RSS Feed

Category Archives: Back to School

Top Tips to Pass the Production Exam

It may not surprise you to know that I have an exam coming up. My blog posts always seem to coincide with impending exams, as blogging is one of my favourite methods of procrastination (along with tidying my room,  plucking my eyebrows, and doing just about anything that isn’t revision), but as always I’m attempting to justify it by making my exam the subject of this blog post.

Today, I’m sitting the NCTJ production exam. It’s an optional part of the NCTJ diploma, but with newsrooms cutting down on staff and expecting reporters to write, sub and lay up their own copy while simultaneously singing and juggling knives, it’s arguably one of the most important skills a trainee journalist can learn. It’s also one of the hardest exams to prepare for and pass.

So other than developing flawless spelling, punctuation and grammar (which, with less than an hour to go, may be an unattainable goal for me), what can you do to prepare for the production exam?

  1. Use an active verb in every headline. Errors in headlines are unforgivable, that goes without saying, but writing a headline without a verb is an error that many people make without thinking. If you really can’t get an active verb to fit a passive one will do, but the verb is vital.
  2. Headline content is more important than fitting. Ideally, you’ll have a headline that both  fits and sums up the story perfectly, but if that isn’t achievable then white space will lose you less marks than a headline that doesn’t capture the essence of the story. Never split a word over two lines though.
  3. Be consistent. If you use use single quotation marks for quotes in the middle of sentences, be consistent. If you refer to the people you’re quoting as Mr/Mrs/Miss Jones on the second mention, be consistent. If your listings headlines have the age rating in brackets, be consistent. Just be consistent.
  4. Look for mistakes everywhere. This applies to the proof-reading exercise. There will be mistakes in the headline, sub-headline, body copy, panels, pull quotes and captions. If a picture doesn’t have a caption, that’s an error.
  5. Watch your time. There’s no point in doing three sections of the exam perfectly, but missing out the final two. I was told to allocate 37 minutes to Section A, 15 minutes to Section B, 30 minutes to Section C, 15 minutes to Section D and 22 minutes to Section E, but you can make your own decisions based on how difficult you find each part.

 

Work Experience Update 2

After six weeks of ‘Christmas holidays’, I am now preparing to go back to university. It would be nice to say that I’ve had a relaxing break, but in truth after almost five weeks of work experience I’m just as tired now as when I left uni in December (or perhaps that’s the after-effects of my friend’s Australia Day party last night). It’s definitely been a worthwhile experience though.

Firstly, I’ve conquered my fear of picking up the phone. Relying on e-mail alone as a journalist is dangerous, it’s a lot easier for people to ignore your e-mails than it is for them to hang up on you (although I have had this happen to me in the past). So coming into work in the morning and being told that my job is to phone seven different press offices and get statements on everything from the M&S financial results to Tesco’s response to the horsemeat scandal, while terrifying, has been hugely helpful for me in the long run. Now to get over my fear of listening to recordings of my voice.

I’ve also learned the importance of checking that my dictaphone is switched on. And of taking notes while recording so that I have a back-up if the recording comes out as white noise. I was taking notes while I recorded purely because the publication’s editor was watching me, but I’m very glad that I was on the day that my trusty dictaphone failed me. On a more positive note, I have learned that using a dictaphone is vastly preferable to getting ‘shorthand claw’ (although obviously not if you’re in court).

Finally, I’ve become more confident in my abilities as a journalist. If I can run an unfamiliar news website single-handedly for a week then I can do anything! Or anything journalistic anyway, running a news website probably doesn’t qualify you for winning an Olympic gold medal or becoming Prime Minister…

Mitigating Circumstances

I’ve been incognito on the blogging front for the past week, having been laid low by a horrible virus. On the surface, this didn’t seem so bad, giving me a bona fide excuse to stay in bed all day watching Grey’s Anatomy re-runs with my cat (this is my life, please don’t judge). However, illness struck the night before my law exam, meaning that I’ve had to do something which I’ve managed to avoid in the past four years of university: claiming mitigating circumstances.

This was a venture into the unknown for me because I’ve always been, for want of a better word, a goody two-shoes. I was the child who cried at school because I’d forgotten to bring in my homework (not even forgotten to do it, but just forgotten to bring it with me to class) and who once sat an exam having almost passed out ten minutes beforehand. But last Wednesday I had to face facts: there was no way I was staying upright long enough to sit my law exam.

