Newswriting: Top 12 Tips for Peer Reviews

They smiled at the good and frowned at the bad and sometimes they were very sad. -- Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline

For the peer review assignment (listed in the syllabus as "Workbook 7"), I have provided these 12 peer review tips (not substantially different from the printout I gave you in class, just edited slightly).  Your grade for the peer-review exercise depends on the quantity and quality of the constructive feedback you provide to your peer. (So smile at the good and frown at the bad, but don't make your peer feel very sad.)

In the process, you will get specific, concrete peer feedback, which you can use to revise your paper (and perhaps raise your final grade). But for me, the real value of the exercise is that the experience of hunting for and fixing problems in a peer's paper will help you develop self-editing skills that you can apply to any writing situation.

It's one thing for you hear me say "The people you want to interview are all as busy as you are," but it's quite another thing to make the third or fourth or tenth phone call to try to catch somebody between meetings.  Much of what you previously knew only by studying new vocabulary terms or hunting for fill-in-the-blank answers has only now become more concrete.

We've covered a lot of material already, but now that you have had this field experience, we're really ready to learn about journalism.
  1. Look at the headline of your peer's article. Circle the verb; if the verb is passive, suggest a revision to make it active. Look up "headlines" in the AP Stylebook, and edit your peer's headline to conform to the AP standard (not online) headline style.

  2. The general shape of a news story begins with the lead. Look at your peer's lead. In the margins of your peer's paper, write down whether the lead is traditional, anecdotal, or experimental.

  3. Which of the traditional journalism questions (who, what, when, where, why, how) are answered in the first few paragraphs of your peer's paper? Identify as many as you can find. For instance, if your peer's lead mentions "Friday night," circle those words and mark them as "when."  Remember that a story does not have to answer the questions in any particular order, and that different kinds of stories emphasize different questions. For example, sometimes "who" is relatively unimportant -- particularly if your main source is an official spokesperson, rather than someone whose actions or experiences are the reason you are writing the story.

    Note how long it takes your peer to answer all these questions, and note which answer your peer put last. In the margin next to where your peer answers the last question, note whether you think the information comes too late or is OK where it is.

  4. Circle a direct quotation that appears in the first few paragraphs (or, if there aren't any quotes at the beginning of the story, identify a quote that should be moved there). 

    If a story begins with a traditional lead, the next few paragraphs should offer details that explain the lead -- and those first few paragraphs should include at lest one direct quotation. But an anecdotal or experimental lead might begin with a direct quote, in which case the second or third paragraph should present all the information you would expect to find in a traditional lead. 

    In order to supply contrast and conflict (elements that draw the reader's attention), you might quote two people who disagree with each other, or two people with differing perspectives on a subject (an eyewitness and a victim; a member of a group and a person who studies the group;  or a Perhaps the first source is an eyewitness with a vivid account that grabs the reader's attention, and the second is an official or other authority figure explaining what it means or why it is significant.

    1. See #3 above -- when possible, prefer the vivid, evocative words of a newsmaker or eyewitness to a dry, official statement from a spokesperson or authority figure.
    2. News articles should start a new paragraph for each new speaker.
    3. If the story focuses on one central character, the first quote should probably be from the central character. If I scored an interview with William "Captain Kirk" Shatner, I wouldn't begin with a quote from a random Star Trek fan, since readers might think the story is about Star Trek in general.
    4. If you make it to paragraph four or five and you still haven't encountered a direct quote from a news source, then your peer is probably writing an essay (which emphasizes what the author has learned or believes) rather than a news story (which reports on recent newsworthy events).
  5. After the lead and a few paragraphs giving specific details, a news story needs a nut graf, which explains to the reader why the story matters. Draw a box around your peer's nut graf, and evaluate its effectiveness at giving the reader a reason to read the rest of the story.  In a story about a recent crime, the nut graf might mention that this is the third such crime this week and local residents are getting worried, or that the local district attorney is up for re-election on platform that promises safer streets.  The nut for the Homecoming stories should emphasize why the story matters to people who aren't SHU students. 

  6. After the nut graf, the story should focus on the news - that is, things that have happened recently. Don't delve into someone's past history in the paragraph right after the nut - save those details until you have told the reader everything that is new and current. Mark those paragraphs that you feel count as "news."

  7. After the news, we should see background information - stuff that helps contextualize the story. Here's where you can give the history of your event or describe the road that led a guest speaker to whatever position of authority or experience that makes the guest speaker worth listening to. Mark those paragraphs that you feel count as "background information."

  8. The story should end with optional details. You might return to someone you quoted earlier, and give more details.  But don't leave "the opposing view" to the end of the story. You should already have cited at least three sources before you get to the details. Mark those paragraphs that you feel count as "optional details."

  9. Does the story have a conclusion? A spot news story should not have a conclusion. Your editor expects to be able to chop off the bottom of a news article to make room for a more important story. Don't save a sudden twist or "the opposing view" for the very end of a news story.  (On the other hand, news features, book or movie reviews, personality profiles, or editorials are not spot news stories, so they can build to a conclusion.)

    For the sake of this exercise, draw a line that ends the story three paragraphs from the bottom, and explain why you feel the trimmed story would or would not make sense.
  10. Evaluate each direct quotation for quoteworthiness. To be quoteworthy, the quoted words must convey emotion, present an opinion or a promise, reveal the speaker's character or mindset, or contribute some other direct value to the story. The quotes should also be brief; trim lengthy quotes.  If a speaker is simply reciting a fact, or the author has to provide too much explanation (in parentheses or outside the quotes), suggest paraphrasing when appropriate.
  11. Objectivity. Are there any places in the story where the author used opinion words such as "fortunately," identification words like "us" (instead of "Seton Hill students), or otherwise inserted bias?  Mark any instances of bias. (Of course, individual sources in a story don't have to be objective; people with strong opinions tend to give colorful, useful quotes. But the story should present multiple perspectives on the issue, so that the story as a whole does not betray a bias.)
  12. Copyediting.  Look up the AP style entries for dates (under "months"), names and titles, numerals, and punctuation.  Note that there is also a separate section for sports journalism. Mark all changes necessary to get your peer's paper to conform to AP style.
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Your grade for the peer-review exercise depends on the quantity and quality of the constructive feedback you provide to your peer. (So smile at the good and frown at the bad, but don't make your peer feel very sad.)... Read More

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