Guest Post By Joanna McClanahan of Ramblin’ Mama
Sometimes I wonder if all that time and money spent toward my degree could have been better spent. After all, here I am six years later, trying to make a living as a freelance writer while raising two toddlers. Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. This just isn’t the career in Journalism I had envisioned.
However, looking back on the first year of blogging and freelance writing, I think my background in Journalism (with a focus on online media) prepped me with many of the tools I needed to create quality work, as well as how to promote it. Here are some of the things I learned in Journalism that helped me be a better writer:
Headlines matter. Keep them short, succinct, and compelling. While readers will ultimately decide whether or not to share an article based on the content, a good headline will get them to read it in the first place. If a headline doesn’t sound like something you would click to read, chances are others won’t stop to read it either
Images matter, too. For most bloggers, the majority of your website traffic will be driven through social media. Your posts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. need to be as appealing and “shareable” as possible. There are plenty of resources for inexpensive stock images online. Paying a dollar for a quality image is well worth the return on investment: more eyes on your words.
A good story needs a great lead. Most readers will decide whether or not to read your full piece by the first few sentences. Creating a strong lead (aka hook) engages the reader, and makes it more likely they’ll read your piece in its entirety.
Keep it tight. In broadcasting, you’re expected to fit all of your information into a tiny segment of airtime. In print, you’re given a specific word count. There’s literally no room for words that don’t add value. Removing passive tense and unnecessary words will improve the flow of your piece, and make it easier for the reader to understand.
When in doubt, use AP Style Guidelines. Not sure whether to use “Already” or “All Ready” in your headline? Do what the professionals do: Google it. Search and add “+ AP style” to find the latest Associated Press style recommendations. Thanks, Internet! (There is also an AP Stylebook available in print, for those living in caves with no Internet access.)
Do your research. Speaking of the Internet, it’s easier than ever to research an article. Search your headline with quotes to see if it’s been used before. Look through similar articles to make sure your angle is distinctly different from others on the same topic. If you are researching facts to source for an article, make sure to only use accredited news outlets. Better yet, use email and/or Skype to get a first-person (aka primary) source.
Ethics can make or break you. There have been careers in Journalism destroyed by untruths (think Brian Williams as a recent example). Likewise, there have been bloggers whose careers have been forever tarnished by plagiarism. Always cite your sources. Don’t use “click bait” images or headlines to trick readers into reading your piece. Never scrape a watermark off someone’s image and repost it. The laws are still catching up with technology, but your practices should always be ethical.
Leave the reader wanting more. In my experience, a good closer is just as important as an enticing lead. As a writer, you invite the reader on a journey with you. Likewise, your closer determines where you’ve left them. The last sentence of your article should make the reader feel something. By “hooking” the reader at the end, you may inspire them to read more of your work, or, with any luck, share your article.
I may not have the job at CNN that I originally pictured for myself, but I’m a stronger writer because of my background in Journalism. Hopefully this article inspires you to create quality, engaging content. With any luck, it will at least have saved you some of the time and money that it took for me.
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Joanna McClanahan is a writer and humorist residing in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, two small kids, and two dogs. Her work has been featured on Scary Mommy, Club Mid, Sammiches & Psych Meds, YourTango, and TIME.com. You can find more from her on Ramblin’ Mama, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.