5 Things I Learned About Writing

Before I go any further, I have to say, this has by far been my favorite session of the week. So, before you go any further with this post, just understand that I am terrifically biased toward Nancy Comiskey and everything she had to say. You’ve been warned!

As a writer, I am consistently striving to improve my skills and learn from every experience that I have, not only as a journalist, but more specifically as a storyteller. That being said, the speaker at this session, shared some lessons of writing that I will most likely carry with me for the rest of my life and will continue to shape my writing.

1. It all starts with a great idea.
I’m going to admit it, it’s hard to find great ideas on a college campus that haven’t been done before. Either, the story has already been done numerous times or it’s boring. News is straight reporting, it’s telling the facts. But why does it have to be boring? Why can’t I, as an editor and leader of a team or reporters, find creative lenses through which to tell a story? The speaker shared some examples that emphasized this point and gave a clear definition to what this actually means. Sure, everyone has been affected by the economy. But how have students who need jobs in order to pay for school been affected? What a great angle to see this story through! Reporters for the news sections are almost always assigned stories to write each week, allowing for very little creativity. But I hope to allow for more flexibility among the news staff to go out and hunt down good stories, to find the sources to talk to and craft a great story. Comiskey said all quotes should be: simple, unexpected, concrete, emotional, credible and, most importantly, tell a good story.

2. Keep it Simple – don’t use long words where a short one will do and never use jargon, foreign or scientific words where plain English will do

3. Make quotes earn their keep
We’ve all done it. We’ve thrown in that quote that we didn’t quite understand, but was essential to the story. I know I have. But Comiskey presented an interesting take on quotes – make them earn the right to be in the story. Don’t throw in quotes just to make the story longer and certainly never throw use a pattern of quotes throughout every story you write. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but she provided some practical solutions: because you’ll most likely never get a great quote from the first answer, Comiskey said to ask the same question in different ways throughout an interview to ensure that you get the most detailed response possible. Direct quotes are meant to convey emotion, authority, character and color.

4. Write right-branching sentences and then stick the landing.
This is a take on writing I hadn’t thought of before, but it’s pretty simple. Start with a subject and a verb on the “left” of the sentence, followed by a series of words and phrases. And don’t forget to put the very best part of the sentence at the end!

5. Remember your words have impact.
As a journalist, it is my responsibility to consider the impact my words will have on the subjects of my stories. Before you publish quotes, think about how they might be taken by the audience and the way the words might be skewed by readers. While I should strive to be fair and accurate, Comiskey said to also work to minimize harm. I’d never really put much thought into the misconstruing of quotes. Hey, if someone said it on the record, it’s fair game. But while my passion for journalism is all about hard-hitting news, I can’t forget the human, ethical side when reporting.

-Caitlin O’Donnell


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