You don’t need a fancy degree to be a professional writer, but you do need to know a few things about style. You can learn a lot from reading other writers, writing for publications, and working with their editors and fact checkers. To avoid sticky legal situations and to save time in the future, we’ve collected a few guidelines and best practices we suggest you adopt off the bat.
Constantly situate the reader in place (where are they, and where are they going, and where have they come from) and time (what day, month, year is it).
Whenever you quote – whether for a review or a reported feature – always cite and introduce your source. For instance, if you’re citing the work of a critical theorist, describe their work in at least a few words or phrases, name the source from which you are quoting, as well as the year it was published.
In general, it almost always behooves you to be as specific as possible about whatever aspect of your subject you are depicting. If you get what you’re saying, but you’re not sure your reader will, nine times out of ten that means you need to be more direct, specific, clear. The ten is for when you’ve already been clear nine times and can afford a bit of abstract flourishing.
If you’re doing a profile or interview piece for us, you need to keep a transcript. This can be written, audio, or both, but you need some record to refer to in the editing process. Share this with us when you submit your first draft.
Interviews for profiles are hard, and how you prepare for and conduct them depends a lot upon who you’re interviewing and your own relationship to them or their work. There are some basic principles, however, that you should always keep in mind. First, do some prep work. Spend time becoming more familiar with your subject so that you can ask them targeted questions about their work/selves, but also so that you can respond more fluidly when conversation deviates from your prepared questions (also, you don’t have to show up to interviews with a lists of questions, this is a personal choice, some people like to). Profiles that read like blind dates are no fun, and it’s you, not your subject, who has to bring an element of a relationship into the otherwise stilted interview dynamic. Show up armed with knowledge, but always be prepared to change your mind about what you thought the profile would focus on and what your subject would be like. Interviews that subvert expectations are the most fascinating ones anyway.
When you’re writing a reported piece in which allegations are made, you need to clarify 1. that they are allegations and 2. who is leveling the allegations against whom. Are these allegations being made in a public forum (social media, a magazine) or in a legal document? Are there charges involved? For instance, when you read about sexual harassment in the news, these are almost always “allegations,” “claims,” “accusations.” So you need to write (whenever appropriate!) “X alleges that Y did Z.”
When reporting, prioritize the stories of your source over your own interpretation or sense of political mission. Objective journalism is a myth, and trash, but knowing this should enhance your reporting, not stunt it. Allow yourself to come to your narrative through your reporting and use the critical faculties, the politics, the wisdom, the moral drives you already possess as an awake human on earth to shape and give purpose to that story.
If you have a particular motivation, affiliation, passion project with respect to the subject of a piece, explain it. Your connection to the subject won’t be a given to the reader. It’s your job to make the reader care, be interested (a reader with possibly different interests from you, but as we know, anything can be interesting if your writing makes it so). Don’t assume the reader is a part of your scene, circle, click.
You don’t need to write about your subject from every angle, but you need to research it exhaustively and understand it from all sides possible in order to write a nuanced, specific, generous piece. For reporting, that means researching and possibly interviewing the opposition. For instance, if you are writing a piece about prison conditions, call up the Department of Corrections, read prison directives, research the history of the prison. Have there been similar complaints? If you’re writing a book review, refer to other books that the writer has written or is clearly in conversation with. Look up biographical information about the writer and, even if it doesn’t initially seem relevant, read what else has been written about their work. Far from diluting your convictions, this tact will make your argument more compelling, interesting, and rich.
Make your lede snappy, do not waste it! This doesn’t necessarily need to be your first line, it could be the first paragraph, but it needs to be alluring! As for conclusions, there’s no reasons why these shouldn’t be equally alluring if not more so – assume your reader will make it to the end and want it to pay off. Please please please don’t just use your concluding paragraph(s) to restate anything you have already said in the essay. You need to make a fresh observation, point, joke, whatever.
Mask editors fact-check pieces themselves, and that means we don’t have the time or resources to be as thorough as a publication with a fact-checking department that coordinates with legal counsel. It means too that our writers should go about reporting, reviewing, writing any factual information with care. Proofread a piece before handing it in, double check that proper nouns are spelled correctly, that dates are accurate, that the names of everyone you’ve talked to for a piece are spelled correctly (not sure? Ask them) and that you are using their preferred pronoun. When citing an article, link to it, so we can check that the quotes and information you cite are accurate. When citing a book, keep page numbers handy in case the editors need to check any quotes. Keeping interview transcripts (see above) also makes the fact-checking process smoother. All of this is best practice regardless of whether the publication you write for has a fact-checking department.
When reporting: if your source says something off the record, you can’t put it in the piece. If your source makes a claim about someone else that may or may not be true or may or may not defame their character, you need to exercise extreme caution when deciding how to present that information, or whether to do so in the first place. If you’re not sure how to proceed, ask an editor!
When naming sources in a reported piece, or any writing, really, write out their whole name first (i.e. Jane Doe), then use just their last name for the duration of the piece. Exceptions can be made, but these are rare and should be indicated in the piece.
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