What I Learned From My Newspaper Editors
Dr. Tamara Fudge, Professor School of IT, Kaplan University
I loved the experience of writing for a local newspaper, which I did from 2002-2009 as a weekend correspondent. It taught me how to gather information, write quickly, stay neutral in tone, and work for accuracy. Just like with school work, I was told what event I was supposed to cover, so the topics were not always known to me before starting on the assignment. Here are some lessons I learned from my editors that may be of help to the emergent academic writer:
- When researching, keep your focus, because there’s no time a-wastin’, as they say.
- Do your research carefully, however, to avoid misinformation or misattribution. What you write could potentially spark action by a reader, so accuracy and truthfulness are paramount.
- Organize your thoughts before you write. Even a short article benefits from a quick outline or list.
- Once you are organized, write at a good pace: get your ideas on the page and then go back to fix the English. Too much time is wasted in trying to be perfect with every word before moving on to the next idea.
- Don’t start or end with a quote. It weakens your authority as the author because a quote isn’t your words.
- Don’t take sides unless you are writing an editorial. For academic work, that means you need to know the purpose of your assignment first: is it to research and inform? If so, then stick to the facts and leave out your opinions and any emotionally-packed wording.
- Don’t let flowery language obscure the meaning. Sometimes plain language is truly the best.
- Refer to a person by his or her first and last names the first time you mention him or her. After that, refer to the person by last name only. Referring to a person by his or her first name only – unless it’s Madonna or Cher – is considered disrespectful. [Disclaimer: Some newspapers are old-fashioned and still use titles such as Mr. and Mrs. Everyday titles such as those are not used in academic work, although “Dr.” might be used for doctors the first time you mention them.]
- Proofread and never put all of your faith in spell-check. For example, there’s only one letter difference between Muslim and muslin, and they are both spelled correctly, but the meanings are unquestionably different.
- Write within the parameters you are given – for example, a given length. My articles for the paper were typically around 500 words. If I wrote a lot more, the editors would cut parts, and sometimes they would cut out what I liked best. When your professors require a minimum wording, meeting their requirement provides a minimum level of detail. When your professors state a maximum, it means you need to get to the point within that parameter.
There definitely were some differences in writing for that medium, however. It may be surprising to you, but the editor writes the headlines, not the writer! Paragraphs for newspaper articles also tend to be very short.
Additionally, there are plentiful quotes in newspaper articles that are gained from in-person interviews. For academic work, we should avoid using a lot of quotes, as quoting does not prove an understanding of the material, and again, it weakens the writer’s authority.
Lastly, the newspaper world doesn’t use the Oxford comma. That’s the one that follows the second-to-last item in a list, such as in “Bob, Alice, and Mortimer.” American newspapers write that as “Bob, Alice and Mortimer.” This can be a little confusing, depending on what you are listing! For academic work, the recommendation is to keep using that Oxford comma to avoid ambiguity (Nordquist, n.d.).
If you ever get a chance to write for a newspaper or other publication, jump for it! You’ll hone your writing skills and get to experience the real power of words.
Nordquist, R. (n.d.). What is the Oxford (or serial) comma? Retrieved from http://grammar.about.com/od/grammarfaq/f/QAoxfordcomma.htm