Last week, I spent three days working with a group of young journalists who were spending a portion of their summer vacation learning about journalistic-style writing at ThreeSixty Journalism Summer Camp. If you don’t know about ThreeSixty Journalism, it is an awesome program through the University of St. Thomas that helps high school students learn critical thinking, writing, reporting, editing and other communication skills while also producing a quarterly print magazine featuring articles written for students, by students (and we are not talking your typical high school essays about dress codes and school lunches; recent issues of the magazine have addressed hot-button topics such as race and religion). Bellmont Partners has been a supporter of ThreeSixty Journalism for a number of years, and Brian Bellmont serves on its Board of Advisors.
To say I was impressed by these young, up-and-coming journalists would be an understatement. The entire camp consisted of 12 students, two of whom I personally mentored through writing and editing their articles (shout-out to Shay and Katie!). These young ladies had a clear passion for writing and really soaked in all of the advice they were given. Five other local communicators also joined me at the camp, helping the students interview, transcribe and write articles about youth organizations making a difference in our community.
Spending three days with 16-year-olds gave me a chance to reflect on what I would have liked to know when I was in my late teens, headed for a career in the world of communications and writing. Turns out, the tips and tricks I shared with the high school students are similar to the tips I give my friends who ask me to edit their cover letters today, and the same rules we at Bellmont Partners use when writing anything from news releases to magazine articles. Here are a few of my favorites, worth keeping in mind no matter if you are a high school student working on your first for-publication article, or a PR pro digging into a media alert:
- Write like you talk. You may feel like you sound smart when you use big words in fancy arrangements while writing, but at best you sound confusing, and at worst you sound pretentious. Would you feel comfortable saying what you are writing in normal conversation? If the answer is no, try again. Writing provides a wonderful opportunity to edit and re-edit, but the end result should always be the simplest way to state your case.
- Avoid “that.” In high school, my writing teacher outlawed the word “that” from our essays. Extreme? Maybe. Effective? Definitely. The most common thing I notice when reading other people’s writing is the extra filler words they use without noticing. “I think that you should come out to lunch.” “I would like you to know that I will be there at noon.” Nine out of ten times, you can erase “that” from a sentence, and you would never notice it is gone.
- Double-check headlines and names. You may spend hours editing a personal essay, only to send it off with a typo in the headline. Sometimes the most obvious errors are the easiest to miss. Names still get me all the time. I recently flubbed someone’s name in an article where the person I was interviewing mentioned that everyone spells her name wrong. Don’t do that. It is embarrassing.
- “The AP Stylebook” is your friend. Have a copy of “The AP Stylebook” handy at all times. Sometimes you even learn fun things, like the fact you use the term “brunette” for females and “brown hair” for males. Which makes sense, I guess. But I had never thought about it before. I have, however, chosen to boycott the AP’s recent change stating you can now use “over” and “more than” interchangeably to indicate greater numerical value. No. Just no. (You can also follow @APStylebook on Twitter.)
- Hit “Print.” We all try to be as green and go as paperless as possible, but sometimes printing out what you are editing helps you see things in a different light. Looking at a computer all the time kills your brain. Sorry, trees.
- Writer’s block? Stop writing! Staring blankly at a screen probably is not getting you anywhere. Go for a walk. Draw flowers on your wall. It helps. Plus, it makes your office prettier!