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Tag Archives: National Council for the Training of Journalists

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.

 

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.

The Kingston Courier

There are many things which I have to do for this course, but one that’s been at the forefront of my mind recently has been writing articles for my NCTJ portfolio. This must include 10 articles, one of which has to be a news feature (that’ll be written as part of the Public Affairs module), and although it isn’t due until May we’ve been assured that before long it’ll be April and we’ll be running around like headless chickens wondering why we only have one article worth submitting.

The easiest way to get cuttings is to write for the Kingston Courier, our very own hyperlocal news website (the efforts of last year’s students have led to them being shortlisted for an NCTJ award, so it’s faintly terrifying that it’s now been entrusted to us). Even this isn’t easy though, as alongside the obvious problem of fitting research and writing in around the rest of our work (and we have plenty), we’ve been confronted with an inconvenient truth: everyone hates journalists. Or at least distrusts them. As soon as you say you are one in researching a story you see the smiles start to slip, and hear the voices falter. Last week I was passed around multiple departments, kept on hold indefinitely, questioned as to how I had the audacity to call someone on their lunch break and hung up on, all in the same call. And this was in an attempt to write a good news story!

The fact that this treatment made me more determined to write the story in question is probably the biggest indicator I’ve yet had that I’ve chosen the right career path. Negative impact on my blood pressure aside, I’m definitely enjoying the experience.

(You can read my article on the business implications of the recent Oceana stabbing here and a more cheerful piece on the Richmond Park WomenOnly Run here.)

 

The Two Week Mark

It’s been three weeks since I started at Kingston, but two weeks of normal lectures, so I feel that an update is in order. I have classes Monday-Thursday, and with travelling time included I generally spend about ten hours every day out of the house. It’s a bit of a change from my lazy undergraduate life, that’s for sure!

This semester, I have six modules. After Journalism Practices, which I’ve already written about, there’s:

Law

This is a three hour block on Monday afternoon, in which we learn how not to get sued, what to do if we do get sued, and how many times our lecturer has been sued. There’s a lot of precise language, and it’s important that we get the definitions just right, so we have a lot to learn before our first exam in November.

Hands On Journalism

The most practical of the six modules, this takes place on Tuesday afternoons, and also in every moment of our free time as we have to run a hyper local website, the Kingston Courier. This semester I’m the Business Editor, so I’m spending a lot of time looking for local businesses stories, whilst also trying to write the court and council stories which the NCTJ wants in our portfolios.

Journalists and Government

Another module with lots of information and definitions to learn, although the scary thing about this is that my father, a local government accountant, now wants to talk to me about his job. We’re starting on local government, which is pretty dry (although exactly what we need to understand those aforementioned court and council stories), but things should get a little more exciting when we move onto central government next semester.

Multimedia News Writing

This another practical module, in which we learn to write.  So far, this has involved being handed a press release or some fake sources and then being told to turn them into a story. This has taught me that many of the writing habits I’ve picked up over the years are wrong, particularly some of the words I like to use (whilst is out for one). I’m enjoying it a lot though, because it’s a chance to write, but without the pressure that there is on the Kingston Courier.

Shorthand

My favourite module, because although a lot of people complain about it, I’m still finding it easy at this point. This is mostly because I spent a month before starting university learning it in preparation, but I like to think that all that time spent getting to grips with the Russian alphabet has helped too. Shorthand means a new alphabet, new words, and a new way of writing altogether. It’s still fun at the moment, but we haven’t properly started speed building at the moment, so we shall see what happens.