Avoid the Common Mistakes That Beginning Reporters Make

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It's the time of the year when introductory reporting class students are submitting their first articles for the student newspaper. And, as always happens, there are certain mistakes that these beginning reporters make semester after semester.

So here is a list of common mistakes that novice journalists should avoid when writing their first news stories.

Do More Reporting

Too often beginning journalism students turn in stories that are weak, not necessarily because they're poorly written, but because they're thinly reported.

Their stories don't have enough quotes, background information or statistical data, and it's clear that they're trying to piece together an article on the basis of meager reporting.

A good rule of thumb: Do more reporting than is necessary. And interview more sources than you need to. Get all the relevant background information and statistics and then some. Do this and your stories will be examples of solid journalism, even if you haven't yet mastered the newswriting format.

Get More Quotes

This goes along with what I said above about reporting. Quotes breathe life into news stories and without them, articles are arid and dull. Yet many journalism students submit articles that contain few if any quotes. There's nothing like a good quote to breathe life into your article so always do plenty of interviews for any story you do.

Back UpĀ Broad Factual Statements

Beginning journalists are prone to making broad factual statements in their stories without backing them up with some sort of statistical data or evidence.

Take this sentence: "The vast majority of Centerville College students hold down jobs while also going to school." Now that may be true, but if you don't present some evidence to back it up there is no reason your readers should trust you.

Unless you're writing something that's plainly obvious, such as the Earth is round and the sky is blue, make sure to dig up the facts to support what you have to say.

Get Full Names of Sources

Beginning reporters often make the mistake of just getting the first names of people they interview for stories. This is a no-no. Most editors will not use quotes unless the story contains the full name of the person being quoted along with some basic biographical information.

For example, if you interviewed James Smith, an 18-year-old business major from Centerville, you should include that information when you identify him in your story. Likewise, if you interview English professor Joan Johnson, you should include her full job title when you quote her.

No First Person

Students who have been taking English classes for years often feel the need to use the first person "I" in their news stories. Don't do it. Reporters almost never resort to using the first person in their hard news stories. That's because news stories should be an objective, dispassionate account of events, not something in which the writer injects his or her opinions. Keep yourself out of the story and save your opinions for movie reviews or editorials.

Break Up the Long Paragraphs

Students accustomed to writing essays for English classes tend to write paragraphs that go on and on forever, like something out of a Jane Austen novel.

Get out of that habit. Paragraphs in news stories should typically be no more than two to three sentences long.

There are practical reasons for this. Shorter paragraphs look less intimidating on the page, and they make it easier for editors to trim a story on a tight deadline. If you find yourself writing a paragraph that runs more than three sentences, break it up.

Short Ledes

The same holds true for the lede of the story. Ledes should generally be just one sentence of no more than 35 to 40 words. If your lede gets much longer than that it means you're probably trying to cram too much information into the first sentence.

Remember, the lede should just be the main point of the story. The small, nitty-gritty details should be saved for the rest of the article. And there is rarely any reason to write a lede that's more than one sentence long.

If you can't summarize the main point of your story in one sentence, then you probably don't really know what the story is about, to begin with.

Spare Us the Big Words

Sometimes beginning reporters think that if they use long, complicated words in their stories they will sound more authoritative. Forget it. Use words that are easily understood by anyone, from the fifth-grader to the college professor.

Remember, you're not writing an academic paper but an article that will be read by a mass audience. A news story isn't about showing off how smart you are. It's about conveying important information to your readers.

A Few Other Things

When writing an article for the student newspaper always remember to put your name at the top of the article. This is necessary if you want to get a byline for your story.

Also, save your stories under file names that relate to the topic of the article. So if you've written a story about tuition increasing at your college, save the story under the file name "tuition hike" or something like that. That will enable the editors of the paper to quickly and easily find your story and place it in the proper section of the paper.

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