology at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He led a recent study that found those people on LinkedIn with profile pictures are more likely to get hired than those without.

Susan Gunelius, a marketing communications executive who is the author of “Google Blogger for Dummies,” underscores the value. “It’s better to have 1,000 online connections who read, share and talk about your content with their own audiences than 10,000 connections who disappear after connecting with you for the first time.”

Headlines — In a newspaper or news website, headlines are concise declarations of pertinent information intended to announce, inform and attract. In a freelancing proposal, job application or social media campaign, writing with the crisp prose of headlines brings focus and adds clarity to one’s message. Studying the way headlines are written and following their form can do wonders at putting that message ahead of others.

Keywords — And speaking of headlines, keywords give those headlines punch. These keywords are the distinguishing terms lacing online business reports, blogs, and especially job postings, that search engines pluck out for categorization. Special attention paid to keywords helps turn heads and boost Web and social traffic. But keep them relevant; don’t trot out trendy terms just because everyone else has.

Research — Like the way a drip, drip, drip from a leaky faucet can be distracting, so too can social content designed to make more noise than sense. The best, most memorable content reflects an understanding of the intended audience and an appreciation for what that audience finds interesting. Invest time online in 2013 researching audience behavior and trends. Start by getting to know Google Analytics and Google Trends, and reading reports from Gartner, the Pew Research Center, and Poynter.

David Sheets, SPJ's Region 7 directorDavid Sheets is a freelance editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Widbook: A tool for collaborative journalism

As the market for freelance journalism grows, so too has interest in the evolving tools for that job.

That interest is acute where collaborative journalism is concerned, because simply pitching PDFs of Word documents back and forth via email tends to be a clunky way of doing business in this demanding age of digital interactivity. Now, no matter the distance or purpose, teams of people with shared goals all want to work together as if sitting in the same room.

A relatively new website called Widbook tries to provide that goal-oriented environment and foster a social network to supplement it. Widbook is a writing and editing space that lets people alone or in groups craft book-length projects and shorter stories; insert resources such as photos, videos and animations; and add to or augment contributions by other writers.

Widbook also invites writers and readers to share and tweak favorite developing works, and create libraries of published works whether self-written or from other authors.

Early reports on Widbook, still in beta, call it a “YouTube for books” because of its heavy emphasis on interactivity. The central theme and interface are better suited for collaboration on projects. Writers who prefer to work alone can use Widbook as well, but they’ll miss out on many of its features.

And Widbook is free of charge to register for and use — surely the most attractive feature to freelance writers and hopeful novelists working with meager budgets. The only things that first-time visitors to Widbook need to get started is to create a user name and password. Options include creating a personal profile, linking with Facebook, and selecting favorite literary genres from which to build a library. Members also can send messages and “follow” one another through the site.

Because it’s in beta, Widbook has limitations and quirks. For one thing, it’s not possible to export a finished project to another platform, though that’s expected to come later as the site matures, and it’s not obvious to early users how the social media aspect will supplement the collaboration tools. The interface is also a tad balky with projects of more than a few chapters.

Still, for collaborative writers and editors, Widbook presents an intriguing new way for journalists to exchange ideas and bring far-flung talent together in the same room.

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

 

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Assignmint promises to change freelancing

There’s a new player in the marketplace promising to change the way freelance journalists do their jobs, and the results are supposed to be spectacular.

But so far, it’s only a promise.

Assignmint.com is the Web address for this ambitious operation and Jeff Koyen, a former New York Post writer, is the person said to be in charge of it. According to the early media buzz, Assignmint intends to consolidate all aspects of freelancing — from pitches to payment — in a cloud-sharing model designed to streamline the business in such a way that freelancers have more freedom to be productive.

The site and Koyen’s plan gained attention last week in articles by Fast Company and Mediabistro’s FishbowlLA. However, for now, the site itself only asks visitors to submit their email addresses if they want to be included in the limited beta release in June. Assignmint tentatively launches in a broader format later this year, and at least the basic memberships will be free, Koyen says.