I’m now having to wade through the swamp of bureaucracy that comes with missing an exam. It’s not enough that the invigilators saw me looking like I was at death’s door, I need a doctor’s note to back up my claim. And, of course, I have to pay for the note. Plus, I haven’t yet been able to work out whether I need to fill in a mitigating circumstances form or whether the NCTJ just want my doctor’s note. So I delegated: I handed it over to the admin office and now I’m just hoping that they have more of a clue than I do. It wouldn’t be difficult…

Five Tips for Learning Shorthand

Earlier, as I was browsing through my Twitter feed in an attempt to do anything but revision for my Essential Media Law exam on Wednesday, I caught sight of a tweet from a fellow journalist asking for advice to help with learning shorthand. Never one to pass up an opportunity to procrastinate, I decided to write a whole list of tips. In my defence, my first shorthand exam is also fast approaching, so this exercise has helped to remind me of what I need to do to pass.

1) Start early. The best piece of advice that I was given when I came for my Kingston interview was to start learning shorthand during the summer. If you haven’t started shorthand yet, but know that you will have to soon, get a head start. Even if you just learn the alphabet, it will make a difference in class.

2) Practice makes perfect. Any shorthand book which you buy will tell you that you should be practising for at least half an hour per day. This is an understatement. Often an hour or even more will be necessary if you have been learning difficult outlines in class. If you struggle to find a large block of time in which to practise, keep your notebook with you and do some outlines whenever you have a spare five minutes. I use my twenty minute wait on Twickenham station – excellent use of dead time!

3) Keep a pen in your hand at all times. During shorthand lessons, we’re told that if we aren’t reading shorthand then we should be writing it. Every single outline which you write improves your speed and accuracy, so even if you don’t have as much time outside of class to devote to practising, you can use every minute of your shorthand lessons.

4) Read shorthand as well as writing it. When you’ve written out a passage of shorthand, make sure to read it back. This serves a dual purpose: you can see if you’ve made any mistakes, and by improving your reading speed you will also become more familiar with the outlines and thus improve your writing speed.

5) Learn to associate outlines with sound. As you practise a new outline, say it to yourself under your breath (this may not be advisable if you practise on the bus – people will think that you’re crazy). When learning sentences or passages, try to get someone to read to you, or use a disc if your book comes with one. This will make the response to sound automatic.

Shorthand: We should not be amused

20121115-150133.jpg

Amidst my media law woes, I’ve found time in my busy schedule for something else: stressing about shorthand. It comes second on Independent blogger Martin King’s list of important journalistic skills, but is also one of the hardest skills to learn.

After two months of learning outlines for such bizarre words as ‘pebbly’ and ‘frolic’ (try using both of those in the same sentence) we have been deemed ready to sit our first exam. This entails taking shorthand notes on a four minute passage, read at a speed of 60 words per minute. Given that the average person speaks at two or even three times this speed, we have a long way to go before we’ll be able to take notes from actual people, but the idea of writing at 60 w.p.m. is still faintly terrifying.

Yesterday, our tri-weekly dose of shorthand was scheduled for 4pm. I had been at university since 10am, and had already endured three hours of local government and a gruelling law revision session. I was not in the mood. By the time we started dictation, I had already tried to read the word television as ‘T…V…shun’ and forgotten multiple words which I was supposed to have learnt already. Then Sue decided that as a special treat, we would do our dictation at 70 w.p.m. rather than 60. This was to be my undoing.

Surprisingly, the problem was not actually the speed. With shorthand passages, the word ‘a’ counts for one of your 60 but so does the word ‘supervise’. Therefore a 70 w.p.m. passage can actually be easier to write than a 60 w.p.m., which seemed to be the case here. Then came the fatal sentence ‘Mr Brown had returned from walking his dog to find that his pet parrot, Jack…’ Don’t ask me why I found it hilarious that a man would name a parrot Jack, but I did. So did several other members of the class. And the teacher. The passage had to be paused and restarted, but once I’ve found something funny, I can’t stop laughing. I tried to muffle my laughter enough that I didn’t disturb anyone else in the class, but unsurprisingly my own transcript had several large gaps. These gaps seemed to coincide with the mentioning of a certain name.

