Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Advice from a Writing Coach at a Student Newspaper

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Advice from a Writing Coach at a Student Newspaper

Article excerpt

In the 15 years I cranked out stories in one newsroom or another, I honestly never worried much about asking for help from a writing coach.

When I occasionally got stuck, I might turn to one of a half dozen trusted wordsmiths lying about the place and bleat out something like: Whaddayathinkofthislead?

I remember thinking from time to time: Why the hell would any writer worth his laptop need a writing coach? We're the pros from Dover, right?

Then, I started teaching journalism full time at my college alma mater. What a wake-up call. I had plumb forgotten what it was like to write a plain vanilla news story for the first time.

Think back: Remember feeling lightheaded and nauseous at the prospect of your first interview? Sweating bullets over your first 3,000 attempts at a lead? Waking up in a blind panic at 5 a.m., completely uncertain whether you had spelled the university president's name right in your first Page One story?

Students still feel that way. It was scary to think that now I was supposed to lead frightened packs of creative writing and business administration students through the thickets of Modern journalism.

I immediately began feeling nauseous, sweaty and panicky. To top it off, I got appointed adviser to the student newspaper. Your average Ph.D. faculty member would rather be thrown from the top of the ivory tower into a bilefilled moat than be assigned to critique a student newspaper,

Luckily, I don't have a doctorate.

Within seconds after being appointed, I 'fessed up. I told students at the paper, an occasionally award-winning thrice-weekly with a circulation of 10,000, that I was never any whiz at grammar and all tat technical stuff. I wasn't about to start diagraming sentences. What they were going to get from me, I bragged, was a lot of practical advice. Real-I-Learned-It-In-the-Trenches stuff.

So I talked to them about writing tight and bright, being accurate, giving everybody they interviewed an honest shake, doing lots of research, making deadlines, showing around story drafts, searching out the interesting and offbeat, talking out their stories, dressing and acting like professionals, and working their beats as if the TV boys were about to hoof it around the comer.

It did about as much good as ordering them to litter at a Save The Earth Rally. There is a world of difference, I discovered, between taking a couple of seconds to help a newsroom pal write a better transition and in trying to coach a bunch of college students, for whom a stint on the newspaper sometimes is often nothing more than two. more lines on a resume bound for the personnel manager at some global marketing/advertising/public relations corporation.

Don't get me wrong. Some college journalism students still get tremendously excited about logging 60-hour workweeks and laboring mightily to cover what to them is a brand new universe of news and scandals and features and scandalous news-features. They care about whether the campus politicians are crooked. They care about covering sports and crafting killer editorials. Some even care whether the verb tenses are all the same and the cutlines get on straight.

But at a commuter university such as ours - where the average student is 29, owns their own home and already works full time elsewhere - most don't have the time or inclination to devote hours to rewriting the same stupid student senate story over and over and over. They can make more money dishing up 7-Layer Burritos at Taco Bell.

As the unpaid newspaper adviser, it seemed at first as if I was virtually powerless to cajole most of the paper's writers to take extra steps to hone their writing. I tried attending staff meetings. I tried inviting students to lunch. I tried suggesting visits by other professionals. I was ignored.

So I quit cajoling. Maybe this isn't the way the coach-as-best-friend folks at Poynter would do it, but it wasn't until I took off the gloves in my postpartum critiques of the newspaper that I began to get results. …

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