The pitfalls of new writers and how to defeat them

Session: Wringing the bad habits out of your eager but inexperienced staff

Tom Pierce, former adviser, now part-time copy editor, St. Petersburg Times

This is the one and only time that all three of us ended up at the same session. We thought about splitting up, but ultimately we all wanted to be at this session.

For those of you who have edited before you know how hard it can be when you have this person who is really excited to write, or heck even moderately excited to write, but there are just some mistakes that you see over and over again. None of us are in positions to turn down writers, but it can be hard to know what to do with writers that just seem to miss something each week.

He started off with a list of things that inexperienced reporters tend to do in the reporting process. This got me really thinking that a lot of our issues actually start with the reporting process and not the writing process. He was talking about how much easier it is for new writers to not ask enough questions, not ask enough people questions and to even ask the wrong people.

A big thing that he talked about was procrastinating. When people conduct interviews and then sit on their stories for a few days, it is clear. This really got us thinking about how much we procrastinate. This is not just new reporters by any means.

“New writers probably are pretty good, and like to write, unless it’s a weird masochistic thing.”

-Tom Pierce

Next he started talking about writing. As his quote above says, new writers are typically pretty good. They should typically know how to write a strong sentence at the very least. But he did go over a list of things that they commonly get wrong including editorializing, being inaccurate, not attributing properly, weak ledes, paragraphs being too long and many other mistakes that show a lack of journalism knowledge but not a lack of writing skill.

Overall, the session was really good because it was a great reminder for us of things that we should avoid getting lazy and doing, plus it was a great way for us to analyze what mistakes we tend to see in our new writers.

My only complaint is that I wish he had let us continue. He started talking a lot about different headlines that papers ran that did not make sense. These headlines had a spelling mistake or the modifiers were in the wrong place, but I wish we had continued talking about mistakes of green journalists instead of laughing at these headlines. They were entertaining, but not the reason I showed up to the session.

-Rebecca Smith

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