Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Correct those dangling modifiers. Break up that run-on sentence. These basic lessons of grammar and punctuation are often ingrained in students before they enter college.
But what about tightening up the “lede,” breaking down the “nutgraf” or structuring the “inverted pyramid”?
These cardinal rules of reporting are often new to undergraduates when they enter Journalism 101. Hand them an AP Stylebook, and you’re likely to see quizzical stares as they flip through the strange glossary of titles, phrases and datelines.
“Journalism is just a different language,” says Diana Dawson, veteran reporter and lecturer in the School of Journalism. “Even if you were the best writer in high school and your teacher urged you to become a writer, you rarely have a strong foundation in journalism when you enter college. It’s like being fluent in French and then your teacher says, ‘now we’re going to speak Latin.’”
To get students ahead of the steep learning curve, Dawson launched the Journalism Writing Support Program in fall 2013. Partnered with the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence, the peer-mentoring pilot program helps fledgling journalists puzzle together a story—print or multimedia—into a concise, accurate and alluring piece. The program is funded through the Provost Office’s student success initiatives to help improve the university’s four-year graduation rate.
Unlike any other writing center on campus, the program focuses entirely on writing for the media—not academic papers.
“Our students would come back from rhetoric-based writing centers thinking they needed to include a thesis statement and summary ending in a news story, leaving them even further behind in class,” Dawson says. “It was clear that we needed a writing support program run by people who were fluent in the language of journalism who could really help these struggling students.”
The problem with many of these students is not a lack of talent, says Aileen Bumphus, assistant vice president for academic diversity initiatives. It’s more of a matter of experience. Many are quick to become discouraged when they can’t keep up with their coursework. That’s why one-on-one coaching is so effective during this critical stage in college.
“We saw several very talented students with a strong desire to succeed coming to a top tier university where the rigor of college work was different than what they experienced in high school,” Bumphus says. “We wanted to make sure we had the infrastructure to support those students so they could move forward without getting caught up in courses where they were struggling. Once they got the support they needed at the Journalism Writing Support Program, they excelled.”
All students in the Moody College of Communication are welcome to take advantage of the free writing center, located in the Belo Center for New Media. Led by Dawson and her team of accomplished student mentors, the center offers one-on-one coaching sessions, group critiques and writing bootcamps in a safe, supportive learning environment.
“What we do here is really the best of what happens in a newsroom, when an editor is having problems with a story and sits shoulder to shoulder with the reporter fixing it in front of the computer,” Dawson says.
Grammar, spelling and punctuation is one thing. But piecing together pages upon pages of notes, research and transcribed interviews into a cohesive story can be a daunting process. One major problem area for inexperienced journalists is story architecture, says R.B. Brenner, director of the School of Journalism.
“They need to take a few minutes to think about the story’s theme before they start writing,” Brenner says. “I advise students to put into writing a one- or two-sentence ‘heart of the matter’ statement. They need to be able to describe, in a concise and specific way, the story they intend to tell.”
Once the writer has sketched out a rough outline, they are likely to continue the reporting process to fill in gaps in their research, long before they complete the piece, Brenner says. This could save their story from getting marked up in red ink—or worse—scrapped altogether.
At the writing center, students can come in as often as they wish to practice planning and structuring their news stories—a skill that rookie reporters often learn by trial and error.
“As a college student, I was very self-motivated and hard on myself as a writer,” says Brenner, who is an award-winning former editor at The Washington Post. “I would have loved having a resource like the Journalism Writing Support Program.”
When asked about student success stories, Dawson has plenty to share. One student, for example, graduated at the top of her high school class and had high hopes of becoming a star journalist. Those dreams were dashed when she found out her first big story assignment wasn’t fit for print.
“The story was in such bad shape that the professor didn’t have the time to give her all of the help needed,” Dawson says. “During several sessions, I sent her out to do more reporting and showed her how to restructure the story. She ended up being one of the ten students from that class to get published.”
The professor was so impressed by the student’s remarkable turnaround, he asked Dawson to talk to his class about the benefits of the writing program.
“While I was speaking to the class, he referred to that experience and said, ‘If this could get published, every one of you can get published. You need to make use out of this resource,’” Dawson says.
Now many professors across all disciplines in the Moody College of Communication are encouraging—and in some cases—requiring regular mentoring sessions.
“We’ve all been somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of interest in the program and the interest in developing it,” Bumphus says. “That’s the beauty of a pilot. It can be an opportunity to offer services for students in a controlled environment where you can either fail small or win big. In this instance, it was a big win.”
Dawson attributes much of the program’s success to her staff of undergraduate journalism students, many of whom are regular contributors for local publications and online magazines. All six of her student mentors aced their beginning reporting course and came highly recommended by their professors.
“In their interviews, all of my staff members showed they care about their struggling peers and that they want to make a difference,” Dawson says. “These students are wonderful and they really embrace the mission of taking a frustrated, struggling student and helping them solve the puzzle of their story.”
Not only are students learning how to write a well-researched, engaging piece, they’re also gaining a sense of hope and camaraderie from their peer mentors, says Bumphus. And more often than not, they pay it forward by becoming mentors themselves.
“We often find students who experience that feeling of encouragement serve as excellent role models, peer coaches and mentors for incoming students,” Bumphus says. “So we’re building on a large force of student mentors who have walked in their shoes, and who have been aided by these services. They can also be the ones to push their younger college friends on toward that same level of excellence.”
Maria Roque, a senior journalism major and Journalism Writing Support Program mentor, says her student mentees aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program.
“The students who come into the center all have different writing styles,” Roque says. “Even I feel like I’ve learned a great deal just by working with them. Every story comes with its own set of challenges, and I’m getting more practice just by helping students put together all the pieces of their story into a logical order.”
Although the program focuses on writing, its services extend far beyond realm of print media. Across all modes of communication—whether it be video, audio, or public relations materials—the quality of writing is paramount, Dawson says.
“Communication is at the core of everything we do,” Dawson says. “I think our entire society is suffering right now from a lack of clarity in written communication. Journalism and communications are changing, but it’s really only the platforms that are changing. The age-old concepts of clear communication, engaging storytelling, accuracy and fairness remain the hallmarks of everything we do.”
Visit this website to set up your appointment today: http://ddce.utexas.edu/academiccenter/journalism-center/
Photos of the peer-group critiques and video provided by the Journalism Writing Support Program