Wednesday, October 21, 2009...4:06 pm

Advice for journalism students: write!

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I’ve been spending some time with UCA journalism students for the past week, overseeing their online journalism projects.
On the whole, things are going well. The third years are dipping their toes into PHP using a useful WordPress plugin called Widget Logic. This allows a user to specify on which pages of a WordPress site a sidebar Widget appears and is really useful for customising the sidebar according to the content you are displaying at any particular time.
And both the second and third years are grappling with the idea that how you categorise or tag your content affects where and how it is displayed in a database-driven site. This is all valuable stuff, and I’m pleased that most students seem to be taking it on board successfully.
But there’s one big hurdle. Getting students to produce content for their sites is like pulling teeth.
I have no idea why the prospect of filing a few 400 word online stories is so daunting. But enough students spend more time agonising over writing copy than actually doing it to give me pause.
What’s the problem here? Why should students treat churning out (sorry, carefully crafting) a few hundred words of soft copy as if they were writing Proust?
Of course it’s easy to forget what it was like back in my own college days. I do remember agonising about essays and worrying that somehow I would wear out my inspiration if I spent too much time drafting what I wrote. I somehow had the impression that I needed to wait for that perfect moment of inspiration before setting pen to paper (literally – this was before I even had a typewriter, let alone a PC).
But writing is like a muscle and it needs a regular workout. I’ve said it before, and it’s a crucial message to get across to journalism students in particular. Writing impenetrable essays about post-structuralism is one thing – writing online news stories is another. Speed is of the essence, and expecting students to write one a day should be natural – not the one a fortnight I seem to be able to squeeze out of them.
So – journalism students and graduates alike: please, please take this on board. Get over your angst and start typing. Practice really does make perfect. Or, in this case, halfway decent.


  • Could you maybe give them a focus for a news story, say something in their local community? This might help. On the other hand, you might have already done this. Or what about, to get them into the rhythm of writing news, asking them to
    take a news story from a web site and write it word for word, or make some minor changes. This might be a useful warm-up exercise. Just a couple of ideas. Good luck.

  • Thanks Greg. I have found that acting as editor and dishing out assignments is quite effective at getting them to write. The problem is – as with all university based courses – that there is simply not enough teaching time. Most of the time students are left to their own devices and are not yet sufficiently skilled to be their own commissioning editor. (Not without a lot of angst, anyway…)

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