Wednesday, February 24, 2010...12:02 pm

Writing style: advice to journalism students

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We’re coming up to about halfway on several student journalism units I’m teaching – and already the prospect of student assessments is looming threateningly over the class.
So – a few words of advice to J-students faced with writing assessment deadlines.
One strange phenomenon I’ve noticed about student writing is that it’s much better when it’s not being assessed. That is, when students send me email about their project, they tend to communicate much better than they do in the stories they write for their project. It’s a performance anxiety thing. Students often get quite self-conscious about their writing style. They start using long words they don’t really understand and can’t spell, alongside tortured syntax that makes no sense. If you’re a journalism student (or, indeed, journalist), don’t do this.
Write short sentences
Instead, keep sentences short and organised. Make your points simply and logically. Don’t get all high-falutin’ about your prose.
Pretend you’re telling your story to a friend
If you freeze up in front of your web site’s content creation window, one good piece of advice is to draft your story as an email to someone you know. Imagine they’ve asked you what the story’s about – your job is to explain it to them clearly so they understand it. Which is, basically, what journalism does.
Record an audio draft
Some people are fine about telling a story verbally, but then get tied up trying to put it down on paper. This can affect journalism students (and even working journalists), especially at the start. So make verbal notes into an audio recorder and work on the story from them.
Find your voice
There’s no real mystery to writing – but it comes easiest when it comes naturally. Key to this is tone of voice, or style. Style isn’t about being fancy, it’s about saying whatever you have to say fluently and clearly – as you would in conversation with people you know. Be comfortable with your writing. Yes, you need to adapt your style to your material – a serious piece on a train crash will read differently from a celebrity gossip story. But it needs to be your voice each time.
Finally, as I’ve written before, the key to developing your own voice and becoming comfortable with writing is to keep doing it – regularly and often. Write every day – don’t save it all up for the assessment and do it the week beforehand. Though obviously many students will – and they will wonder why it seems so difficult to do.


  • You are a wise and generous teacher Simon. The relaxation point is particularly true. Despite almost 20 years as a journalist it’s something I still find hard to do, especially if I’m writing for a new client or somebody I’ve had run ins with – you’re only as good as your last gig in the freelance game.
    I suppose that’s what must make blogs such a great practice ground for aspiring journalists – the pressure really is off. I found it myself the other night when I was penning this piece of inconsequential fluff – It’s really of no interest to anybody but me and a couple of others, and the words just flowed.
    If only it was so easy when you are penning a 2,000 word exhibition preview for pay.

  • I dream of writing exhibition previews. At the moment I’m wrestling with the oral healthcare sector – none of which will actually talk to me…

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