So my advice to anyone who is learning shorthand is this: do not find anything funny in the exam! Unfortunately, I have no tips as to how to help with this problem, and if anyone has managed to combat it then I would appreciate their help. In searching for solution though, I have discovered this useful article from Wannabe Hacks on passing 100 w.p.m. shorthand. There may be hope for me yet, providing that no other unusually-named birds show up, of course!

If you want to share your own shorthand-learning stories or tips for passing the exams, then please leave a comment below.

Media Law

Good old McNae’s…

For the past week, my life has been consumed by one thing and one thing only: media law. And with an exam in the subject fast approaching, that doesn’t look likely to change any time soon!

Law is taught in a two hour lecture every Monday afternoon, followed by a seminar in which we have the dubious pleasure of being able to apply our new knowledge to exam questions. The aim is simple, to learn how not to get sued in the workplace. As it turns out there are many, many things for which a journalist can be sued. We’ve covered an awful lot of them since the beginning of term: defamation, contempt of court, sexual offences, breach of confidence, copyright. Just thinking about it all makes me want to lie down in a darkened room, not sit an exam paper on my knowledge.

Undeniably useful though it may be, law is by no means my favourite module. It can be boring at times, but the theory is livened up by examples, often featuring our Hands-On tutor as a fictional murderess (sorry, alleged murderess). Our lecturer also enjoys telling us about his own run-ins with the law, including massive payouts, injunctions, and the time that he was followed home by a threatening black car after refusing to retract an article. And his job is to teach us how not to get sued!

The main problem is that it’s so specific. My exam answers will have to be precisely-worded to pick up the top marks, with four marks sometimes being awarded for remembering one four word phrase. Memorising these phrases means spending a lot of quality time with my textbook, McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. When I develop a hunchback from the weight of my bag, I shall blame this law exam for forcing me to drag that book back and forth to university every day (because everyone knows that train time is reading time). But hopefully, this way I can avoid failing and having to fork out fifty pounds for a resit. And with that said, I must get back to learning the exact wording of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Wish me luck!

Chasing the Dream

More than once in the past week, I’ve been told to make sure that I don’t get stuck writing about things which don’t interest me. I’ve been told this in the context of finding a work experience placement (which I’ve just managed to arrange at Retail Gazette), at a networking event, and by the great Sir Trevor McDonald himself at last week’s Media Summit. Whilst this was well-meaning advice, especially from Sir Trevor, to chase the dream and make sure I’m writing about the things which are really important to me, it presented me with something of a conundrum. What is it that I want to write about?

Those of you who read my blog post about blogging itself will remember that I struggled with finding a niche (if you haven’t read it, you can find it here). This latest dilemma has proven to me that I’m not very good at decision-making generally. Several of my classmates have clear ideas of what they want to do when they finish their MA. I just know that I want to be a journalist.

According to the woman who taught us networking as part of the Media Summit, this will put me at a disadvantage, at least in networking terms. Being too general is not a good thing, I need to be passionate. But can I not be passionate, just…generally?

So far, lacking a concrete end goal has opened more doors for me than it’s closed. In my last year at Durham, when I was most heavily involved in student media, I wrote articles about travel, music, history and theatre (and saw more different theatre productions than I thought possible, all for free). Here at Kingston, the focus has been more on hard news in order to fill the dreaded NCTJ portfolios, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying new things. Having never previously shown any interest in business, I’ve become Business Editor of the Kingston Courier and discovered that business is actually an extremely interesting subject to research and write about. This in turn has led to me getting work experience at Retail Gazette. I’ve also written a sports article, largely as a favour for a friend, and realised that I may have been wrong in ignoring the sports pages at the back of the newspaper  (in fact, if you include the business section, there’s a whole world at the back of a newspaper that I never encountered before starting my MA course).

I’m not saying that those journalism students who know exactly what they want to do and how they’re going to get there are wrong. What I am saying is that I don’t think what I’m doing is wrong either. When I come to apply for jobs, I may not be able to say that I’ve wanted to be an entertainment critic since I was five years old, but I will be able to be passionate. About what? It could be any number of things, and I have the rest of my MA year to work out which box I want to put myself into. For now I want to be a journalist, the rest will come with time.