Thursday, December 18, 2014

What does a book review look like?

Here are two book reviews done by kids I worked with in Colorado, with color-coded notes that will help you understand how your book reviews should look.

Like more pictures here, if you click on it, you'll get a bigger version that you may be able to read better.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How to post at YVNY

The hardest part about posting a story at Young Voices is finding the place where you sign in, but you'll see it if you scroll to the bottom of the screen and look hard. (Once you've found it, you might want to bookmark the sign-in page to make it easier the next time.)

But you're not ready yet, because you shouldn't compose your story on the YVNY posting site, for three reasons:

1. If something happens, like the site crashes or you forget to hit "publish" before you exit, you'll have lost all your work.

2. When your story has been edited, approved and added to the web site, you should pull up your original story and compare what you wrote to how it came out on the YVNY site. By seeing what the editor did, you'll learn and become a better writer. But you need your own copy to be able to do that.

3. When you post a story, I'm going to assume it's ready to go. So don't put it up there until it's done, because I might put it up on the site before you were ready to have it go live.

So write your story in Word or some other word processing program on your computer and save a copy, and go to the YVNY site to post it.

Sign in, go to the top left and look for "Story." Click on that, then click on "New."

You'll see this screen:

Write a headline in the box at the top.

Then paste your story into the larger box, and give it a good look to make sure you didn't accidentally leave part of it off, or accidentally include some junk at the end. Make sure it's broken up into nice, bite-sized paragraphs with a space between each one.

Then add your pictures by clicking on that little Media box just above where you pasted the story. Just follow the instructions.

Add your name in the box that says "Writer's Name" and your age and hometown where it says "Writer's Job Title."

Then scroll down and you'll see this:

You'll see a box of categories on the bottom right.

If you are writing an opinion piece, check off "blog" and your region.

Otherwise, check off "article" for an article, "book" for a book review, "entertainment" for a movie or play or concert review or "other stuff" for other stuff (We're not sure what that is, either. But if you have a really unusual piece, ask me and maybe that'll turn out to be the answer.)

Then check off your region.

You're almost done. Take a minute to give it one more look to make sure you've got everything right, and then hit the blue button to post it.

Remember that you won't see it on the YVNY website until it's been approved and edited, so don't panic!

One more thing: Once you've posted a story, be sure to check your email every day until you either hear from me about something you need to fix or you see your story on the site.

Still having problems?

Email me with questions about writing and editing.

Email Mary Miller if you are having problems with your user name or password or that sort of thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Reporting is a (really fun) job

If you're new to YVNY (and, at the time I'm writing this, we're all new to YVNY!), it's important that you realize that reporting is a job and that, when you go to an event you plan to write about, you need to bring your tools and have a plan that includes some work time.

Just going some place and having fun and then, later, trying to remember things about it isn't the same. Reporting includes gathering facts on purpose, not just remembering them later.

It's not hard work and, in fact, if you are a curious person, reporting is a lot of fun, because it gives you an excuse to find out stuff that other people might not get to.

The amount of work you do really depends on why you went to the place to begin with.

Sometimes, reporting is the only reason you are there. For instance, if you take a factory tour, you should take notes and take pictures (if they let you; some factories won't) the whole time, and you shouldn't be shy about asking questions.

The same would be true if you went to a bookstore or library where an author was making an appearance. Take notes, take pictures, gather information, because the entire event is your assignment.

Let's take another example: Say you went to a museum. You want to take some notes, but you don't have to write down everything you see, because there's a lot there and, besides, you want to have some fun, too.

So, when you see something particularly interesting, you take a picture and make a few notes. And, if you get a chance to talk to one of the curators or museum educators, you take very careful notes because it's really an interview, not just a conversation.

This might also be true if you went on a hike somewhere. You would take some notes at the beginning, where there is often a sign explaining the place you are going to be hiking. You might even take a picture of it. And you would make notes about different interesting things along the way, and, if you think of something people should know -- like to pack a snack because it's a long trail, or to plan on stopping at a particularly pretty part -- make a note.

But you should also enjoy the hike! Don't make it too much like work!

Now, let's say you go to something like a street fair or farmers market, where there are lots of booths and different things going on. You can enjoy most of it just like the rest of your family, but don't forget your tools -- notebook, camera, pens or pencils -- and remember to find three or four interesting things to report on and people to talk to.

It's good, at events like that, to try to mix it up a little. In other words, don't report on three people who are all selling apples. You might talk to one person who sells apples and another who makes candles and another who sells kettle corn, so that your readers can see that there were many different things to see and enjoy and maybe buy.

And, yes, talk to people. Introduce yourself, tell them your are a reporter for Young Voices of New York and ask if they would speak to you for a few minutes. Get a first and last name and the name of their business and make sure you spell it right (ask!).

