Make the most of your four years

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I wish I had a time machine so I could do it all over again. Entering my senior year at the University of Florida, I know I’m a little behind the curve and I have ground to make up. I can think of many things I should have done earlier in my college career, but didn’t. So I’m going to share some of those things with you. This will be my blueprint to college success aimed at incoming freshmen who are thinking of being journalism majors. If you are such a freshman then you should be well prepared to find a job after school by following these guidelines.

Freshman Year

Don’t worry about getting articles published right away. First, make sure you know you can write and write well. If you know writing is what you want to do, then you should spend your freshman year becoming a better writer. This means you should also be doing as much reading as possible. First, I recommend you buy three books: “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk and E.B. White, “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser, and “Writing Tools,” by Roy Peter Clark. These are great guides that will help you master punctuation and sentence structure.

Nathan Deen

Nathan Deen

Find the best fiction and non-fiction books you can and read them. Please don’t waste your time on cheap romance novels. Read Stephen King or Cormac McCarthy. Read Truman Capote or Tom Wolfe (though I advise you not to try and imitate Wolfe because you will fail in doing so; there is only one of him). Start paying attention to the author’s style. Also read daily newspaper publications to give you an idea of how a professional reporter writes. If sports are your major interest, then subscribe to Sports Illustrated or ESPN the Magazine. The best way to be a better writer is by reading.

Trust me, you are not behind the curve just because you haven’t had anything published while your friends have. You are ahead of it because you are a better writer than most students are after their freshman year. What’s the point of having a clip if it’s filled with mediocre writing, clichés, and grammatical errors? As my photojournalism professor, John Freeman, told me today, “Just because something’s published doesn’t mean it’s good.”

Sophomore Year

Now it’s time to start developing your reporting skills and putting what you’ve learned about your writing style to use. But being a skilled writer is only part of the game. You can’t write a good article without good reporting. Period.

The first step to being a good reporter is developing sources. Get out there and meet people. Find out who the SID at your school is and introduce yourself. You may have classes with some student athletes. Get to know them. And while you get to know them, be yourself. Talk to them off the record. These people will be easy to interview once you need them for a story.

At this time, you should be starting some of your core coursework in journalism. That is the time to go to your school paper for some firsthand reporting experience. You shouldn’t care what your finished article looks like at this point, you’re probably not going to use the early ones for job interviews anyway. Focus on becoming a better reporter. You will learn something new each time to help you in the future. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Being a student, there is no better time to make them. When in doubt, go to your professors for advice. That’s what they’re there for and their experience is invaluable.

Begin looking for possible summer internships before your junior year. Forget about interning for ESPN for now. Heck, forget about the Miami Herald. I recommend doing something at a smaller paper, because chances are this is the type of paper you will start out at after college. This internship will determine if you have what it takes to pursue a career as a sports journalist. You won’t be covering any prominent teams. You will be covering high school sports. You will be writing about a community. It’s smalltime, but the good news is that your subjects love the fact that their paper is interested in them and they will greatly appreciate your coverage. Just because it isn’t about Tim Tebow doesn’t mean you can’t make it a good story. If that satisfaction is enough to get you through the day, then you have what it takes.

Junior  and Senior Year

Everything you get published from your junior year forward should be quality work, good enough to use for a job interview. Every article you write should be as good as you can make it. Here you should be in the bulk of your core coursework. By now, you have prepared yourself well for the dreaded Reporting I and should be able to ace it (okay, that’s an exaggeration). Submit any story you do for Reporting I to local publications, especially your school paper. This is the time that could determine whether you are an editor by next year.

Once Reporting I is over, take as many advanced classes as you can. In advanced writing classes, you can learn how to write magazine articles, newspaper features, and journalism as literature. Many schools probably offer a sports reporting class. Take it as soon as possible.  Learn as many aspects of the newspaper business as you can. Take photojournalism, even if you’ve never held a camera in your life. Learn design. Learn how to shoot and edit video and make slideshows. The more you know, the better candidate for a job you become.

The summer before your senior year is the time to go for the big internship. Get the best one you can, even if the best one is unpaid. If you end up at the Miami Herald, those will be the clips to use for a job interview.

Your senior year is about polishing your resume and making it stand out from the crowd. If by then you’re the editor of your school paper, that’s great. There’s still one thing I recommend you do: create a Web site. Blogs are all well and good; in fact if your idea is to be a columnist, they are essential. But having your own personal Web site will separate you from your competition. This is the advice given to me during my internship at the Pensacola News Journal from the executive editor, Dick Schneider. Have links to your published online works. Have a section for video and audio. You can have a blog on the Web site as well. This will give editors at other papers a great idea of what they’re getting should they hire you.

So there you have it. I guess you have a lot of work to do. And so do I. Good luck.

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