Monday, October 4, 2010

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

I received a request this week from a fellow who attended one of my writing workshops. He wondered if I might look over the attached article he intended to submit to The Christian Voice, a wonderful little newspaper that has hosted my Grace Notes column for the past 5 years.

As this well-meaning gentleman's 5-page saga yawned before me, I realized there are some basic journalism elements that could stand repeating for aspiring columnists:

1. Article length should usually be less than 400 words (the equivalent of two double-spaced pages); many require even less; check the guidelines of your targeted publication for specific requirements. Include your word count in your header for the editor's easy reference.

2. Edit, Edit, Edit! Always double-space manuscripts and eliminate everything not absolutely essential to your point. Remember, this is not a rambling river book - it's a brief, tightly written squirt with a fire hose.

3. Triple check for punctuation and grammatical errors. Spell check is NOT fool-proof, especially with multi-words like to, too, and two. The polished condition of your piece is a key factor in whether it will see the light of print or not. The AP Manual of Style is generally considered the reference Bible for newspaper articles.

4. Use short paragraphs (2-4 sentences) and emphasize important points by one-line paragraphs. Study the layout of your favorite newspaper column. Remember, a column is narrow and long so the larger the paragraph, the longer the column will look without a break. You need ample white space, not solid black lettering filling the page (not reader friendly).

5. Expert-quoting is good, but you must cite your references or a legitimate source. For all the reader knows, you're making up "facts." Stick to your main point and don't chase rabbit trails.

6. Avoid stylistic devices such as bold, color, or underlines; go easy on the italics, but they are usually acceptable for emphasizing words or citing book titles. Many editors find these devices distracting and unprofessional. Stick with Times Roman size 12 font and omit the copyright statement or symbol at the end (sign of an amateur). If it's in print, it's considered copyrighted; it's redundant to state it again and some editors find it insulting (like you're trying to make double sure they don't steal your material, which they have no intention of doing anyway).

7. Beware of repeating phrases or use of cliches. Use power verbs; avoid wimpy adjectives ending in -ly and excessive adverbs. Say more in fewer words.

8. Avoid pelting the reader with too many questions. One or two will draw them into the piece, but more (without answers) will leave them feeling hopeless and unfulfilled.

9. Using "we" instead of "one" is a warmer way to include the reader and hook him/her on your topic. For example, "One should never eat saturated fats" becomes "We can avoid saturated fats by omitting fried octopus from our diets." Avoid a "preachy" tone and present your ideas as though you and the reader are exploring them together. The more involved they are, the more they're likely to keep reading.

10. Open with a hook (grab the reader's attention) and close with a bang. Tie the piece together with a bow (can be achieved by referring, in the last paragraph, to something from the beginning of the piece) and leave them with this gift of an applicable take-away they will remember.

Hey, if I can do it, you can do it. Write tight and have fun!