Then ask some questions, like how long they have been doing what they're doing, and how they got interested in it, and what makes the thing they're doing special. Those sorts of questions will get a good conversation going.

You probably won't ask everyone the same questions. You probably won't ask someone who is selling eggs what an egg is, but if they are selling persimmons, "What is it?" might be a good question.

And here's a tip: Ask if they have a business card. That way, you'll be sure you got their name and their job title correct, and you'll also have a phone number or email address in case you think of a question later.

Now, about that picture of your tools:

1. A notebook small enough to be carried easily. It doesn't have to be a reporter's notebook like this one, but look over the notebooks at the office supply store and find one that seems handy.

2. Two pens, or pencils. If one stops working, you want to be able to keep going.

3. A camera is not 100 percent necessary if you have a good cell phone, but a camera doesn't have to be expensive to be better than the one on a cell phone.

Cell phone cameras can be really good on a nice sunny day, but when you move indoors and things get darker, they're not as good. If a cell phone is what you've got, then that's what you'll use, but if you can get a camera, it will often take better pictures.

Take notes, take pictures, and then, when you get home, write it up while it's still fresh in your mind.

We don't really have deadlines for most stories, but nobody cares about a Thanksgiving story in January or a story about a ski hill in June. Besides, the longer it sits, the more the memories begin to fade. Even good notes won't remind you of how the fresh donuts smelled or what it felt like to stand on the cliff and see over the top of the forest.

Reporting is a lot of fun. Go find out for yourself!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Getting Started

In_Gedanken_19_JhHaving trouble getting started? Here are some things that might help:

A. The first step is to relax.
You're supposed to be writing, not worrying about writing. You can't do both at once.

If you've already started worrying, the best way I've found to stop is to take a walk around the block, or go do the dishes or fold laundry, but not in front of the TV or where you're going to be talking to someone.

Basically, you need to do something that is different, that won't take long and that isn't very interesting. You want to change the mood, but not get completely distracted.

B. Figure out what you want to say. 
I've often suggested that you pretend you're writing a letter to a friend, because that can help you be more relaxed, but if you can't even decide how to start that letter, here's another approach:

Ask yourself these questions or sit down with a parent, sibling or friend and have them do the asking:

1. What are you writing about? Name of the book and author. Name of the movie and the main actors. Name of the event you went to or person you interviewed.

2. What was it about? What happened? Don't tell me everything, just tell me the basics: It was about a kid who finds out he's a wizard and he goes to this school. It has some funny parts, but it's a fantasy adventure and some parts are scary. He has these two really good friends and there's this kid he really doesn't like and then there's this kind of monster-demon-guy who wants to kill him.

3. Did you like it? Was it interesting? That's a "yes" or "no" question, but be honest. Just because you agreed to read a book or go to an event, you don't have to like it. Did you?

4. Why?  If you liked it, what were the best parts? If you didn't like it, what were the things that made you feel that way?

5. Do you think I'd like it? How come?

Write some notes as you talk, or don't. Everyone works differently. Some people need outlines, some people can't use them at all. Don't get hung up on details about how you do things; just try to clear up your thoughts.

C. The hardest sentence is always the first one. So write that one later.

Don't sit there staring at the screen trying to figure out a brilliant start. You do need a start, but it doesn't have to be brilliant.

Whatever it is, it doesn't matter. Just put something -- anything -- down so you can have that part out of the way. You can always go back and fix it later.

In fact, sometimes a brilliant start just messes you up, because you write a really clever first sentence and then you can't think of a really clever second sentence.

After awhile, you realize you're so hung up on being clever you forgot that you're just there to tell someone about a book, or movie or whatever.

"Brilliant" and "clever" aren't part of the assignment. You don't have to sing and dance and stand on your head. Just tell us what you were going to tell us.

D. Don't listen to me.
No, you're not going to hear me say that very often, but I'm saying it now. Everybody is different and every writer has different ways of working.

For instance, when I was a reporter, I began every story with my byline: "By Mike Peterson, Staff Writer."

But a buddy of mine in the newsroom never put in his byline until he was finished. "I wait until it's done before I put my name on it," he'd explain. "It's like signing a painting."

If you sit there worrying about "doing it right," you'll never do it at all. Or you'll do it, but it won't feel right.

E. My dog is happy.
I got to that last part and wasn't sure what else to say, so I took the dog for a walk around the block.

He really likes it when I'm having trouble writing something. Actually, that whole "If you get stuck, take a walk" thing was his idea.

(This guy needs a dog.)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

What's the story?

Here are a few rules and tips about writing for YV:

1. Stories should be local and should include your own reporting.

If you find yourself in the Jets locker room talking to the players, write about it! But don't just watch the game and write about it, because that's not the same thing.

