Top 5 tips for aspiring journalists
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
I still remember standing in the hallway just outside my journalism professor’s office at the University of North Texas. He didn’t have a ton of time to talk, but he wanted to go over an article I had written. His critique was short and, well, harsh.
“Have you ever read a newspaper before?” he said in a condescending tone.
Everything he said next was a blur. Even 10 minutes later — long after he had walked away to his next class — I was still fixated on those seven words. I mean … of course, I had read a newspaper before! OK, so maybe it had been a while since I read a story from start to finish, but I read enough to have a general idea.
My article couldn’t have been that bad, could it? Looking back, I didn’t have a clue. That was 20 years ago, and I’d like to think I’ve come a long way. For starters, I learned what quality writing looks like. And I’m happy to say I’ve even read a few newspapers – front page to back page, I might add.
I also became a student of the craft, striving to write better than I did the day before while never once considering myself God’s gift to writing. I dove headfirst into what it means to be a “journalist” while holding myself accountable for everything I put my name on.
I’ve written for, and learned from, a lot of folks. I won a few awards here and there, and three years ago started my own writing and editing business, Edit This. My old professor, if he’s still around, would be so proud. I think.
There are plenty of articles with tips on how to be a better journalist, and they all offer great advice. I think it boils down to five basic principles and I’d like to share those with aspiring journalists. My goal is to give you a better head start than I ever considered giving myself all those years ago.
Read, Read, Read Growing up, I didn’t do enough leisure reading. And by that, I mean reading newspapers, magazines, books, et cetera — just for fun. I regret that. My professor was right in that by not being an avid reader, I had no idea what was going on in the outside world, and I certainly wasn’t formulating my own opinion on any of it.
I also had no idea what it truly meant to capture a reader’s attention.
All aspiring journalists need to read — a lot. You should seek out writers you like and writers you don’t like, then read both with a critical eye. Did they capture your attention? What could they have done better to help you slice through their article like a knife through hot butter? Not only will reading help you decipher between quality writing and garbage, but it will also help you find your own writing style.
Write as Much as You Can, on as Much as You Can I've always fancied myself as a decent writer, but I don’t think I was as well rounded in my craft until three years ago when I started Edit This. It was then I became more than just a sports writer. Over the last three years, I’ve written articles on everything from pet adoption agencies to financial institutions.
I’ve created content for hair salon websites, helped craft resumes for out-of-work clients, and I’ve ghostwritten blogs for attorneys and public speakers. There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not writing something, and I think all aspiring journalists and writers need to do the same thing. Whether it’s writing a blog or asking for extra assignments, you need to constantly write to get better. Simply put, you learn by doing — over and over and over again.
Know Your Beat A beat is specialized reporting, like sports writing, education writing, or crime writing, that you do every single day. Regardless of what beat you plan on covering, the goal is to know it inside and out. By doing so, you set yourself up to provide insight and commentary that no one else would know.
I feel it is imperative to build rapport and trust with everyone I come into contact with on a beat. For sports writers, that means everyone from the coaching staff to the players, trainers, and guys operating the press box on game day. Heck, even the parents and booster club. It also means understanding the game itself, and the strategy behind it.
Be Fair The media as a whole gets a bad wrap for wreaking havoc, so your goal is to show not all journalists are like that. Sort of like, not all lawyers are bad people. Never sacrifice your integrity, career, or the career of someone else simply to get the story first. If you are on a particular beat, odds are that you will end up covering a sensitive topic, and those sources must feel like they can trust you and that you will not only be accurate in your reporting, but fair.
Regardless of what anyone else tells you, there is a fair way to do your job. I stuck to that rule, and I promise you I have garnered more respect and trust from sources than I ever could imagine. In some cases, they won’t talk to anyone else on a given issue until they have spoken to me first. That’s powerful, and all I did was be fair. Stay Hungry I tell aspiring journalists that they have to stay hungry if they want to get their foot in the door. Make yourself available and be willing to cover anything, from a football game or local fair to a city council meeting. Not only will it make you a better writer, but your bosses will think of you before they offer a story to anyone else.
Before I was full-time at the Denton Record-Chronicle, I freelanced for them for a couple of years, and there wasn’t a single instance where I turned down an assignment. It showed how much I cared, and it showed I was willing to work. I attribute that attitude to me getting offered a full-time spot.
Thanks for reading!