This is not English class.
Those are the first words I tell students when teaching journalistic writing. Over the years I taught, some students would sign up for journalism because their English teachers told them they were good writers. And they were. However, writing journalistically is not the same as writing for your English teacher.
Your English teacher wants you to use SAT vocabulary words and long, flowery phrases. Do you read the newspaper to find out how many SAT vocabulary words the writer knows? Of course not. You read it to get information you want or need. Concise and clear are the key words to write journalistically.
Beyond concise and clear, there are little things judges notice when reading contest entries. These little things make a difference. If two or three entries are all well-written and use the prompt information well, these little things can make a difference between first place and fourth place.
With that in mind, here are some basic rules for writing in journalism contests.
- Use “said,” not says, stated, etc. When someone is interviewed, they are saying something. Since the interview is in the past, use past tense: said.
- “Said” goes after the name. Example: “School is wonderful,” Principal Joe Smith said. The verb goes after the subject. Someone might say, “Mrs. Smith said the test will be tomorrow,” but he/she wouldn’t say, “Said Mrs. Smith the test will be tomorrow.”
- Titles go before the name. If the title of the person is long, it can go after the name. Example: “School is wonderful,” said Jane Jones, assistant superintendent of secondary education.
- When identifying students by classification, do not capitalize the title (senior Joe Jones) unless it is the first word of a sentence.
- Make direct quotes separate paragraphs.
- Do not end with a conclusion. End with a direct quote or a statement of fact.
- Be sure the transitions lead into the quotes and not the other way around. State a fact in the transition, then give a quote that is a reaction to that fact.
- Do not use first or second person.
- Begin with a summary lead (5Ws and H). In rare cases, a feature lead might work, but judges expect a summary lead in this contest.
- Begin with the future element of the story. Look at the dates. What has already happened isn’t the lead. What will happen (the school board will vote, the principal will decide, etc.) is what should be in the lead.
- Do not use first or second person.
- Begin with a feature lead. You can imagine something based on the prompt, but do not stray too far from the prompt. It is better to use something in the prompt for the lead.
- End with a quote.
- First person plural is acceptable in editorials, but it is not necessary. “Lunch should be an hour long” is the same as “We think lunch should be an hour long.”
- Choose the side you want to argue, and support that argument.
- Follow the editorial format: State the problem, give your stance, give evidence that supports that stance, refute the other side, give a solution.
- Stick to the tone of the story. Use clever headlines for fun stories and serious headlines for serious stories.
- Note the counts of the headlines. If a headline is too long or too short, it is automatically disqualified.
- Do not repeat words in headlines. That includes main and secondary headlines. That includes things like “cheer” and “cheerleading.”
- For feature stories, strive for clever main headlines, such as a play on words.
Remember, the number one thing judges are looking for is quality writing. Following these rules will make your entry stand out that much more.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rhonda Moore is the author of Hexco's UIL Journalism invitationals and current Practice Packets as well as the writer of all of Hexco's UIL Copy Editing products for the UIL Journalism contest. She has written a Copy Editing Manual in addition to numerous UIL invitational tests and Practice Packets. A retired journalism adviser who worked most recently at McCallum High School in Austin, Texas, she is a CSPA Gold Key recipient and was awarded Texas' Edith Fox King Award. She was named the 2004 Max R. Haddick Teacher of the Year and received JEA's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. Her students won NSPA's Pacemaker Award, CSPA's Silver Crown Award and ILPC's Gold, Silver and Bronze Star Awards. She was executive director of the Texas Association of Journalism Educators from 1996-2017.