We learn quickly who does their homework and writes thoughtful, balanced stories. We also know whose copy requires careful scrutiny to advise reporters, and sometimes editors, on errors that require a public correction now, or just a gentle nudge for future reference.
I asked three veteran editors from various types of media what they wish young journalists knew. The responses were customarily direct, and sometimes snarky.
Do NOT email questions to the person you are interviewing and then weave the answers into the story. So many young writers take this lazy way out. Is it because they are so accustomed to digital communication? Emailed answers are contrived and superficial, and the reporter has no opportunity to establish a rapport, do difficult follow-up questions or find out surprising information that may take the story in a different direction.
Do research on your topic, person, company BEFORE you do the interview. I can’t tell you how many times I look at copy and discover that some of the missing information was easily found on a website (like the official name of a company) or that important background from other stories and sites could have lent more depth to a story. More importantly, you don’t waste time in an interview going over the basics and you have some context for your interview. And, contrary to what students hear from their college professors, I don’t think Wikipedia is a bad place to start, but it’s only a start, a site that provides other sources and ideas to investigate.
Check spelling of names, companies, products before turning in copy. Do not rely on an editor to catch all errors. Freelance writers who consistently turn in sloppy, inaccurate work are quickly dropped from the list.
Never assume a reader will figure it out. If your reader ever has to stop and wonder what something means, you’ve lost her. Avoid jargon and industry-speak, and provide the necessary background and explanations.
Read, read, read—and not just BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. Read real journalism, especially long-form journalism. Figure out why a particular story moved you; all good stories should make you feel something. They have a main conflict and a predictable architecture—a beginning, middle and an end. Give stories space to breathe with subheads.