Citizen Journalism 101
The exciting thing about a publication like the Heights Observer is the great variety of personal perspectives that make up the editorial content. It would defeat the purpose to homogenize those into a single editorial voice, yet there are some standard procedures we suggest to our writers.
Before you start planning your story, consider how long you want it to be. This can save a lot of trouble later on in making the story shorter to fit the space available. A full column of uninterrupted text in the Heights Observer is about 500 words, and there are four columns per full page—which can seem like a lot of capacity until you subtract space for the headline, photos, and advertisements or other graphics. We can often run your full-length story on the web site, but over-long articles must be cut down to fit the print version.
Stories in the printed Heights Observer rarely exceed 1,200 words. Most are about 650 (half a page with a photo) or 1200 (full page with a couple of photos). Long Op-Ed pieces are 500-600 words, letters to the editor should be 200 words or fewer, and brief blurbs about upcoming events are 150 to 300.
Stories must have a Heights connection: please emphasize that. An effective strategy simply can be to interview an interesting person who is active in the Heights. For an article of 650 words, you’ll get plenty of material by thinking of three or four questions to ask your subject. One of the questions will need to cover basic nuts-and-bolts information such as the address and phone number of a business. Ask this question last because it’s a rather dull one to start off an interview.
Either ask ahead of time if you can bring a tape recorder or digital gizmo to record the interview, or just take notes. In interviews, the main rule of thumb is to phrase your questions so that they cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead of asking, “Was it fun starting up your business?” and getting a monosyllabic “No,” ask something like “Tell me what it was like starting up the business.” This will probably generate a few specific anecdotes, which will be much more interesting to read than generalities.
Once you select a few of the best quotes, write an introduction and a conclusion to frame them. It may not be necessary to repeat the questions you asked—the quotes alone will likely carry the story with very little “connective tissue” added. That’s your first draft. If your intended story length is 500 words and you now have 750, that’s perfect. It’s great if your first draft is 25% or a third too long. Go over the story and cut out inessential material until you’re down to 500 words. This tightening-up process will usually make the story a lot better. Maybe two quotes reiterate a single point. Maybe you’ve composed an overly flowery description. Be ruthless. Throw a few passengers overboard. Write in the active voice—it’s more space-efficient and more interesting reading.
Then send it to us. Register as a member at www.heightsobserver.org and you will automatically be authorized as a writer. Scroll down to the “Writer” tab and select “Submit new story.” Copy your text out of the program you’ve used to write it and paste the article into the story body area. Write a suggested headline and include any appropriate notes, use the “attach photos” box at the bottom to browse your computer for images to attach, then hit “submit,” and you’re done. A copy editor will go over the article for grammar, punctuation, etc., and will contact you if there’s some question. Our approach is to be as hands-off as possible, in order to preserve the individual character of each article.
Reference works such as The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or the AP Stylebook may prove helpful. Some general notes on our style: Use only one space after the end of a sentence. Initials have periods and spaces (e.g., J. K. Rowling, not JK Rowling or J.K. Rowling). There are no spaces around any kind of dash. Use italics for emphasis, not bold. Never use all caps. And, as the editors say, “Punctuation marks nearly always go inside quote marks,” not outside.
A note about tone: civility is important. In part this is to encourage open conversation and the exchange of ideas so that, together, we can strengthen our community. But it also serves the individual writers. Unless your objective is simply to scold somebody, you’ll have a much better chance of persuading someone who disagrees with you to consider your point of view if you can express your argument in a level and carefully reasoned manner.
Finally, please do try to send a good, clear JPEG photo or two to illustrate your article (each one is worth 1,000 words, after all).
So that’s the good news: it’s not that hard to write an article that someone else might like to read. Now the bad news: your deadline is tomorrow.
G.M.Donley lives in Cleveland Heights with his darling wife and two darling offspring.