And don't write about elephants unless there's one in your garage. (If you see one at the zoo, interview the keeper. That's a story!)

Your local community is full of interesting people and things to write about: Go find them!

2. Travel stories should be about places other kids can go, too. It doesn't have to be in New York State, but it should be a place you can get to in a day's drive.

Also, write about a place, but not a for-profit business. For instance, the Farmers Museum or Mt. Marcy, yes. But not the Great Escape or Chuck E. Cheese.

Exception: We don't want a story about your vacation cruise to the Virgin Islands, but, if you spend Christmas with your grandparents in Santo Domingo and want to do a story about how they celebrate the holiday there, we'd like that.

3. Take lots of pictures, but no selfies. If you are writing about learning to ski, for instance, you might be in a lineup of six kids taking the lesson, but remember that the story is about how to learn to ski, it's not about you. And if you interview an author at a book store, a picture of the writer talking to other people is great, or a picture of the author alone, but not of the two of you together.

4. It would be wise to check with me before writing a story that someone else might also be doing. For instance, we don't need three or four reviews of the same movie, so let me know if you're going to the opening night and I'll let you know if we need a review.

On the other hand, if, for instance, you go to a local presentation by an interesting expert and want to report on it, chances are nobody else will be doing that, so don't wait to hear from me! You may want to go up to the person afterwards, explain that you are a reporter for Young Voices and ask a few more questions, but, in any case, take pictures, take notes and write it up! 

5. Reviews contain opinions, of course, but other stories should be about the facts. If you do have opinions you want to write about, that should be a blog. (And that's good: We like blogs!)

6. "TLDNR" stands for "Too Long, Did Not Read." You should keep that in mind. If you go over 500 words, you probably ought to trim it down so more people will read it. And 400 is usually better.

7. There's also such a thing as "Too Short." If you haven't written at least 200 words, maybe you didn't include enough information.

8. Remember that your stories won't appear on the site until they've been approved by the editor. After you file a story, watch your email for a few days, in case I've got a question or concern.

9. If I have small changes, I'll make them before posting. (That's what editors do.) If I have larger changes, I'll get back to you about it. (That's what good editors do.) If you see a change you don't understand, or that you wish I hadn't made, email me and we'll talk about. (That's also part of how it is supposed to work.)

10. There are more tips here about different kinds of writing. Read'em! And, if you have a question, email me. That's what I'm here for!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Writing a Story

The technology we use has changed, but writing hasn't: Good writing takes work. Here are 10 Tips to help you learn the techniques good journalists use and the ones we look for at Young Voices:

1. Don’t ask the reader questions. Don’t start your story with “Have you ever ...?” or “Did you know ...?” Just tell them. “There are more than 200 breeds of dogs ...” Or make them curious: “The first time Dave Jones saw a llama in his backyard, he was surprised. But now he sees them every morning.”

2. Write about the story, not about the reporter. Except in a review, you shouldn’t use the words “I” and “me” very often. Maybe not at all. If you are interviewing the President, you don’t have to tell us “I had the wonderful chance to interview the President!” because we’ll figure that out. And don’t write about how excited you were. If you do a good job, we’ll be excited, too!

3. What is this story about? Don’t forget to tell the reader what you’re talking about. If you’re writing about a state park, where is it? Tell them what is there and why they might want to go there. If you’re writing about a club, who can join? How? And, if you write about going to Kinderhook, don’t forget to briefly tell who Martin Van Buren was, even though they ought to know that already.

4. Quotes matter. Getting quotes into your story helps give it personality and brings it to life. (Get the first and last names of the people you quote.)

5. You’re a reporter, not a salesperson. Unless you are reviewing a movie or book, don’t tell readers they should buy something. It is okay, at the end of your story, to say, “for more information” and give a web address.

6. Read the other stories at Young Voices. Support your fellow reporters with comments, yes, but also learn from them. Your own writing will improve and YVNY will also become better.

7. You belong here. Now get to work. You’re probably used to being the best writer in the room. Here, you’re a good writer in a crowd of good writers. But you know what? Some of the people here are not ever going to get around to actually writing anything. Be one of the people who digs in and gets to work, and you’ll already be one of the best, even among this group!

8. When in doubt, ask. It’s easier for us to answer a question than to repair a mistake!

9. Story length: If you want people to read your stories, keep it short, but long enough to say something interesting. If you're done at 150 words, maybe you didn't have anything to say, or maybe you left some things out. But if you go over 500 words, people will get tired of reading and will stop. Your best bet is to write the story first, and worry about the length later.

