Writing Organizations for Student Journalists

This is a bit late for me, since I’m graduating in May, but I thought it might be a good idea to talk a little bit about writing organizations for journalists and other editorial media that students may be interested in.

First off, any student who is either an intern at a news organization or works at a student publication should consider joining the Society of Professional Journalists.  SPJ is a fantastic resource for students.  During my time at the Independent Collegian, our staff received two regional SPJ awards, and we were able to have some great experiences because of SPJ.  College student memberships are $37.50 for one year.

For those students at print publications, there is also the American Copy Editors Society.  ACES is an organization for those interested in editing – especially copy editors for newspapers – and holds an annual conference about copy editing.  ACES also has regional events and scholarships for students expressing an interest in and aptitude for copy editing.

Female students may be interested in joining the Association for Women in Communications, which offers both professional and student chapters to its members.  Other benefits include job resources, membership directories, and awards.  Student memberships are only $34, and Recent Graduate memberships are available for the same price for those graduating within 12 months of applying for membership.

There are also associations for student journalists who belong to specific minority groups, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays and lesbians, and other minorities.  Please visit the appropriate site to learn more about their student membership program.

If you are a dedicated student journalist planning to pursue a career in journalism, consider checking out these organizations.  If you are interested in learning more about other journalism organizations, please check out the American Journalism Review’s page dedicated to journalism organizations.

The Importance of Snappy Copy

When I was younger and first starting to take creative writing seriously, I thought being “a good writer” meant constructing lengthy, flowy passages of elaborate text with the longest, most complex words possible.  I thought I should aim to write something with the highest reading level possible, use words understandable only by people who had PhD’s, and write as pretentiously as possible to ensure that other people would think I was “a good writer.”

I also thought Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century was the best show on television.

Nine years later, I’d be the first to say lengthy and elaborate passages are a hallmark of uninformed writing.  This is largely a product of my time as a journalism major in college – I’ll graduate with a Communication degree with a journalism concentration in May – but it’s also something I’ve learned while taking classes towards a creative writing degree I am no longer pursuing.

Where’s the proof, you ask?  Allow me to demonstrate my point.

A single punchy word does more damage than a long, floppy phrase.  A common misconception among new writers – which I’ve observed several times at student workshops and am also guilty of – is that long sentences equal good writing.  This is not true, and over-use of adverbs and adjectives make a piece look sloppy.

Now that I have more workshop experience and critical reading experience, it’s frustrating to read sentences with more than one or two adjectives or adverbs when I’m reading fiction.  Reading poetry brings out even more of a critic in me.  There are more effective ways to say things – and don’t even get me started on the word “that”!

When you write blogs or articles, shorter is almost always better.  While many bloggers can write posts into the thousands, it’s much easier for readers to consume posts between 500 and 700 words, which is the goal for a standard news article.  It’s easier to read pieces of that length.

It’s also easier to read shorter paragraphs, which is easier to do when the piece is not as long.  It’s much more difficult for me to read dense writing because I am now very accustomed to reading short, snappy blogs and news articles.

And my final point: this video by OkaySamurai on YouTube.

If that doesn’t convince you that snappy writing is important, I don’t know what else will!

[Guest Post] NaNoWriMo and Writing Immediacy

It was the afternoon of Jan. 13, 2000, and I was waiting at Microsoft’s headquarters to be ushered into a press conference with my fellow media elites. We had no idea why Microsoft had summoned us, other than it was a big announcement. Initially, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know what was going on – I was the AP business writer covering the company, after all, and I had worked the phones to no avail that day.

Finally, they allowed us in to take our seats, then handed us a press release. “Bill Gates to step down as Microsoft CEO.”

Oh, crap.

By the time Bill took the stage, the four paragraphs I had dictated over my cell phone were already on the wire. I didn’t even bother writing them down. By that evening, I had written more than 3,000 words, including a mainbar, a feature on the relationship between Bill and his successor, Steve Ballmer, and a few other tidbits. Each piece was re-written at least twice by the time I was done.

The only reason I bring this up is to remind you that NaNoWriMo requires you to write with that same kind of immediacy. And if you plan on doing any kind of writing for a living, you’re going to have deadlines to meet. Best to start now, right?

I’m a long-time writer, first time NaNoWriMo’er. And seeing from the amount of angst and nerves I’ve seen from folks’ blogs and Twitterings, I feel like I’m nowhere near as geared up for it as I should be. Then again, my journalism background probably leaves me somewhat more prepared than most. Here are some strategies from my reporting days that I’m using and might help you out:

  • Don’t second guess. It’s a first draft. It’s supposed to suck. When I was reporting, I had editors to edit and write-thrus to correct. Same here – you’ll catch it in the revision process later. My first novel, currently out on submission, was revised eight times. It started getting really good around the fifth revision. Perfection is the enemy of NaNoWriMo. Just get it down on the page.
  • Don’t go backward. Halfway through your book, you’re going to realize that your protagonist should be nicer, or your plot twist needs more twisting. Just incorporate those elements as you go, then wait until you’re done with the full draft before you clean it up.
  • Don’t be afraid of the TKs. When I’m writing on the fly, I’ll often throw in a TK (an old editing mark for “to come”) as a placeholder for a statistic or concept I need to research. That holds true for NaNoWriMo as well. Don’t pause to look up 18th century sailing-ship rigging or the state of Protestantism during the Counter-Reformation in Bavaria. Slap a TK on it and keep going.
  • Mark where you’ve diverged from your outline. Take a moment to put a comment or note in the text where you’re TKing or changing something major, to ensure you’ll catch it on revision. It’s a corollary to not looking back at that very moment. Every time you feel the urge to go back and revise, mark it instead, then move on.
  • Hit your word count. If you’re going to write 3,000 words a day, don’t stop until you’re done. That means you need to ensure you’re setting aside enough time to write, and that your outline (you DID create an outline, right?) allows you to chunk out the copy to meet that goal. Treat it like a job that you don’t get paid for. Not only will that attitude help you meet your goals, but it will prepare you for a lifetime of hard work and low pay. (Kidding!)

Above all, have fun. By the end of this month, you’ll have the start of something awesome in your hands. It won’t be ready for prime time, but you’ll be in far better shape than you were on Oct. 31!

Michael J. Martinez is a writer in the New York City area, with a number of non-fiction books, several dozen magazine pieces and a heap of newspaper articles to his credit. He blogs at michaeljmartinez.net and Tweets at mikemartinez72. Follow him on Twitter before Dec. 1 for a chance to win a critique of your NaNoWriMo work. Michael is represented by Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency.