Beginning writing

Reading: Writing for the Mass Media, chapters 2, 3

As we said last week:

Four characteristics of media writing

  • accuracy
  • clarity
  • efficiency
  • precision

Accuracy is the chief requirement of a writer for the mass media. This is not just a journalist’s requirement. All writers are expected to present information accurately and to take some pains in doing so. Many of the procedures for writing for the mass media are set up to ensure accuracy.

Accuracy – the number one value of journalism

Clarity means that you should present your information using commonly understood words and phrases and in a context so that it can be easily understood by a mass audience. Your writing should answer all of the questions that could be expected by the audience. (Not all of the questions that could be asked, but all those that it takes to understand the information.)

Efficiency is one of the most prized writing characteristics. Efficiency means using the fewest words to present you information accurately and clearly. Efficiency is difficult to achieve because

* most of us write inefficiently, especially on first draft
* most of use do not do a good job in editing our writing
* the world is filled with inefficient writing, and we often fall victim to it.

Precision means that as a writer, you take special care with the language. You know good grammar and practice it. You use words for precisely what they mean. You develop a love for the language.

Concept of he audience

Journalists write for an audience; they do not write for themselves. This makes an enormous difference in the way they write and what they say. They must always keep the idea of the audience in their head — what does the audience want, what information does it need, etc.

Basic tools of writing

Grammar, spelling, punctuation

How many of you have said one of these things:

  • These were all invented by sadistic junior high school English teachers to terrorize students and confuse adults.
  • No one can learn all those rules and terms, and besides, it doesn’t do anybody any good anyway.
  • I can write. I’m just not very good at grammar and spelling.
  • People who know all the rules for using commas are weird — and dorks.

These are a few of the things you hear about grammar, spelling and punctuation. Maybe they even reflect some of your thoughts.

For media writers, people who make their living in this profession, however, the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation and style are essential. Knowing those rules and being able to apply them consciously to your writing is the mark of a professional. What you don’t know about these things, you should try to learn as quickly as possible.

First a few principles

  • The rules of grammar are important. Standardization allows us to communicate more effectively and efficiently.
  • Knowledge of those rules makes us a better writer. We have more confidence in the way that we are saying things.
  • People who work with the language — people like you — should care about it. They should take an active interest in its development.
  • The “rules” — grammar, spelling, punctuation –– are dynamic rather than stagnant. They change often. Knowing grammar is not just knowing a set of rule. Rather, it is understanding how the language works and how it is used.

Media writers must keep up with the language and the way in which people are using it.

Knowledge of the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling and style are important to your professional reputation

Most common errors

Students beginning JEM 200 make some common Level I errors. These errors can be overcome if they pay attention and apply some basic rules. They need to begin to get out of some of the bad habits they have developed in writing.

Here are some of those errors:

Run-on sentence and commas splice. A run-on sentence connects two complete sentences with no punctuation or coordinating conjunction.

The computer screen began flashing it would not stop.

A comma splice is where the writer might use a comma to separate the two sentences.

The computer screen began flashing, it would not stop.

This sentence is still incorrect. To proper separate two complete sentences within a sentence, you should use a comma AND a coordinating conjunction, such as “and” or “but.”

* The computer screen began flashing, and it would not stop.

Pronoun-antecedent agreement. This may be the most common error in writing because it is the most common error in our speaking. We often use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent in our speech. This is acceptable when we speak, but it is not acceptable when we write.

Singular antecedents require singular pronouns.
The Supreme Court announced its decision today.
The Supreme Court announced their decision today.

Essential and non-essential clauses. Look up this entry in your AP Stylebook and study it carefully. Understand how an essential clause differs from a non-essential clause. In many constructions, essential clauses are introduced with the word “that” and are not separated from the rest of the sentence with commas. Non-essential clauses are introduced with the word “which” and are separated from the rest of the sentence with commas.

Its, it’s. Repeat after me:

It is a singular pronoun.
Its is the possessive of it.
It’s is a contraction for “it is.”
Its’ does not exist.

Commas. The comma can be a very powerful instrument for expression.
God save the Queen.
God, save the Queen.
God save the Queen?
God save the Queen!
God. Save the Queen.

There aren’t many rules for using commas, but they are very important.

Pay particular attention when you use a direct quotation and attribution. That’s something we do a lot of in media writing. A comma should be inside the quotation mark to separate the quote from the attribution, as the examples below:

“I ran to the store,” he said.

A period should not be put after the word “store.” It should be a comma. Don’t make the silly mistake of writing:

WRONG: “I ran to the store.” he said.

In grading writing assignments, I have seen many students use this construction. Students who do that this semester are likely to fail outright.

Take a look at JPROF’s one-page set of rules for using commas.

Words. Use words precisely – for exactly what they mean. (Study Appendix C in the text.)

Don’t use reticient when you mean reluctant,
imply when you mean infer,
don’t shoot off a canon,
don’t sentence someone to be hung for a crime,
and above all,
don’t stand on your principals.

MarkTwain2The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

Mark Twain

Forming plurals. Do not use an apostrophe to form the plural of a word.

Forming possessives. Learn to use the apostrophe properly.



Style and the stylebook

All media writing is governed by the rules of a stylebook. The most wide-ranging stylebook is the AP Stylebook and Libel Manual, a book that is required for this course. That’s the stylebook that governs journalism, public relations and much of advertising.

Like grammar, style rules weren’t cooked up just to make life miserable for college freshmen and sophomores. They have some important uses. They:

• help bring a consistency to writing
• help draw attention away from the writing and toward the content
• help make writing easier for the writer

Here are a few basic style rules that may help you learn the stylebook:

Every word has one and only one spelling.

  • Check the stylebook first – then a dictionary
  • Look up the entry in the stylebook on “spelling”

Avoid unnecessary capitalization.
Proper nouns and names: exceptions: Popular names (South Side, East Tennessee, the Series); Derivatives (English, Christian, but not biblical or french fries)
Learn the difference between capital and Capitol

Avoid excessive abbreviation.
A name and an abbreviation in parentheses immediately after it is usually not necessary.
Memorize abbreviations for months and states.
In most cases, capitals and periods are not necessary for an abbreviation.
ABC, not A.B.C.; but always U.S., never US
Some abbreviations are appropriate on all references: FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation

Punctuate according to generally accepted rules of punctuation.
Major exception:
Items in a series: AP style says not to put a comma between the next-to-last item and the conjunction.

The flag is red, white and blue.

In general, spell out zero through nine.
Many exceptions and contingencies to this rule.
Look up “numerals” entry in the stylebook.
Pay attention and memorize.

Knowledge and use of style is a way of showing that you care about your writing and that you have the discipline to improve it. Consistency in writing is almost always a virtue.

Grammar terms

Knowing the terms of grammar is important for the knowledgeable writer. You can learn some of these terms at this page on JPROF.

Specifically, you should be familiar with verbal, noun, present tense, active voice, coordinating conjunction.
Get into good habits by applying AP style rules to everything you write, even your emails.


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