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Extra Extra! | Writing Lessons From My College's Student Newspaper

Although my writing primarily finds itself in the world of fiction and what could be considered a more casual form of blogging, I have experience in the world of journalism.

Beginning in my junior year, I was a member of my college's student newspaper as a copy editor, which tasked me with revising my peers' articles ahead of online and printed publication.

Even though I was playing a role behind the scenes and wasn't out and about covering stories or doing interviews like our staff writers, I still had the chance to get up close and personal with the principles of journalism—many of which have helped to shape the way I write fiction.

Journalism and fiction may seem too different for the line between them to be blurred, but you'd be surprised by how well they can meet in the middle.

Burying The Lede

This is a term you may already be familiar with.

Burying the lede refers to occasions where the most interesting or noteworthy information falls to the wayside and the article instead begins with more inconsequential details.

Say you are covering a local high school championship football game. A typical news story would open with how the team fared, if they were defeated or were victorious and took home the trophy.

An article burying the lede, however, might describe how many members of the student body dressed in the team's colors to support the athletes or how the coach announced his plans to retire after the next season.

These details may help flesh out the piece, but including them too early can keep the reader from the meat of the story.

Burying the lede is the nice way of telling someone to get to the damn point already.

The concept can look different for fiction writers, but can still apply.

With any genre, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the details, whether you're worldbuilding or introducing a new character. Details are important, but it doesn't take much to overload your narration and slow the pace. Maybe you want to describe the color of the protagonist's future love interest's eyes as reminiscent of grass after heavy rainfall or inform the reader about the way a family tradition came to be. Those can be great for creating a strong image in the reader's mind or help acquaint them with the world, but they may not matter to the current moment if the aforementioned love interest is only being seen from afar or that tradition won't be commemorated for a few chapters and the character isn't doing any prep work for it when they are introduced.

Determine which bits matter most upfront and gradually filter in the rest along the way.

The concept of burying the lede can also help you decide where the story begins.

As you outline and draft your WIP, you might start developing your characters' backstory or events leading up to the inciting incident that you feel just have to be included, and you may decide to do so in a prologue or in an aside chapter.

Prologues have their purpose, but they can often be considered extraneous if they have no significant bearing on the plot.

Slowing things down is often worth doing, but if you bury the lede with a scene set twelve years prior about the character's now-deceased grandparent or write about a trip to the market in which nothing noteworthy occurs, chances are you're burying the lede, which will leave your readers wondering when you'll get to the good stuff.

Playing By The Rules

Writers are known rule breakers with a pension for subverting audience expectations, flipping tropes on their heads, creating worlds from scratch, and rewriting history.

This sense of freedom has its boundaries, though!

Like it or not, writers have to play by a few rules, some of which govern the newsroom.

Most if not all of journalists out there adhere to standards set by the Associated Press, which lay out proper formatting, grammatical guidelines, and other regulations professional journalists are expected to meet.

The campus newsroom abided by AP guidelines as well as a few of our own additions ranging from capitalization of faculty titles and departments to the abbreviations various clubs used.

Together, these rules created an easier read and uniformity between sections.

Writers of fiction have looser rules, but rules nevertheless.

For some, they may be in the form of genre conventions. A cozy mystery centering on the hunt for a serial killer or a romance novel that doesn't culminate in a Happily Ever After or at least a Happily For Now isn't going to fly.

Then, there are rules set by literary agents. If their individual or agency submission guidelines state a page limit of ten, sending them twenty will probably send you straight to the rejection pile. The same can be said for an author sending their sci-fi manuscript to an agent who only represents romance and memoirs.

As writers, we generally have free rein to do as we desire, but when there are rules to be followed, it's best to do so.

Handy Dandy Notebook

Staff writers for the student newspaper would be given a notebook to take with them to interviews or events they were tasked with covering, though I remember one of our faculty advisers recommending that they keep it with them at all times on the chance they happened to be where something newsworthy was happening.

Carrying a notebook or having a reliable note-taking app at the ready is among the tips I tend to give writers, and something I've done in some capacity for pretty much as long as I've been writing.

Inspiration is fickle, often striking when least expected or least convenient. I can't count the number of ideas I've nearly lost because I couldn't write them down when they hit.

Your handy dandy notebook will be your saving grace in those times.

Your notes don't have to be highly detailed, but be descriptive enough so you'll know what you meant when you revisit them.

Take a lesson from your old pal Steve and pick up a handy dandy notebook. Your plot bunnies will thank you.

Prioritizing Punctuality

My college's newspaper published on a weekly basis as opposed to the daily issues of a typical newspaper, but we were far from absolved from the pressure of deadlines.

Articles would be uploaded by staff writers throughout the week, with their deadline being Thursday, if memory serves. Copy editors would pop into the Drafts folder in WordPress periodically to see if anything have come in, but the bulk of our work fell on Mondays and Tuesdays (though I spent plenty of Sunday afternoons looking things over while hosting my radio show). Once they had gone through everything, the section editors and editor-in-chief and took over and finalized everything during the pagination stage, which also included formatting and the like.

Needless to say, sticking to these deadlines was crucial for the success of the newspaper, and maintaining a sense of timeliness can be just important for writers of fiction.

I encourage writers to set realistic goals for themselves, and part of that depends on setting a schedule of sorts. These can be looser in some cases compared to the strictness of the newsroom, but they're there to keep you on track.

This could mean aiming to write a specific number of words per week or completing a round of self-edits by the end of the month.

What a realistic deadline looks like changes with your everyday life and the kind of project you're working on, but having one can help you settle into a routine that keeps things moving along smoothly.

While I didn't join the student newspaper as a journalism or mass media major or with any aspirations to pursue a career in that field, the experience was definitely worthwhile and has benefited my creative writing endeavors even after graduating.

Reporting and writing fiction can seem like two entirely different worlds, but the teachings from one carry over to the other, bridging the gap between them.

It's funny how life can spill into your writing! For a similar post, check out this list of writing lessons taken from my years attending a technical high school.



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