Ideally, once registered with Assignmint, member freelancers can “filter and manage incoming pitches, issue assignments and then handle all related fulfillment (e.g. contracts and invoices) right from their dashboard,” Koyen explained in FishbowlLA. Assignmint is even expected to have features for matching freelancers with prospective clients.

Premium accounts meanwhile will have a broader selection of workflow and sharing tools, as well as advice on 1099 tax filing.

Assignmint is targeting writers and editors first, other media later. And if that relationship works as intended, the site will expand to include academia, and financial and IT services, among others, Koyen says.

Surely though the most interesting part about Assignmint will be its attempt to minimize hassle from payment collection. Assignmint proposes to act in the freelancer’s interest in exchange for a yet-to-be-determined service fee, sort of the way sites such as eBay and PayPal handle e-payments.

At least that’s the general idea. For now, however, Assigmint is like a story pitch that’s a long ways away from payout.

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

 

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Is there such a thing as ‘idea theft’?

Picture yourself in this situation, if you haven’t already: You’ve pitched a story idea to a newspaper, magazine or online editor, received a nod of acknowledgement either in person or by correspondence and words of praise but not commitment, was thanked for your input and then left with the impression the editor would get back to you for follow-up. Days, weeks, maybe months pass without that follow-up.

Then, forewarning aside, the same story idea turns up, in almost the identical context as your pitch, in the editor’s publication.

The first natural thought is, “That (insert your favorite insult here) stole my idea!” A grand display of teeth-gnashing, fist-clenching and floor-pacing follows, and soon after arises the notion to give that editor a piece of your mind.

But before you do, consider two things. First, if you intend to give someone a piece of your mind, remember to leave enough for yourself. And second, the likelihood that the editor “stole” your idea is indefensible and improbable.

The truth is, nobody “owns” a story idea. Those thoughts swirling around in our heads afford no collateral by themselves. We like to think they do because of the inspiration they give us and the biased belief that nobody else had them. But unless an idea is written down, it doesn’t technically exist. And even then, it must be copyrighted before the owner can pursue and expect compensation for theft.

When an “original” story idea winds up flowing from someone else’s pen or keyboard, a few factors probably came into play:

It wasn’t original — Across decades and thousands of publications, assorted story themes have been hashed and rehashed, with tweaks made here and color added there as freshener. Arguably, the idea you’re pitching took root the same way it did for another writer, and another writer before that. Inspiration takes many forms, one being the unanticipated reflection of another person’s inspiration.

Bad timing — Chances are, too, the publication had an idea much like yours on its calendar. Publications of all sorts stockpile ideas and schedule them well in advance to keep their production on track; your idea might have been on the docket or in process long before it became “your” idea.

Editor’s prerogative — Part of what editors do daily is determine the optimum bang for a publication’s buck, and that includes finding the best writers and reporters for particular story ideas. Experience, talent, resourcefulness, enterprise — these all factor highly when editors assign a story to one person instead of another. Bear in mind though, this does not imply greater general competence; rather, it points to specific competencies certain stories need to shine.

Lack of expertise — Along that line, for freelancers, this suggests they develop and hone special skills and have a “niche” they can call their own. An editor shopping a story idea on mutual funds or needlepoint, or seeking and editor who can easily clarify either story, will choose talent they know has better-than-average knowledge of those topics before tossing it up to the crowd. When making a pitch, prove not only the story idea’s value but yours as well.

Of course, not every editor or publication possesses sterling intent and unassailable character. Because ideas lack easy protection, it’s possible for editors to plumb for ideas after their dependable reserves of material dry up, or their motives are unmasked, but this is bound to bring them detrimental long-term results. The various publishing industries, whether print or electronic, are close-knit environments made tighter through the nation’s economic tumult over the past four years. That and the rise of social media have forged both direct and relational connections between writers and editors that were once unimaginable.

So basically, editors who lift others’ ideas too often risk their reputations and their jobs, an unwise tactic to take in a shrinking marketplace.

But to be sure, writers can employ tactics of their own against the concept of “idea theft”:

Research — Look into a publication’s background regarding freelance work. Learn the publication’s policies and practices, and try talking with other freelancers to see how they were treated. Above all, read through as many back issues as you can find, to see what ideas have been done and how they were presented.

