Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Spelling it out for you: Clichés and the English language

January 11, 2008

One great piece of advice to all writers in general: use your imagination. This is particularly important if you are wet behind the ears and covering a new beat. Sounds simple enough, right? Writing is one of those creative professions. You know, the ones where you are free to express yourself, explore your feelings, and be really … deep.

But wait. I’m putting the cart before the horse.

In one of our introductory sessions on interviewing techniques, Russell Contreras, reporter and Web editor for The Boston Globe, gave us some advice that had an enormous impact on me. In fact, in terms of journalistic advice, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. And believe me, we eat a lot of sliced bread at this institute.

It went something like this:

Russ: You know when you’re interviewing someone, particularly for a disaster story, and you ask him to describe the scene and they say, “It looked like a war zone”? Say, “Oh, really. Have you ever been to a war zone”? And if they haven’t, what they say next to explain what they meant, or to describe it in other words, is where you get your best quote. If they say yes, ask them to tell you about it. Again, you get a better description and a better quote.

A light bulb went off in our heads.

And I’ve been eliminating clichés from my vocabulary and stories every since.

His basic point was to stop being lazy. It’s a lot easier to describe something using common expressions or overly used phrases than it is to actually use your vocabulary and come up with something original.

So, on to the business at hand. How do you improve your writing and use your words more effectively?

Here’s a simple suggestion, from Russ: Read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” For your convenience, and for those who have certainly not read it, here are a few rules Orwell shares toward the end:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

And I would add, speak in layman’s terms. Sometimes using simple language is better than describing it in a “roundabout way.”

But remember, this is journalism — it’s a craft, not an exact science. So sometimes (very rarely) you may have to break the rules. After all, some things are cliché for a reason.

Orwell’s essay is actually a really good one and will undoubtedly improve your writing. Maybe not immediately, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take my advice. I guarantee it’s as good as gold.

— Arcynta Ali Childs


Three quick writing/editing tips

January 10, 2008

I’ve been humbled twice within the span of about 12 hours.

I never thought my writing was perfect or untouchable. I appreciate all and any help from experienced editors because I know it will only help. So when my backfield editor (shout out to Boston Globe reporter Russ Contreras) helped me work the 1,500 words of my enterprise piece down to about 1,200, I was pleased.
Then my second, and new, backfield editor (shout out to Boston Globe reporter Johnny Diaz) reworked it down to a tight 900 words, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
Cheesy, I know, but my story was immeasurably better. It was tighter. It flowed better. It was more fun.

My story idea (about Latinos with Anglo-sounding names) is a lighthearted look at culture, society and assimilation. So when I used statistics, I needed to really justify the few I had. In my case, I was dealing with people’s experiences, and it was tough to quantify. Since I was writing about experiences in a trend story, I needed to weave the few numbers in, almost as if they were transitions between anecdotes. Ultimately, most of them were taken out. Overall, however, it’s a good rule.

I spoke to several experts at length about names and their relation to assimilation. But I had a specific focus and I needed to stay strictly to it, no matter how interesting other related ideas might have been. When I spoke to the experts, I needed to make sure that I kept them on focus. To clarify sometimes ambiguous terms, I needed to ask this question: “Can you explain that in layman’s terms, for the story and for the readers who might not know about this?”
Lastly, as my second backfield editor says, “Think of it as if you were talking to your close friend.” Make it fun and conversational, if you can. Listen to the flow. Read the story out loud.

And then maybe you’ll feel better about being a novice writer.

— James Wagner

When your grandpa is a ‘Hall of Famer’

January 10, 2008

Grandpa and I 

Luis “Campanela” Galvan makes no secret of his somewhat legendary status in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

“Did you tell them I’m a Hall of Famer?” he asks every time I have an interview for an internship. “Do they know I’m in the Hall of Fame?”

My typical response on the other end of the phone goes a little like this: “Yes, Grandpa, I have told everyone who will listen about your history and how it shaped me. But no, Grandpa, they don’t want your autograph. Do they want you to call them and tell them yourself? No, Grandpa, I think they believed me.”

My grandpa, who I know as “Campa,” short for Campanella, a nickname his newspaper editor gave him when he was a catcher for the company’s softball team, was the kind of sports journalist who also covered community, politics and everything under the newspaper sun, earning him rock-star status in the largest city in the state of Chihuahua.

Just look at the photographs and awards on his wall in the TV room, where a constant game of really boring golf always seems to be on (as a child, that was torture). There, you’ll find him writing in his little notepad in photos alongside greats like Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Roy Campanella and former Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo, among others. So when I initially told my grandpa, now 78, that I was going to be a journalist, he was quite fond of the idea. A 50-year veteran, he had hours’ worth of advice, including one time when he sat me down for two hours and read a list of every single influential figure he’d interviewed.

Times were different then, he said, and you didn’t need a formal education to become a reporter (my grandpa did not make it past the eighth grade). I wonder what my grandpa’s career would have looked like had he been a journalist today. He probably wouldn’t have gotten a free membership to the country club in Juarez, where he mastered the (boring) art of golf in order to better report on the golf beat. In the world of journalism today, that would have been considered unethical by many in the newspaper business. My grandpa also probably would not have been able to show up at a newspaper and ask for a job, which he got when he was still a teenager. Today, he would have had to intern at the Post, the Sentinel and the Oregonian to possibly land some low-paying reporting job with no benefits in a town the size of a peanut. That, and he’d have to finish college, something unheard of in Campa’s hometown, where families of 13 scrape to have enough for the dinner table.

But even without all the required formal education, my grandpa would have shown up to The New York Times Student Journalism Institute and rocked the beat (no pun intended). He was the kind of reporter whose social skills made him friends (back then it wasn’t so bad if they were friends — now we’d call them sources) who stuck by him until they all started dying, which, in my wildest dreams, my grandpa will never do.

As I continue on my path in journalism today, I find myself turning to my grandpa for hints as to how to get there. Things were completely different then, but in a way, they are still the same. In the end, it’s about telling someone’s story, and this story is about my grandpa.

— Astrid Galvan

Math for dummies

January 6, 2008


This is why I don’t have an accounting degree.

I burned out my brain for over an hour trying to figure out how “lump-sum reductions” and “rollback retention increases” add up to the $389 million proposed budget for the University of Arizona.

I’m working on a story about the state budget proposal recently sent by two top Arizona Republicans to House and Senate Appropriations Committee members. The proposal, which suggests a $44 million cut to the University of Arizona, came out just a day after Gov. Janet Napolitano’s budget proposal, which said the entire public education system would be exempt from cuts.

But of course I was working on all this on a Saturday.

On a Saturday afternoon in Arizona, you are likely to find people out to dinner, at a movie or walking around downtown — but not behind their desks. I tried contacting Sen. Robert Burns and Rep. Russell Pearce at their offices, but all I could reach were their answering machines.

The only people who could talk to me were U.A. spokesmen, and I will have to wait until Monday morning to get a response from Burns and Pearce.

Just before 9 p.m., I hit a wall. Actually, I ran full force into a wall, or at least it felt like it. After seeing that my story would sit in a folder until Monday, I gave video editing a try.

Bad, bad, bad idea.

If I can give anyone advice, it would be to never try to learn how to edit video when you’re already frustrated and tired after 12 hours in the newsroom.

So after the research and phone calls, I have only a draft to show for my story and no video editing skills. But at least now I know how to figure out a budget proposal spreadsheet — and that we need a calculator in the newsroom ASAP!

— Fernanda Echávarri