Written By: jOakes

1. Read stories — both journalism (including non-fiction books) and fiction; even poetry. Analyze what the writer is doing. Ask yourself: Does this piece hold my interest? If you read the entire article, it probably did. A magazine or newspaper story can be perused and studied as a crash-course in the structure of feature writing.

a) Notice how quotes are interwoven with the body of the article; how sentences are built around quotes. You want always to work with what you have. If you interview someone and forget to ask a crucial question — or don’t get that crucial answer — you don’t want your readers to notice the omission.

b) What do you like or not like about the story? Is it an intangible something or other — or can your critique be broken down into specifics?

c) If you like the story but cannot pinpoint exactly why (for instance, if it’s about motorcycles but you don’t like motorcycles), you are probably reacting to the writing style. A good salesman can sell snow to an Alaskan – and a good writer can make you enjoy reading about a topic you couldn’t care less about. For instance, a good writer could make a biography about a boring person into something exciting. Constantly imagine yourself as the reader of your own work. This will help you to be a better editor of your own work.

d) Although a skilled writer should be able to write about any topic entertainingly, it has also been said that a writer should write about what he or she knows. This is true to the extent that you are more likely to be enthusiastic about certain topics (which can essentially help you get started on a piece in the first place), and to cover them more accurately and with more sparkle and less preparation. Why not write stories about topics you know instead of committing yourself to doing research?

2. Keep yourself out of the story — meaning you should never use “I” or “me” unless it is a first-person narrative (i.e., a travel or biographical/anecdotal piece) or, of course, a work of fiction. In news stories, the writer should generally be invisible – merely the filter through which the facts of the article are rendered. Don’t confuse this rule with keeping your personality or style out of the story. You can’t explicitly be in the article, but you can make your presence known. Think of your journalistic presence – your style – as a sort of volume dial that can be turned up or down depending on whether or not a publication tends to similarize its writing (like the Wallstreet Journal) or makes an asset of a writer’s uniqueness and idiosyncrasies(like The New Yorker).

3. Check facts even when you think you know them. Believing or assuming are not only insufficient grounds on which to proceed, they are dangerous risks. It is only when you are absolutely certain of something (i.e., have already checked) that “facts” can be trusted as such. How do you know if you’re certain of something – or, more accurately – certain that you know something? If you have any doubts about a fact, it may not be one Fact-checking includes double-checking anything that you haven’t already known your entire life (even some of those things can be wrong); getting the correct spelling for names, and obtaining specific information so that you don’t have to generalize (for example, being able to say that the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album came out in 1969 instead of just “the late ’60s”). When you are uncertain and not able to verify something – and only then — you can generalize. Never resort to guessing. A generalization is not a guess; it is an approximation that is known not to be clearly false. It is non-specific; it comprises as much information as you can safely give without treading into (literally) unknown territory.

4. When transcribing an interview, you need not — and should not — use every quote provided. The quotes you use should not be embellished, changed or put in a misleading context. And save your interview tapes for at least one week in case there is a problem; for instance, if the interviewee claims, “I never said that!”

5. Missing a deadline is like missing your last chance to continue employment. Being late even once is unforgivable. Even when you don’t have an official deadline, set one for yourself.

6. Write as well and as carefully as you can, even if your piece will run for only one day. Find what makes you special as a writer, and run with it. This is the only way to stand out in a crowd of mediocrity. This is your chance to shine. Don’t rain on your parade by not giving it your best attempt.

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