Monday, 27 December 2010

Peruvian anchovies are a commodity

My editor told me to take a week off, so I flew to Berlin for a few days (German Christmas! Family! 5,000 calories per day!) and when I came back, I decided to clear out various mystery boxes that have been cluttering my flat for about a year or so.

One of them contained a stack of folders from my days as a Reuters trainee.
Picture the bittersweet moment as I was reunited with seven-year-old mock press releases from the fictional failed state of Gregorija, named after our trainer's son. Scribbled on the margins of a rather breathless story about bomb explosions in the Gregorijan capital ("Police said the injuries treated in hospital included cuts, burns, broken legs and amputations") were some wise words from another brilliant trainer, Keith, who crossed out "amputations" and commented: "This is not an injury. It's a solution (of sorts)."
I also found my first bond market reports, astonishingly unmarked by the passage of time: they were just as boring as when I had written them.

Finally, I came across a list of 100 Learning Points. They were the result of a slightly odd Reuters ritual that involved throwing an inflatable ball around the room at the end of every training day and telling each other what we had learned. I can't remember the exact system but it somehow resulted in a long list of writing and reporting and general life-management tips. When I re-read them today for the first time in seven years, I realised that some of them were actually quite useful - not just for journalists, but also for novelists.
So here we go. I'm not going to post all 100 of them as I still need to clear out the other boxes, but I've selected some that will hopefully brighten up your New Writing Year:

1.) Use strong verb in headline (if you're a novelist - for headline read title, opening paragraph...).

2.) No one cares about irrelevant detail.

3.) Don't start leads* with "The..." (I don't think this applies to novels. And I'm not just saying that because my own novel starts with "The...".)

4.) Don't start leads with numbers.

11.) Byline: share with/give to stringer (= one of the things I truly love about news agencies: The person who does the reporting gets the credit. Whereas at most newspapers, eg the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, the person who sits in a warm newsroom and writes up reports from a freezing stringer, or a rain-soaked news agency hack, tends to get the credit). 

20.) Challenge the word "get", you can usually find a better one.

22.) Where, what, who, when, how, why in lead ( ... very different from a novel, where the what and how and especially the why tend not to become clear until the final chapter, if at all.)

28.) A golden quote makes a story sing. (This point probably helped me develop an ear for golden quotes, and by extension, for dialogue. Sitting through endless speeches while waiting for one colourful, telling quote wasn't much fun at the time, but it did teach me to listen.)  

31.) Bad style comes from bad reporting. (Possibly my favourite learning point, because it's true.)

32.) Accuracy comes before speed.

34.) Listen and watch (eg body language in interviews).

38.) Peruvian anchovies are a commodity. 

44.) People don't read websites, they skim. (Hey, this list dates from 2003. Online reading habits were still considered a novelty.)

48.) Never hand over notebooks to police.

49.) Get arrested rather than hand over notebooks or disclose source.

50.) Keep away from subsidiary clauses. (I still hear this every time I write a subsidiary clause. And then I write it anyway.)

59.) Defamation, slander, libel. (That's all it says. Presumably the learning point is that they should be avoided.)

60.) It's defamatory to quote a defamatory statement.

77.) Vox pops**: get age, profession, name. Ask a range of people. (If you're an intern at a media organisation and you follow this advice every time you go out to get "man on the street" quotes, your boss will love you forever.)

83. Sniff for the turkey. (Nope, I have not the faintest idea what this one is about, either.)

87.) Use dabs, not slabs, of background.

94.) Don't be bored by analysts. Fish for the golden quote.

97.) 'fess up when you've done something wrong and send a correction.

99.) Never keep gifts worth more than 50 pounds

100.) Keep a cool head and don't get flustered.

Voila! I'm going to merge this with my list of resolutions for 2011.
On that note, happy holidays to all of you. Thank you for reading my blog, and may the new year bring you lots of love, health and happiness.

Sophie x

* A lead is the first paragraph of a news report.
** A vox pop is an attempt to record "the voice of the people", eg you send your intern out to ask ten people what the fall of the Berlin wall means to them, then use the resulting quotes in your own elegant anniversary piece. This is also known as gathering colour. A good gauge of a journalist's character is whether they share the byline with the intern who did the vox pop/went out to gather colour.


  1. These are fascinating! You need to send the "vox pop" one to the Detroit tv news. When I lived in Michigan, they were always doing local opinion pieces ("So what do you think about the attacks on the World Trade Center?) filmed exclusively inside a single donut shop.

  2. Thanks Karin! Was it a particularly insightful donut shop?
    Seeing the "no gifts over 50 pounds" rule actually surprised me, as I was later taught that the rule was "no gifts at all". Perhaps they were trying to gently, gently ease us into the Reuters ethos.

  3. Strangely enough, the people in the donut shop seemed to agree that 9/11 was tragic and that the Redwings winning the Stanley cup was exciting. I was thinking the same thing about the gifts--they can receive gifts??? You can get a pretty nice gift for 49 pounds!

  4. I know, it's odd, because once we started working in the proper newsroom we weren't even allowed to accept gift bags at news conferences (which is a good rule - there's enough corruption in journalism as it is.)
    Maybe the 50-quid rule was meant to cover meals, eg if you go to a corporate event where they serve food? Another likely explanation is that my shorthand skills weren't great at the time and they actually said "5 pounds".