It seems very clear until you have to do it yourself

We’re beginning news writing in Writing for Mass Communication. When I asked the students who hasn’t written a news story before, about 220 of the 260 students in the course raised their hands. The other students were on their high school newspaper staffs – or a few on community college newspapers before transferring to UF.

Chapters on news writing in “Writing and Reporting News” have been assigned. We’ve analyzed a news story in lecture. The students have been told to be read and analyze news stories at least 15 minutes a day.

Then they were provided a set of information – like the information from a police report — and told to write a short news story based on that information.

But reading about news writing, reading news stories, and even listening to advice on news writing is not the same as actually writing news stories.

Yesterday the students arrived in lecture with their practice news stories. The stories were collected, and Adam Bornstein, my lecture assistant, sifted through the stories to find the kind of errors we anticipated that would be in those first news stories. And those errors were there:

  • The entire story was one big paragraph.
  • The lead read more like a crime novel than a news story.
  • Sentences were complicated and confusing.
  • Names were misspelled.
  • Quotes were made up.
  • Information was invented.
  • The last paragraph moralized about crime.

As I talked about how news organizations make decisions and reviewed do’s and don’ts of news writing, Adam typed sections of their stories into a Word document. We projected those sentences on the big screen in the auditorium and then, as a class, critiqued the students’ work.

The discussion led to laughs and groans and to some students being annoyed that being clever in their writing wasn’t the goal – that accurate writing without the writer’s opinion was the goal.

“I will try to write as bare-bones and soul-less as I can,” one student told me after lecture.

This lecture demonstrated what we as teachers know but don’t always incorporate into our teaching activities.

Just because the students have read about it and we have talked about it in class doesn’t mean that they “get” it. Having students actually practice the skill and receive feedback on their performance are important parts of the teaching/learning process.

Sometimes it seems very clear — and even easy — until you have to do it yourself.

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