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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.

 

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…

Shorthand: We should not be amused

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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.