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.