Confidentiality — Ask editors to keep ideas confidential and extend the courtesy of a reply once they know whether to go with the story. No editor is obligated to do this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. And if the pitch is submitted in print, clarify the confidentiality concern with a line or two making the same request. Furthermore, keep story sources out of written proposals where possible, if for no other reason than to protect their confidentiality as well.

Contact — Stay in touch with editors, but don’t hound them. A call, email or note after a couple of weeks to remind them you’re eager to get to work is OK. Maybe mention, too, that other editors have expressed interest in the story, but say this only in honesty. Don’t make allegations or claims that editors can verify but you can’t.

Patience — Most editors, no matter the publication, are swamped with offers and ideas amid their other work. Weeks may pass before they’re able to give a response. So, scrutinize the calendar and plan to give pitches well ahead of the events they address. Harried editors will appreciate it.

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

 

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Four tips for better self-editing

The life of a freelancer can be a lonely one, especially when it comes to editing one’s own work and trying to polish it until glowing. Hours, days, weeks spent on a project can infuse a sense of entitlement regarding the content, with every word in every line considered sacrosanct, and pruning too painful to contemplate. After all, these words came from a place deep within, we think to ourselves, and they are as much a part of us as our own skin and blood.

Which is why Thomas Wolfe said what he did: “Writing is easy. Just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.”

But prune we must, for as Wolfe and other writers of his ilk knew it’s the editing that makes fair writing good and good writing great. Rare is the successful writer who commits an unalterable thought to print. Rarer still is the one who does it without embarrassing himself.

Trouble is, for freelancers, effective editing first requires a sense of detachment from the work so as to develop a crisp perspective attuned to bias and fault. And when it’s just us writing and nobody else is around with either the skill or patience to perform a quality edit, seeking that detachment can be difficult.

However, there are a few tricks available to put freelance writers in the frame of mind they need to get the job done:

Walk away — That’s right, walk away from the story for a while. Put it aside and go do something else — exercise, house chores, yard work, whatever — for 20 minutes to an hour, deadline permitting, and don’t even think about the story during that time, the notion being that separation helps the brain reorder its thinking regarding what it has digested repeatedly over a long period of time.

You see, our brains are capable of filling in gaps in logic and order, so that many of us can read this …

It dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.

… with little trouble, when in fact the corrected jumble says this …

It doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem.

Because of this trait, even seasoned editors misread once in a while. That’s why they pour over their work two, three, four times to make sure they see what the writer intended to say. And that’s why the best among them take short breaks between re-reads, or longer ones before tackling another editing project.

Change the background — After writing in a black-on-white writing environment on a word-processing program, change the program’s settings to alter the colors, transforming the background to, say, blue, and the type to yellow or pale green. This, too, fools the mind into believing it’s seeing something entirely new and organic. Altering the screen font and font size also has somewhat the same effect.

Read aloud — Eyes alone are not the tools we use for reading; we also “listen” to words as we read. However, during the writing process, either the eyes or ears take over and subsume the other half of our collective perspective. Then, upon reviewing what’s written, certain words don’t “sound” or look right, or the sentence context deviates from what we thought we were typing. Reading a story aloud in the editing process helps the mind both see and hear the gaps and inconsistencies that developed while we were busy trying to get the idea nailed down.

Read backward — In other words, read the story from the end to the beginning, going against the flow of the intended narrative. This practice works remarkably well for parsing the true meaning of sentences and whether they were constructed well enough to make sense in the first place. It’s also effective for fact-checking, as backward reading tends to bring out whether there’s too much or too little of something in the overall narrative.

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

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The keys to good journalism

The moment I thought “journalism” had died and I missed it came before speaking to a college class.

“Oh no, this isn’t a journalism class,” the professor told me moments before I stepped into the lecture hall. “This is media communications.”

“Not the same thing?” I asked. “I thought I was here to address journalism students.”

“Well, yes,” the professor said. “And no. Which is why I invited you.”

Confused, I asked for clarification, which she gave: “Journalism is incorporated in all we do; it’s an element in all we teach. But journalism by itself, we don’t do that anymore.”

