Posts Tagged ‘style’

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.

How to get a newspaper editor’s attention

The calls, emails and tweets started flowing in around during the holidays, coming across my desk at a rate of about half a dozen daily. Many more landed among my colleagues. They usually say something like this:

“I wrote this piece and thought you might like it,” says the introduction to one email.

“Sure, it’s a blog post, but it’s a subject that interests everyone,” says another.

“I’d love to write about sports. I’m a big fan,” says one caller.

This time of year, aspiring writers drop hints, notes and whole unsolicited stories on newspapers like new snow with the intention of publishing those stories and getting paid for them. I think of it as a different kind of holiday tradition: as Christmas-related bills mount, these optimistic writers try to salve their financial wounds by banging out what they consider “news” and expecting a newspaper editor to read it as such, thus publishing it in the next day’s paper and paying generously for the writers’ work by week’s end, or at least before the next credit card statement arrives.

But most of these gratuitous pitches and contributions wind up deleted, erased, ignored, because their writers failed at good reporting.

Sure, newspapers long have relied on contributing writers or freelancers to report news particularly when their full-time staffs were swamped with other work. The need for freelancers is acute now since newspapers nationwide have cut about one-third of their staffs over the past decade.

But today as decades before, newspapers do not accept anything and everything submitted to them for publication as “news.” The stories appearing in today’s print pages or online are products of careful planning, research and attention to detail. Even breaking news coverage requires rapid incisive analysis by teams of reporters and editors — freelancers sometimes among them — to determine how and why something happened and why it’s what journalists like to call “newsworthy.”

So, before you ship that free-form story to the nearest newspaper, stop for moment to understand first what it takes to attract a newspaper editor’s attention:

First, you have to read the newspaper — This sounds pitifully obvious. In reality, it’s pitiful how many solicitations that come to newspapers are ignorant on their face, as the writers are blind to the newspaper’s greater purpose. Each paper serves as a kind of window onto the community, and the communities themselves are distinct. Thus, what interests readers or is newsworthy in St. Louis may not warrant similar attention in Sheboygan, Wis., or Syracuse, N.Y. Reading the newspaper carefully every day reveals the distinction. Consider how a newspaper is organized and edited, and where certain topics routinely appear. In other words, study the newspaper before trying to write for it.

Sell the story, not yourself — Prospective freelancers often try to tell their life stories when all an editor wants to know is whether the writer’s idea is worth attention. Concentrate on explaining the story’s importance in one or two short sentences, focusing on the key questions all news stories try to answer: who what, when, where, why and how.

Remember, there is no “I” in news — What you think, feel or believe about the news is not important; don’t try passing off a recent blog post or journal entry as a news story. Cite only the facts in a story pitch; leave out your opinion. Because everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has the facts.

Provide verifiable sources — Newspapers aim to steer clear of bias in its news, leaving that instead to the commentary pages, thus some editors may want to check the validity of a freelancer’s idea before committing to it. Providing at least three independent sources that editors can contact if they wish will sell a story pitch better than if there are none.

Send your pitch to the proper place — Story ideas relating to sports should not go to the news or features editors. Find out who the editors are that work with freelancers and accept story ideas, and craft pitches and queries to them specifically.

Pay attention to quality, quantity — Besides determining the proper editor for submissions, make sure to spell the editor’s name correctly. For that matter, pay careful attention to fixing spelling and grammar errors before sending any correspondence. Most newspapers also adhere to “style” guidelines outlined by The Associated Press. Furthermore, if a story calls for a specific length, say 500 words, avoid writing even one word more than that. Not following such a simple direction may prompt time-challenged editors to hit the “delete” key.

Keep an open mind about being edited — Even the world’s best journalists need editors, so don’t think your work is much better. But don’t take editing personally. Accept that stories may be trimmed or adjusted for length before publication. Tight, precise writing and rigid adherence to a prearranged story length go a long way toward preventing this.

Small potatoes are better than no potatoes — It used to be that newspapers paid well for freelance work. These days, big paychecks are rare, $25 to $50 per published story being typical and non-negotiable.

Don’t be discouraged, but don’t be a pest, either — Upon making a pitch, if a newspaper editor has not yet responded, wait three or four days before following up politely, professionally. It may be that the editor has been busy, or is keeping an eye open for other ideas.

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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