10. Read your story aloud before you post it.
It’s a good way to spot missing words or grammatical errors, and to tell if you used the same word too many times. It can also help you notice short choppy sentences or sentences that ramble on forever.
 (And use Spellcheck before you post -- one change about the new technology is that it leaves little excuse for misspelled words!)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Art of the Interview


Two reasons to conduct an interview:

1. As part of a story the person is involved in. You’ll be getting information from someone who is an expert on the topic you’re writing about, and good quotes to bring the reader into the story.

2. For a profile of the person. The story is about this person and should have a lot of quotes, but it will be written in third person and include more information than just what you learn in the interview.

Do your homework first! Know something about the person before you try to do the interview.
Find out as many of the basics as you can: Birthplace, education, what else they’ve done.

If it’s an author, read the book. 
If it’s an actor, watch the movie. 
If it’s a tennis player, learn something about tennis.

An interview is a conversation: You talk, and you listen.
Go into the interview knowing what you need to find out. You can write questions, or you might just write down key words like a shopping list, but make sure you don’t forget the things you needed to ask.

But then listen to the answers!

If something is said that you don’t understand, ask about it. If you hear something unexpected, feel free to talk about it. Don’t just go on to the next question.

Should I record the interview, or take notes?
A recorder can be very helpful, but it doesn’t replace taking notes. Written notes are more important, because you’ll need them anyway. You must always take written notes, even if you use a recorder.

Digital recorders will help you get quotes exact. But, even with a recorder, you must still take good, accurate notes for two reasons:
1. To help find quotes. You can write most of your story from your written notes, then use them to help you find the part of the recorded interview in which there is a particular quote you wanted.
2. In case your recorder doesn’t work. Nothing is worse than finding out that your recorder stopped working, or that other noise in the area made it impossible hear what is said. It happens to every writer. The lucky ones -- the smart ones -- also have written notes they can use when a recorder fails.

May I edit quotes?
An exact quote is an exact quote, and shouldn’t be changed. But you don’t have to, um, you know, um, leave in every, uh, every ... um ... because people don’t always talk the way they write.

It’s okay to edit out a few small things. But if you have to do major surgery on a quote, then it isn’t a quote anymore and you can’t use it. When in doubt, email your editor and ask.

Making hard choices
One of the hardest things about a good interview is that it won’t all fit in your story. We don’t use “Q&A” interviews, and, even in those, you have to make choices. It hurts, but you have to choose the most important, interesting parts and let the rest go.

Writing Reviews

1. A review is not a book report.

In a book report, you’re letting the teacher know you read the whole book, so you have to tell the
whole story. In a review, you’re telling the reader whether they ought to read this book, or go to this
movie, or buy this product.

Don’t tell everything that happened -- just enough so the reader has a sense of what it is about and what it is like.  Especially, don’t give away surprises, endings and other parts the reader will enjoy discovering!

That’s called a “spoiler” because it spoils the experience for the reader. Usually, you won't tell what happens after the first third of the book or movie, though you might give a hint like "But he's in for a surprise!" or "Her troubles are only beginning."

2. Do your homework.

If a book is the third in a series, you should be familiar with the other two. If a movie is based on a popular book, you should be familiar with the book so you can tell the reader how much it is the same, and how much it has been changed.

3. Tell us what you’re talking about!

The name of the book or movie belongs somewhere in the first three sentences. Don’t keep us guessing, and don’t think putting it in your headline does the job.

4. Use comparisons.

If a film contains a lot of magic, is it like a Harry Potter movie? Or is it more like “Princess Bride?”

If it’s part of a series, is it like the other books or films in that series? How is it different? Try to compare it to things your readers are probably familiar with.

5. Who is this for?

Not every book or movie is for everybody. If it’s more likely to appeal to action fans than romantics, say so. If it’s too complicated or too scary for younger kids, say so.

6. Give us warnings when we need them.

You’re doing your readers a favor by giving them a heads up over something that might lead to a less-than-good experience. When a movie doesn’t make sense unless you’ve read the book, let them know. And if a book or movie contains content that might be offensive or too adult for some people, say so. "This movie is PG-13 and there are some pretty bloody, scary scenes."

7. Don’t forget the details!

If it’s a book, we need to know the author and the number of pages, or at least whether it’s long or short. Tell us the main stars of a movie, and let us know if the movie is unusually long or unusually short.

8. You don’t have to like it.

Don’t be a wiseguy about it and don’t look for reasons to hate something, but be honest. And, if it might be fun for someone younger, or someone who likes that kind of thing (even though you don’t), be sure to say that. But don’t feel that, because you got a free copy of the book or got to attend a movie preview, that you have to say it was wonderful.

9. Remember why you are doing this!

The point of a review is to let people know if they're going to be like something. Don't let your readers waste their money on something that will disappoint them, and encourage them to try it if it's something they're likely to enjoy.