“Buy the damned AP Stylebook:” Helpful hints for students hoping to succeed in their media classes

At the start of each year, I ask my collection of professionals, educators and just relatively smart folks to offer you some advice or provide some sort of thoughtful discourse. Last year, I asked them what they remembered about their first journalism course. The answer from most of them? “I was scared out of my mind.”

This year, I asked my “hivemind” to offer you some helpful advice to kick off your writing, reporting and editing courses on the right foot. The suggestions actually started with a story from a magazine editor who offered this after lunch with an intern:

She’d come in thinking fashion journalism was her thing, and now she’d like to explore more widely. It’s not true in every case, but I feel like this is something that happens a lot. A young person gets interested in journalism largely because they’re interested in a subject – and usually one of the cool subjects. They want to be a sportswriter, or a fashion writer, or a music writer. Rarely does anybody get into journalism with a burning desire to cover the Possum Hollow board of aldermen. So then, my advice: think about journalism as a general condition and not a conduit to a subject you really love… Branch out and think less about subject matter, more about the craft itself.

While working on that craft, some folks offered a few basics:

Call your sources. Phones are your friends.

To be fair, I realized how much time I spend using my phone for non-calling functions dwarfs the amount of time I spend calling people, so I feel your pain on this.

In terms of writing and editing, some suggestions were pretty blunt:

Buy the damn AP Stylebook.

The purpose of a style book is to serve as a reference guide. I don’t think any professor expects you to memorize this thing from top to bottom. Even if you do, AP is now changing rules faster than the Catholic church during Vatican II, so don’t expect to ever fully get a handle on the book. The point of owning the book is so you can figure out what kinds of things you need to look up. Within both the media writing book and the reporting book are Fred Vultee’s 5-Minute AP Style Guide, which should be a good starting point for you, if you feel overwhelmed.

Learning to adhere to style will also help you get used to editing your own work carefully, a suggestion offered by more than one person, including a recent graduate who now works as a reporter:

Proofread all of your work. The work entails you explaining something to another person. If you can’t understand a sentence, how is somebody else going to figure it out?

(By the way, I had to edit at least three parts of that clip to make it make sense… Nobody’s perfect.)

Another person, who works as a professor and media adviser, offered this advice for editing your own work:

Pretend every word costs $1. Save your money.

My two favorite suggestions come from opposite ends of the spectrum. First, a graduate student and former editor at some major daily newspapers, provided this gem:

Learn the rules, then get good enough to break them.

This echoes one of the earliest posts I wrote about writing: You earn the fungus on your shower shoes. I would also note that even people who earn the right to break the rules have to be smart enough to know when it’s not working. There is nothing wrong with backing off some weird lead or turn of phrase if all it’s doing is bogging down your copy or annoying your readers.

Finally, a “fall back plan” from a pro who worked on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in multiple media formats:

Journalism’s screwed and they should also learn welding.

Maybe, but if we all give up on writing, who is going to write those compelling stories about welders?

In any case, have a great semester and we’ll see you here from time to time. If you ever have a topic of interest you want me to cover or a question to ask about anything, just feel free to reach out.

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

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