Here’s Everything I Learned at University (So You Don’t Have to Go)

Karen "Space Warrior Princess" Marston

Karen “Space Warrior Princess” Marston

I talked about why you don’t need to go to university last week. But the truth is if I went back in time, I would still go to uni. Admittedly not because I desperately need my degree, but because it was one of the best times of my life. I made some lifelong friends (I mean, I guess that remains to be seen, but sometimes you just KNOW, you know?), I made a Halloween costume out of binbags, tinfoil and a cornflakes box and dubbed myself a Space Warrior Princess, and I built up a strong tolerance to vodka. Also, it meant I didn’t have to figure out what the hell to do with my life at the tender age of 19 — an age when nobody knows shit. (Unless you’re one of those gifted people I once talked about.)

And actually, you know what? I learned some useful stuff, too. I shall now impart my journalistic wisdom on you, so you can skip out on your own journalism degree and go start your business instead. So this is everything I learned about journalism (that wasn’t wiped away by twelve consecutive nights of double vodkas & Coke).

Put the most important part first.

Never start your sentences with “On Monday…” or shit like that. Read a newspaper and see if that ever happens. It doesn’t, because journos know they need to grab your attention straight away, and that by telling you that the thing they’re about to tell you happened on a Monday is just not interesting. If it’s relevant, put it at the end of the sentence.

“On Monday a zombie horde infested the Lincolnshire town of Grantham,” versus “A zombie horde infested Grantham, Lincolnshire, on Monday.” See the difference? It’s so simple, but you wouldn’t necessarily think about it if you weren’t told to think about it.

Be succinct.

Use as few words as possible to convey your meaning. And really think about every word — does it need to be there? For example, can you tell me what could easily be removed from this sentence without affecting its meaning? “The zombie horde arrived at 12 noon.”

The sentence should read, “The zombie horde arrived at noon.” Or I guess it could also read, “The zombie horde arrived at 12pm.” Point is — there’s never any reason to say “12 noon” because noon is 12. And this sort of thing creeps into writing all the time. Watch out for your adverbs and adjectives, too. “Very” is one of the biggest offenders and not only will your writing still make sense without it, it’ll have more impact too.

Let the other person talk.

If you’re interviewing somebody, silence is not yours to fill (unless your question has been answered). Just ask your question and keep your mouth shut — your interviewee will feel obliged to fill the silence, and will hopefully do so with something useful. (If not, you’re asking the wrong questions.)

While I learned this for journalistic purposes, it isn’t just useful when interviewing people for articles. It’s also useful if you’re having a chat with a new client. Just shut up and let them talk, and they will reveal more and more to you about their needs. Bonus points: you won’t end up sounding like a rambling imbecile. (More advice on how to not sound like a rambling imbecile in interviews here.)

Don’t eat chocolate before recording an interview.

For reals. Claggy mouth. Water is your friend.

Talk slowly.

Another interviewing thing. Make a conscious effort to speak slower than you want to. You’ll feel like you’re talking incredibly slowly, but when you listen back you’ll sound normal. This’ll also help combat those jittery speedy rambly tendencies you get when you’re nervous.

There are about 3 words to a second.

Soo, this isn’t really that useful for writing. But it is true and it is interesting, and it is something I learned during my degree (secret: I actually specialised in radio, not print). So it’s on the list.

Shorthand is not at all useful for anything ever any more.

‘Nuff said. Glad I skipped out on those classes. Who needs shorthand when you can type at 80+ WPM?

Drinking beer through a hosepipe connected to a funnel is never a good idea.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

So there — now you know what I know. And you didn’t even have to go to university to learn it.

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