MC 102 Lecture 3: Writing in the Media Environment

Professional writers need to learn what it is to write in the media environment. This “environment” is not just a place — although it is often that, such as a television or newspaper newsroom or the writer’s pool of an advertising agency. But it is also a state of mind, an acculturation that the writer must undergo.

In this section we’ll discuss what it means to become acculturated as a media writer.

Purpose of media writing

The purpose of media writing is not self expression, although sometimes that is involved in your writing. The chief purpose of media writing is to inform the reader. It is to present information and ideas.

Two secondary purposes are persuasion and entertainment, but what lies behind almost all media writing is information.

How do we present information? That’s what we’re going to learn more about in this section of the course. Here are some of the key concepts we will cover:

  • Information, the chief purpose of the writer.
  • Accuracy, the chief goal of writer.
  • The writer as a “third person” or impersonal presence in the writing.
  • Writing for an audience, always.
  • Conventions and practices of media writing.
  • Steps in the writing process.
  • Unity and transitions.

The media writer’s job is to gather, process and present information. In MC102, we don’t ask you to gather much information. This is not a reporting class. Instead, we do that for you. We want you to concentrate on processing the information we give you and on presenting it in a form that is acceptable for the medium you use.

The first and foremost consideration in the processing and presenting of information is accuracy. Getting information right means understanding that information in its appropriate context. (Read more about accuracy in your Writing for the Mass Media text, pages 61, 130-132, 161 and 231.) Many of the practices, customs and conventions of media writing are designed to ensure accuracy and to convince the reader that information is accurate.

Conventions and practices

Part of becoming a media writer to learn the conventions practiced by most writers for the mass media. You also need to learn some of the concepts and principles that underlie these practices.

Objectivity and fairness. Part of presenting information is doing so without injecting your own beliefs or feelings into the writing. Media writers try to present information in a manner that does not reveal how they feel about it or what they think. Their job is to let readers or viewers make up their minds about what the information may mean. They go into what might be called a third person mode — writing impersonally, deemphasizing the writer and emphasizing the information.
That’s why one of the major writing conventions is to let readers know where information is coming from. Sources of information and attribution are important parts of the media writing mix. In the weeks ahead, you will learn how to attribute information to a source when you are writing news and information. This is one of the most common practices that a media writer does. (Read more about attribution in your Writing for the Mass Media text, pages 158-160.)

Editing. Writing is an individual act, but in the media environment, it does not remain with the individual. Most media organizations have some kind of editing process. Other people will get involved with your writing. They will edit and question it. They may rewrite it. This is part of the process, and writers need to get used to it.
Editing begins with the individual writer, however. Few people can write in a way that does not need editor. The good writer learns to recognize the weaknesses of the first draft and to take care in correcting them. As an MC102 student, you should get into the good habit of editing your work carefully. Learn to recognize the technical mistakes you might make, but also read you copy for wordiness, logic and coherence.

When you edit your work: Instead of telling yourself, “I’m going to find the mistakes,” tell yourself, “I’m going to make this better.”

Time, space and deadlines. Almost all media writing is done under fairly strict deadline pressure. Newspaper reporters must meet daily deadlines. Broadcast reporter must meet hourly deadlines. Advertising copy writers and public relations practitioners must always meet deadlines.
That’s why in MC102, your deadline for finishing your assignment is the end of the lab period. You need to learn to work under short and sometimes harsh deadlines.
But, you might argue, if I just had a little more time, I could do a better job. That argument is heard throughout the professional world. And, it might be true.
The problem, of course, is that if we didn’t have deadlines, few newspapers, magazines, newscasts, advertisements or newsletters would get produced. Deadlines make the process of producing these things more efficient and predictable. The mass media couldn’t work without deadlines.
So, get used to them.
Start developing habits that can let you function more efficiently. Read with great concentration; learn to block out distractions. Get into the habit of developing your writing sentence by sentence, rather than word by word.
Later in the course, we will talk about how to edit more efficiently.

Writing for an audience. It may seem obvious, but the media writer must keep in mind that the writing is done for an audience — usually a mass audience. The writing will be read or heard by many people.
That imposes a great restraint on the writer, who must always ask, “What does the audience want? What does it expect? What must I do to satisfy the audience?”
Again, the point is that media writing is not done for self-fulfillment. It is done for a purpose of serving a large audience in some way.

Characteristics of a media writer

Successful media writing reveals the following characteristics about the writer:

maturity — an understanding of the responsibilities of the writer who asks that the audience invest its time and its money in what he or she is doing

knowledge of the language

knowledge of all forms of media writing and understanding of the proper use of these forms

willingness to risk having his or her efforts subjected to the judgment of a large audience

Writing coherently

Clear, coherent writing takes practice and effort. Most of us can speak well enough to be understood by our friends and acquaintances. Writing is a different matter. To say what we want to say in writing involves an enormous intellectual effort.

One of the things that helps media writers is that they use particular forms acceptable to certain media. For instance, the first form we will be learning in MC102 is the “inverted pyramid,” and we will start on that next week.

Along with knowledge of the form, we must understand what we are writing about. That is, we should have a thorough knowledge of the facts, information and ideas that we are trying to present with our writing. Often, we will be asked to string a set of facts together in a unified way, and the technical tool we use for this is the transition.

There are several major forms of transitions. It is not important that you know them by name, but it is important that you understand how they work and when they should be used. They are

  • connectors
  • hooks
  • pronouns
  • associations
  • logic

For more information about these transitions, look at your MC102 supplement (pages I-12-13) and your text Writing for the Mass Media (pages 156-158).

Three steps for improving your writing

As we begin the section on newswriting, you should do three things:

Read examples of good newswriting; your texts provide you with many examples of inverted pyramid news stories; and there is also the newspaper and the Internet.

Analyze these articles in light of what we have been telling you; look for examples of clear writing, good lead paragraphs, use of transitions, efficient writing, etc.

Emulate; copy. Try to do the same things in your writing that you have seen in the writing of others. Make your stories like the examples in the book.

Good luck.

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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