And my job here this day?

“Maybe I wasn’t clear,” the professor said, sounding apologetic. “I was hoping you could explain what journalists like yourself do in your day-to-day routine — tell them how the theory comes into practice.”

This sounded simple enough. Problem was, the majority of the 45 students awaiting my sage instruction were seniors about a month away from sporting mortarboards. In my own college time, the “theory” we were supposed to learn came into practice almost immediately after freshman orientation. We all knew going in how to type on IBM Selectrics and use notepads, the professors presumed back then. Thus, their chief task was showing us how make something of the space between our ears, the most valuable news-gathering tool we had.

I doubted that anything I had to say to those 45 students would help them get a foot in a door at that point. Yes, they were savvy with networking and gadgetry. And yes, they probably knew how to knead an idea in as many ways as the prefix “multi” in multimedia allowed. But how much theory can anyone reasonably grasp when their eyes are focused on the space below the exit sign?

The key then, I believed, was offering the students less theory and more practicality. I didn’t know how much of the latter their in-class lessons provided. From my experience, the lessons I learned outside class were the ones still rooted in my mind. So, I opted to pass along some of the same tried and tested tips that no text or learned lecturer had awarded me at their age. If even a few students caught a clue, I figured, they’d be better prepared than a lot of their peers.

Among my hard-earned pearls of experience:

Read. Everything — We tend to reach first for whatever we like to read, not what we ought to read. Delving into assorted writing styles expands one’s mind for using words. It’s said that the best way to become a good writer is to first become a good reader, because you have to know and understand how words work before trying to make use of them.

Research. Everything — The habit today is to sift Wikipedia or the first couple of pages of a Google search for key sources, when the truth is that both of those venues are suspect. Wikipedia is vulnerable to prejudiced editing, while Google permits paid placement to influence its search listings. Real research — probing everything from pamphlets to databases and interviewing assorted subjects — takes time and effort, and is perhaps the hardest thing about being a credible journalist. Get comfortable with such sites as PACER and Pipl and Portico, and learn how to conduct advanced searches on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Listen. To everything — Rare is the interview when the subject gets to the point right away. Journalists may have to sit through speeches, musings, even homespun tales before the golden detail they seek rings clear. That’s fine — just listen. Chances are that other important information can be culled from what sources are trying to say.

Develop a strategy — Don’t go blindly into a topic hoping a story will somehow magically appear in completed form on your computer or tablet screen. In advance of pursuing a story idea, figure out how best to go about that pursuit. In other words, have a plan of action before taking the first note or conducting the first interview.

Develop living, breathing sources — The trend toward news aggregation is fine for those happy with merely repeating other people’s ideas. But for the rest of us intent on generating original content, it pays to talk with reliable experts, witnesses and trained observers to discover first-hand information, no matter who they are. And after that, it pays dividends to stay in touch and keep abreast of what they’re doing, find out what they’re seeing. Who knows: these once-used sources could provide insight to other story ideas later.

Ignore titles — Along this line, avoid depending too much on people with big or impressive titles. I struggled mightily in my first weeks of reporting by thinking the titled types possessed all the salient details when it was everyone below them — administrative assistants, clerks, servants, etc. — who had this information. I realized then that executives only make decisions; subordinates are the ones who make those decisions happen, and by extension know where all the signed documents are stashed.

Be skeptical — The saying among my college professors was, “If your grandmother says she loves you, check it out.” The point: Never take others’ word as gospel, for they may have less information than you. Furthermore, there are people out there whose job it is to mislead journalists. Don’t make it easier for them to do their job by trusting what they say.

Be compassionate, to a point — Understand that everyone has an opinion and the interview may be where the subject feels a need to express it. Let people vent, if it puts them at ease, but avoid getting drawn into an agenda.

Talk it over — It helps to talk about your stories with colleagues to get their input, though the solitary nature of freelancing can make that difficult. For journalists going it alone, professional organizations such as SPJ, the Online News Association and the American Copy Editors Society offer venues for discussion, as do the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Freelance Success and Freelancers Union.

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

 

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