Four things to know to keep your first media writing class from sucking

With the close of the Labor Day weekend, it’s a safe bet that most students reading this will be starting the fall semester or have just started it (apologies to those of you who are on trimesters or who just have a ridiculously early start date). When we start this week, I know I’ll be face to face with another fresh crop of students experiencing their first media writing class and I can already smell the anxiety.

For those of you students in a similar boat, in that you’ll be taking your first media writing or reporting class, here are four things to know from the start so that your experience will be less painful:

Your work will suck for a while: One of the most difficult things about going into media writing is how frustrating it can be for people who have always been good writers. People who struggled to write? They tend to have an easier time with it, even though that sounds counter-intuitive.

Let’s call the rationale behind this the “Michael Jordan Plays Baseball” Theory. In 1993, Michael Jordan had cemented his place as the best basketball player in the world. He had just led the Bulls to a “three-peat” as NBA champions and he won the MVP award in each of those finals. In October of that year, he retired from basketball and decided to try playing baseball. He’s a super star athlete, he’s in his prime and he never stunk at anything, so this shouldn’t be a problem, right?


Jordan played for Double-A Birmingham Barons and to quote Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, “He couldn’t hit a curve ball with an ironing board.” Eventually, he got his first hit, his first run batted in and so forth. Even though he only hit .202 for the season, his manager (Terry Francona) said that he improved and could have been a major leaguer if he had committed to it. Instead, Jordan went back to basketball, much to the chagrin of everyone who wasn’t a Bulls fan.

The point is, you have always written well, but this is a different kind of writing and you’re going to suck at it for a while. All the things you used to have at your disposal that worked well won’t always fit into this style of writing. The format, the verbiage and the overall approach are all different, so get used to the feeling of falling on your keys for a while.

Learn from your screw ups:  I have this conversation at least once a semester:

Student: “I was wondering why I got such a bad grade on this piece.”
Me: “OK. Did my comments on the paper not make sense to you?”
Student: “I didn’t really read those. I just saw my grade and kind of freaked out.”

Look, I love writing, but writing out tons of comments on a story that was so bad it sapped my will to live, only to have the student ignore them all isn’t my idea of a good time. The whole purpose behind instructors writing comments on papers isn’t so that we have some sort of ground to stand on when an annoying student sues us over a grade. The idea is that we want you to learn something, so we tell you what went wrong so you don’t do it again.

As painful as it is to read the bloody mess of red ink that adorns your paper, dig into it. Learn what didn’t work so you don’t do it again. If you still don’t understand what you did wrong after you look your paper over, be proactive and meet with the instructor. Trust me, we love reading well-written papers so the more help we can give you on the front end, the less Advil we’ll need when we have to grade stuff.

Care more about the skills than the grade: If you would like to cause your instructor to have a “Scanners” moment every single day, make sure to ask two questions at the end of every class:

  1. “Do you know what my grade is?”
  2. “Is this going to be on the test?”

I get that grades matter for some things beyond the classroom: Scholarships, sports eligibility, having mom and dad not disown you… But seriously, once you are done with school, nobody is going to care about your grades, least of all you.

I can remember exactly three grades from my entire academic career:

  1. C-double-minus in penmanship from Mrs. Schutten in third grade. (The rule at that time was that if you got a D, they held you back, and although I was smart enough to pass everything else that year, my penmanship was godawful and she wanted to make absolutely sure I knew that.)
  2. C in Media Law in my junior year of college. (I skipped six weeks of class [long story] and was really, really bad at this whole concept. I prayed out loud for a C to pass during the final. I received applause, much to the chagrin of the instructor.)
  3. A in my first news writing class. (The only reason I remember this is because I wanted so damned badly to impress the instructor that I poured everything I had into that class.)

Beyond that, it’s a long alphabetic blur that ceases to have any value to me. If you focus on just doing stuff to get the grades, you’ll miss out on the skills you need to learn to make yourself marketable once you graduate. Even if you don’t see the point in what you are doing at the time, learn the heck out of the skills and practice them. Case in point:

At the end of the day, the skills will follow you and they will translate from job to job. Nobody, however, is ever going to say to you in a job interview, “So, it looks like you’re a perfect candidate, but let’s talk about this C+ in feature writing…”

Now is the time to care: I’ve told this to students before and it’s the best bit of advice I can possibly give you for any class:

Instead of saying, “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to your professor after you screwed up your work and you have no hope of getting out alive, say “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to yourself every day from the beginning of the semester and act accordingly.

Have a great semester and knock ’em dead.

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