Thursday, August 18, 2011

Late Nights, QuarkXPress & Conquering Evil Macs: College newspapers are freelancing bootcamps

Huge boxing gloves + deadline = true story
Throwback Thursday

I know, I know. You're thinking writing for a college newspaper is an obvious way to prepare for a freelance writing career. Of course it is--but not in the ways you think. The skills you gain go beyond learning how to write a lede, interview sources or design a page. What is really going on is on-the-fly training that will help you learn to take only the work you want, what elements are important and how to handle difficult clients.

What do you really want to write?

Eagerness is the bane of many budding journalists. It's nothing to agree to cover a concert, interview the student body president and profile the basketball team's star player--all for the next issue. The problem is finding the time to cover everything and turn in a quality article.

The paper has to be put to bed, whether you've gotten any sleep or not. A deadline is a deadline. So those hours you spent at the student union watching jumbo boxing instead of
finishing your expose on cafeteria food or putting the finishing touches on page six have to be made up somewhere.

To keep from being massively bored and burnt out you learn to only accept or suggest assignments in niches you enjoy covering. The same lessons apply to taking on freelance assignments or clients. Don't take on more work than you can comfortably handle in a normal workday. Try to avoid covering topics that leave you cold and that you will put off until the last minute. Both will result in you pounding out sub-par work during the wee hours.

If it's important it goes above the fold

During my first QuarkXpress training session as a college sports editor I was shown that magical line that designates the middle of the front page. Everything above that was reserved for the biggest stories, splashiest design elements and attention-grabbing headlines. It's where people look, so more time was devoted to filling the space.

The lesson here is simple: Think about what is important or noteworthy and refrain from burying it under a mountain of lesser points. Draw attention to what you want to be noticed. This applies to your websites, client dealings, queries and more.

Clients are nicer than newsroom Macs

If you had a Mac that was the center of your college newsroom then I would bet my glitter gel pens it had a name. A name you cooed lovingly and spit out like a curse. And a personality. A maniacal, needy, stubborn and exacting personality.

You will probably never have a client as trying as that Mac, but it's the nature of freelancing that even the best clients can toy with our sanity a bit. Luckily for you, you have learned to backup your work, stroke the right buttons  and appreciate idiosyncrasies.

Remember those times a Mac has acted up for you, but worked perfectly for the next user? Well, there's a lesson in that too.

What was your favorite lesson learned writing for your college paper?

 Photo credit: Tamara McRill

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