September 25, 2005 / Copywriting / Fall 2005

Slaying the inverted pyramid and other great quests of teaching journalism

Written by Charla Harris

School starts and the countdown begins. You have six weeks – may- be – to whip the new staffers into shape. And that means teaching them the basics of InDesign, a variety of strange yearbook terms (colophon? ladder? folio?), design rules that may or may not be broken, and the importance of meeting deadlines.

For many advisers, especially those with students who have not taken an introductory journalism course, the real challenge is helping students who are accustomed to writing the traditional five-paragraph essay to look at writing a little differently.

After years of answering standardized test prompts and putting together cookie-cutter papers, many new yearbook staffers will write “introductions” and pepper their stories with stilted transitions and inane, repetitive quotes.

It does not have to be that way.

With a little coaching, it is possible to teach kids to write great yearbook copy in a short time – even before the first deadline.

Over the past 20 years, I have pared down my writing lesson to about a week. This does not mean we never work on writing again. It is just the introductory process that I speed through. After this, it is all about practice – they write, and I read, suggest, critique, etc. And my editors work with the new staff members as well. They know what we are looking for, and sometimes they have much better ideas for angles or revisions than I do.

   Journalistic Writing

  • Has a theme or “angle”
  • Structure varies – lead, body, may have a conclusion; often uses quote/transition/quote structure
  • Short paragraphs, some only one sentence
  • Uses less formal language
  • Uses third person pronouns usually
  • Consists of material the writer gained from interviewing sources, including direct and indirect quotes, credited with attribution

When school starts, the fi rst thing we do is talk about what year- books can and should be – it helps my students understand why they are writing and who they are writing for. I always tell my staff that they are doing two yearbooks: one for current students and one for those same students 30 years from now. This is the big picture of yearbooking, and it puts the whole copy thing in perspective. What will they want to remember about this year? Not just that we had a homecoming game, but that the game was postponed because of a tornado warning. Not just that we moved into a new wing, but that the wiring was messed up and the air conditioning never went off for the first week. The details count.

Next, we pull out some great yearbooks from around the country and read and analyze well-written copy. My kids are always intrigued by other schools, and good copy truly tells the story of those schools. Look for copy that pulls the reader into the story, that is packed with specifics and is built around interesting, relevant quotes, rather than dull cookie-cutter stories that could be used any year at any school. And while it is risky, a lot of times we look first at those cutting-edge books that do not always follow the rules (first-person perspective! sentence fragments!). These staffs often “get” their audience and tell more interesting stories than those who refuse to try something new. (Warning: demand that your kids understand the rules and why they were broken. If there is not a stylistic or journalistic purpose, you just end up looking stupid.) Once students have an idea of what yearbook copy can be, they often are excited and ready to get started.

The next step is understanding the style and structure of journalistic copy. If you have a year, or even a semester, to spend in Journalism I with your students, you can, of course, go page by page through a journalism text – but hey, who has the time? You have pages due in eight weeks. Instead, spend a class period discussing the differences between essay and journalistic writing (see bullet points, this page.) and explaining style rules and the reason for those rules. Make some handouts from a textbook, or maybe give them some terms to learn (lead, attribution, etc.) Most students read magazines and newspapers but have never thought about why the paragraphs are so short, so I like to pull out samples from early newspapers to show them how the page looks with no white space. We talk about how the style and structure pulls the reader into the story.

At some level, writing is writing – an introduction serves the same purpose as a lead, and what is attribution other than a clearer version of a parenthetical citation? Even the inverted pyramid has its uses for yearbookers as an organizational tool. Good writers understand how the language works, whatever the audience or the purpose.

   Essay Writing

  • Has a stated thesis
  • Has a specific structure with introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion
  • Paragraphs are at least six to eight sentences
  • Uses formal language
  • Uses third person pronouns only past tense verbs almost always
  • Consists of the writer’s analysis of a particular subject; may reference
    other work, credited in parenthetical citations

With a tentative grasp of journalistic style, newbie staffers can now go back and analyze yearbook stories. It is called explication when you do it to poetry, and the principle is similar – breaking down copy by structure and organization. I make copies of stories and we read them together, marking the lead, the transitions, the quotes, noting why and how the story works. Then I assign the same exercise for homework, giving them both good and bad stories to read and analyze. I am always amazed at their comments when they come back to class: “This story had no angle.” “The tone of the lead did not match the rest of the story.” “The writer did a good job with story flow.” “The story had total organizational problems.” After this exercise, I have fewer problems with staffers accepting criticism and suggestion later on.

Day three or four of “writing express” is spent on the interview. We want to tell stories about people, not events, not games, not things, so talking to those people is essential. This is how you find out about the senior football players going back to the stadium after their last game to walk the field, and the theater teacher driving 80 mph to the grocery store in the middle of the beauty pageant to pick up the roses she had forgotten for the winner.

To get these kinds of stories, you have to teach kids to be curious. I spend some time going over interview tips – ask open-ended questions, do not demand a “quote,” remember to keep asking “why,” etc. – and then I demonstrate by bringing someone in to interview and by sending them out with a senior staffer to talk to people. They need to see how to get beyond, “It was fun” or “I was so excited.” My kids call this kind of quote “dribble,” their definition of “drivel,” which is essentially what you get from inane and cheesy quotes.

We practice writing questions, talk about angles, discuss the need for specifics as well as catchy direct quotes, and then I assign some practice stories and let them go out on their own. It is important to practice interviewing. While you will probably have a couple of talented interviewers, the rest of the staff can develop this skill and overcome insecurity and shyness by doing it over and over again.

Charla Harris