Final Reflection: 16 Things I Learned in J202

My semester-long battle with J202 is coming to a close. At this point, in the midst of a final project in which I am responsible for overseeing and editing every bit of content that will appear on our project website, I am not nostalgic at all (in fact, I may feel some elation mixed with a just touch of stress). However, I know that by this time next week, I’ll be feeling a bit blue about the end of J202.

So in my final reflection on this beast of a class, I’d like to highlight 16 things I learned throughout the 16 weeks of this semester in J202.

1. Check your facts: No, seriously, CHECK EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOUR FACTS. I don’t care how sure you are that 14 train cars were carrying anhydrous ammonia in the Stoughton crash. Double- and triple-check numbers, name spellings, locations, ages and anything you are sending to the presses. Fact checking: Just do it.

2. Banish the Oxford comma from your work: Breaking up is hard to do. As a dual journalism and English major, this was the hardest severance I ever had to experience in the world of writing. I’m still reeling from the agony I experienced when leaving behind my beloved Oxford comma, but in the end, my grade in the six-credit J202 (and my general future as a journalist) had to come first.

3. Live and breathe AP Style: Even if you hate having to call Wisconsin “Wis.” in print (I do), you must obey the AP Stylebook. It is your Bible, your Quran, your Holy Book. Always keep it handy in case of copy editing emergencies.

4. Pay attention to deadlines: I may say this as I write this blog post the day before it’s due, but I really do mean it. Deadlines are everything in the professional world of journalism. Get things in on time, even when it feels impossible. It’ll feel much better to see your byline the next day and know that you did a job well done.

5. There are Chihuahuas and Great Danes: My mom always used to tell me this whenever I would compare my appearance to that of another girl. The same goes for talents, skills and specialties. Some people have a killer eye for design (not me) while others are better suited for writing (me). Embrace what you’re good at and do the best you can do in your weaker areas.

6. Be gracious and kind to interview subjects: The people we write about are doing us a huge favor by giving us a story to tell. Be sure to let them know how much you value their time and thank them endlessly. If they’d like to see the piece they’re featured in once it’s complete, send it to them! Most people love getting things written about them. It makes them feel special.

7. Writer’s block happens: And it happens more often than we’d like it to. Sometimes the only thing we can do to get our ideas flowing is to step away from our work or turn to something else for a few minutes. This is okay and necessary.

8. Pictures are important: Hundreds of words written by the best writer in the world will not portray as much as a single photograph. As hard as that is to acknowledge for a wordy person like myself, pictures are a powerful medium for storytelling. Stories are usually made better by photographs, so don’t be afraid to include both words and pictures.

9. …But that doesn’t mean you can write poorly: Audiences expect journalists to be good writers, and they should. After all, this is what we’re trained to do. Ask a mentor or a friend to read your work and offer you suggestions to improve your writing. Everyone has something they can work on.

10. Ask good questions and follow-ups: This was a hard one for me to learn. But if you aren’t getting the kind of responses you need for your story, why are you conducting an interview? It is so, so important that your questions elicit good responses. To do this, the questions you ask must be clear, concise and well-worded. If you don’t get a good answer on the first try, go in for the follow-up (basically, rephrase your original question, it usually works wonders).

11. Cover topics that interest you: I know this isn’t always an option in the real world, but if you can, follow and cover stories that interest you so that work doesn’t feel so much like work. Journalism is such a broad field that there is something for everyone, whether it be sports, fashion or mindless celebrity gossip.

12. Share your work: After you’ve finished a piece you slaved over, you will probably want to get some positive feedback on it. Posting links to your stories online gives you instant access to compliments, even if they are only from your mom and your best friend. Beware: Posting links to your stories could potentially lead to an onslaught of trolls and haters. It’s something you have to get used to, because that’s just part of the online business.

13. Use a thesaurus: You probably reuse the same words and phrases over and over without even realizing it. Thesauruses are a huge help in breaking this habit.

14. Structure your story in a way that makes sense: I understood the general structure of straight news stories and feature pieces before taking J202, but I learned that there are many more ways to arrange a story that might go against tradition. Infographics are one of my favorite new story types, and I’m really glad I learned how to make them.

15. Learn the ropes of basic software: iMove, InDesign and Audacity may seem confusing at first, but they (and programs like them) are essential to the journalism industry. Having these programs in your toolkit will be extremely helpful when you enter the real world.

16. Be proud of your profession: How many times has someone come up to you and asked you what career path you plan to follow in the “dying field” of journalism? Too many, I bet. Don’t shrink away from questions like that. Instead, be proud of what you’ve chosen to do in life. While some people are stuck in cubicles, working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and waiting for their next vacation, you are out in the world capturing life as it happens and telling people’s stories. What job could possibly be more awesome than that?

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