Wednesday, October 28, 2009...3:54 pm

Journalism students: feedback is your friend

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I have noted before that journalism students seem loath to actually write anything – as if creativity is a limited resource and they need to save it for when it’s really needed (ie when they have a hand-in).
But they also seem strangely reluctant to offer their work up for feedback from tutors.
It’s a puzzle. They certainly need feedback, as they have quite a task ahead of them on their course.
Journalism students need to pick up the specific skills of journalistic writing – which requires a number of different styles and qualities, from news to features to opinion. But in addition their English communication skills can be quite poor and they desperately need to improve those.
I don’t really blame them for this. These are core communication and language skills that aren’t really taught well enough at school.
But what also seems to be a hangover from school is inexperience in handling criticism. (That’s criticism in the sense of “your writing doesn’t  really work now because of a, b and c, and you need to do x, y and z to improve it”, by the way, rather than “you are crap”.)
One potential student on an Open Day recently summed it up by saying she was tired of teachers at school always saying her writing was “fine”. She wanted to know what was actually wrong with it so she could fix it and get better. The kind of positive reinforcement she was getting at school was actually holding her back.
But it takes a certain confidence to open yourself up to the Mallet of Loving Correction (©John Scalzi) when it’s not something you’re used to.
I aim to wield the mallet on Monday, so I’m hoping no one breaks down or takes it personally. But it’s a vital part of journalism and needs to be experienced on a regular basis.
Playing the Game was absolutely right in his post on work experience when he said:

Please don’t take it personally that you write for shit and someone dares to help you structure a story. Even the most seasoned hacks on the nationals have sat down next to their bosses and had their tale ripped to shreds.

Because that’s what’ll happen if you end up in a real job on a real publication somewhere. Some cranky editor or section chief will shred your work and may not be that tactful in doing it. I’ve seen it happen. It’s not pretty.
So embrace feedback. Seek feedback. Love feedback. Journalism lecturers love to be asked, because it shows you care about your work (and, OK, it feeds our ego). And we love to give it because we want you to improve.


  • … and nurtured in the right environment, feedback is FUN. Some of the happiest hours I’ve spent in journalism were passed ‘deconstructing’ colleagues’ prose – and having my own ripped apart appraised in turn.
    I struggle with this with young journalists, too. Somehow they need to understand that criticism isn’t bad – it doesn’t mean that you are shit, or that you won’t ever be any good. On the contrary, it’s about helping you be better.
    Oh, and they need to understand that it’s part and parcel of being a professional writer. Amateurs don’t need to care, or need to be any good, because it doesn’t matter to them.
    But this is paying our bills. It’s too important to be treated lightly.

  • I disagree with the statement that there is too much positive reinforcement: my work on my university course was criticised so heavily that it destroyed my confidence in my own writing.
    It wasn’t until I wrote a feature whilst on work experience that I realised that my work wasn’t awful, and my articles went to print relatively untouched. When the editor made any changes or suggestions, she explained her decisions in detail and showed me how to improve.
    In spite of this, I don’t resent the university for its stance, because it made me work harder.

  • Thanks for the comment Sarah – I’m very interested in collecting more information about this from students, graduates and people in the industry.
    Crucially, I think your comment actually backs up my point. The positive reinforcement I’m talking about happens at school, so university students are unprepared for real, if constructive, criticism. Your loss of confidence at university could have simply come from not being exposed to such criticism – and learning how to handle it – earlier on in education.
    However, obviously I wasn’t there, so I don’t know how your university feedback was presented. Maybe it was done badly.
    But – and this is a crucial point that you raise yourself – if it made you work harder that’s kind of the point. Although it might have felt painful at the time, it certainly couldn’t have really destroyed your confidence because your work experience was a success.
    This is a tricky area and I really do welcome feedback on it. I think it’s vitally important to be able to process criticism – and the better equipped students are to do this, the easier they will be able to separate out valid, constructive criticism from ill-thought-out abuse.

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