« Positive Anticipation | Home | Fact-Checking Policy »

Lessons from the Professor

Posted on Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Lessons and reminders taken from student's story assignments.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The following are excerpts taken from edits and evaluations I put on story assignments turned in to me during the just concluded spring semester at Indiana University's Ernie Pyle School of Journalism, where I still teach part time as professor emeritus. I share them with you, hoping they might serve as reminders for you, too.

Read-Aloud Copy

"There's no way you could have read this sentence aloud. I doubt you even read it over silently. It makes absolutely no sense. Why do you ruin the effort you've otherwise put into this article, all your research, all your collecting of information, by letting such ill-formed copy through?"

Plan Your Thesis

"What you need is a thesis. We've spoken of this in class how often? As your reader, I require guidance as to what this article is going to be about. Your lead gives me a clue and, thank you, tempts me into the copy. But then, I begin to wallow because you haven't tied down for me the gist of the subject. The lead alone can't do it all. Where are you going to take me, if I go on? You've got to tell me, and you're not. A thesis, if you please!"

Make It Worth Your Reader's Time

"I'm perfectly happy moving through your copy. It flows along nicely, and you've produced some lively material. I like the anecdotes because they enrich the piece. Your descriptive work seems natural. But as I peruse the pages, I begin to wonder: Why am I reading this? What are you telling me that I need or want to know? What lasting value am I gaining? Is the subject worth my time? Was it worth your doing? It's your job to make sure that, in some informational or insightful or inspirational way, you're adding to my, your reader's, life in a measurable way. Tell me what you're trying to do for me. I can't discern it."


"There's just not enough meat here. I like your idea. I like your intended approach. But you're failing to give me sufficient substance. I'm not learning enough. I'm not getting enough. You've shortchanged your article, yourself, and me by not doing informational justice to the assignment. This piece is flimsy. As a result, you're not convincing me of the importance of the subject."

Use Only the Best Material –- Get Rid of the Rest

"You have a two-headed story. Part of it is biographical material that supports a profile. Part of it is a status piece about the field in which your 'profilee' works. Yes, you need some of the latter to shape the profile, this because she exists within the world that is her profession. But since you set out to write a profile, then you should stay in that direction. What you've done here is start with profile stuff, thereby getting me all interested in her. Then, suddenly, you shift to the field. Then, just as suddenly, you go back to the profile. Consequently, I'm not sure what I'm reading, and I'm not getting a full measure of either. Insert the best of the field material into the woman's story. Use it to enhance her life, to explain it. Get rid of the rest."

Be Careful of Your Opinion

"It's fine for your article to have a point of view, to offer a perspective, to provide a sense of direction. It's not so fine to give opinion. This is not an essay. This is not a commentary. This is not a review. This is not a personal column. This is a feature article. Any opinion passed along in a feature article must originate with your sources, not you. Let others speak, and that way guide your reader along the path you've chosen. You and your article gain credibility that way. You're the scribe. The arguments are supplied by the authorities, the experts you've sought out in support of your project."

Use Good Grammar

"Ye gods, the grammar! This is a run-on sentence. Look down to the next paragraph: you've got another run-on sentence. Sentences are not connected by commas. Do we need to have a lesson on what constitutes a sentence? ... And here you've got the singular-plural mix, a lack of agreement: 'The organization is ... They are planning...' Make it: 'The organization is blank-blank and plans blank-blank.'"

Flow and Transition

"Have you forgotten flow? These two paragraphs don't connect. You need transition. Fill in the missing step so that I can follow along a path of your devising. I think if you had read the copy out loud and listened to it, you would have caught the problem. The gap is evident, certainly to the ears if not the eyes. But, the gap was evident even to my eyes. Gaps disturb the reader. Supply transition. Supply flow."

Guide Your Reader

"I think your topic holds potential importance. The material you've given me in this version doesn't measure up. I don't sense the import. Where are the statistics that prove your point? Where are the comments from those in the know? I desire a step-by-step approach that has me gaining belief in the subject. Guide me."

Pick a Tense – Present vs. Past

"The problem here is tense. Make up your mind: present or past, not both. I'd prefer present because that makes your copy more immediate and timeless. What these people told you last week they would tell you again now. So, let them speak in the present: 'says' versus 'said.' There are times, of course, when the past is not only preferred but necessary. Here, however, you have a choice, and the better choice is now."

Show, Don't Tell

"Show me. Don't tell me. How often have I stressed that? In this paper, I get tired of the expository passages. I get even more tired of all the quotes that you parade before me. Give me some action. Give me some description. Give me the closeness of 'show.' Take me there. You're keeping me distant, and that's not fair. How much life your article would gain if you put your heroes in situations that reveal how they live and work. This is far duller than it should be."

Please Your Reader

"Think of reader interest, reader service. The task is not to please yourself. It is to please the reader. This article is self-serving. It reeks of the you, of you passing along what interests you. Well, fine, part way; you need to be interested in what you write about. But you also need to translate that interest into my interest. Let me see how all this could affect me, make my life better, more enjoyable, more manageable, or whatever. It's the reader you serve, not yourself."

Care About Your Subject

"Where's the passion? You seem to meander through the pages. Vitality is missing. A sense of belief is missing. A feel of I-love-this-and-I-want-you-to-love-it-too is missing. You don't seem to care about what you've written. So, I ask myself, 'Why should I?'"

May the above, as I said, serve to remind, to lead you toward rethinking and improving what you've put together (or what the writer whose copy you've been reading put together).

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

Add your comment.

« Positive Anticipation | Top | Fact-Checking Policy »