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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What to do and what not to do as a PRO or freelancer

As a journalist for a local paper, I do an awful lot of interviews on a daily and weekly basis, but equally, a big part of my job is editing and rewriting other people's notes and articles.

Depending on the style, ability and tone of the writer, it can sometimes (quite often let’s be honest) take longer to edit and rewrite someone's 800 words down to a more readable and newspaper friendly 200 than it would take to talk to them, do the interview and write it from scratch. 

On that note, I have decided to pull together some of the mistakes I see most frequently and put some tips out there for people who are interested in writing, anyone considering journalism who is trying to get a portfolio of published works together and Public Relations Officers who are trying to publicise the news for their club or organisation.

- Be formal, professional and polite – I think people make the mistake of thinking of an email like a text, whereas it is in fact the very same as a letter and should be just as official in tone and style. 

- If there is a deadline, be smart about it and get it in as early as you can, if the paper hits the shelves on Thursday mornings (as The Avondhu does), then get your piece in on Thursday or Friday and that way you will know that it hasn't been lost among the thousands of emails that are coming in in the eleventh hour. As well as that, the staff have just put the paper out and rather than being stressed and pushed to their limit, they will be able to give more time to your piece and it could serve you better than if you send it on Tuesday. 

- Respect the decisions and advice from the people in charge of editing the publication. If you send something into your local paper and they use it, they are doing you a favour and that needs to be recognised. Your story is one of many and you need to realise that it may not be relevant or newsy enough to go at the very front of the paper, where you might think it belongs. 

- The journalist and editor probably are not experts in whatever area you are talking about, so be clear, concise and do not go on for too long - in many cases less is more and if something catches the editor's or journalist's eye, they can always ring you or email you for further information.

- If the article relates to an event or fundraiser coming up, please give advance notice and also if you want to secure your place in the paper, the only way to do so is to submit the article in tandem with advertising, as advertising is the paper's main revenue stream and takes priority most of the time.

- If you wish to confirm that an email was received, please say so in the email rather than ringing the office five minutes later, as the recipient might not have read it yet and if they have, they won't have spotted any potential gaps in that time, whereas if they can email back in their own good time, they will have had time to hone in on any holes in the story.

- When sending pictures, label them with a reference number or keyword and put the captions (full names, the event details and the photographer if necessary) into the email beside the reference number so that they can be captioned easily. If there are less than ten people in the picture, please provide full names for everyone, going from left to right starting at the back and graduating towards the front. It is also vital to ensure that the picture is of good enough quality, because pictures of poor quality are generally not reproduced by papers, as it compromises their own integrity. 

- Always proof read your articles and be sure to check for spelling, grammar, dates and accuracy of details, as well as quoting someone where possible to bring in more of what people will relate to. 

- If writing is not your strong point and you are likely to fret over format and style, instead check if you can email in bullet points and a quote and often the journalist will use this as their base and simply write the story around the material you have provided, rather than presenting them with something poorly written and convoluted, which will be harder to edit.

- In case anything needs to be clarified, always include your phone number and a time you are available to talk, if applicable in the email for any potential follow ups. 

-There is almost nothing worse than someone you don't know very well or maybe haven't even met beyond their .com or .ie email address, feigning a closeness that is not there and getting too personal, calling you 'hun', 'pet' or 'dear' or cringe cringe putting kisses in an email (my boyfriend just about gets kisses and that is really dependant on my mood). 

- If a deadline is Tuesday at 12 noon, do not send in your notes or article five minutes before that deadline. 

- Do not push demands on people or be presumptuous about how important your story is or where it should go in the paper (that is the journalist's and editor's job and just like we wouldn't come in and tell you how to do your job, please show us the same respect).

- In the paper I work for, there are a number of email addresses as there are in most businesses and many people have the misconceived notion that if they send it into five addresses that it will go into the paper in five different places, whereas the opposite is far more likely to happen. If a piece is sent to everyone, it will be more likely that wires will be crossed and it won't go in at all, because someone has presumed that someone else has done it.

Finally, if your information goes into the paper or onto the website, take the time to say thank you to the person you were dealing with. Most newspapers and journalists will only hear from the public if there is something wrong, so it’s nice to get a phonecall or email with positive feedback from time to time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Eat well, feel well

I am quite a small woman (4 foot 10 to be precise, so I'm sure there are some people out there who would have other words for my lack of height) and a number of years ago, I started to put on weight because of the steroids I was on for my arthritis and it has been a bit of an uphill battle ever since.

I'm not really into weighing myself or obsessing about it, but at the same time, I try to eat well, cook fresh homemade meals and exercise and stay fit, without going mental and possibly injuring myself.

When people see me eating a bar of chocolate (as I said, I'm not a health nut and I do watch certain things, but I will have a Kinder Bueno or a Bounty if I want it), I can sometimes see them judging me, thinking ‘well she'd be smaller if she ate better and did more exercise’, but you never know what's going on in someone else’s life.

I am relatively fit and I do go through fits and starts of exercise and diet, but because of the nature of my work and the unpredictability of my disease, it is very hard to schedule things in like classes or gym visits and I might be fine on Tuesday, but wake up on Wednesday with an agonisingly sore left hip, a gammy right knee and a swollen ankle.
On the other hand, I could wake up and feel well enough to get a walk and a half hour of intensive yoga in before I leave for work.

Along this vein, I try to do what I can when I can, but I try to avoid extreme exercise or diet programmes which involve drastic life changes. This isn't because I'm lazy or non-committal, it is because it is simply not feasible with all of the other factors that I have to consider.

The above statement or ones carrying similar sentiments are hard for extremely health conscious vegans or vigorous exercisers and gym bunnies to get their heads around, as they seem to think that everything is a matter of perspective and will power - sometimes there are other factors.

In many ways, my arthritis is an invisible disease, I look and sound fine (well not always, I am delightfully prone to looking scarily pale and washed out when I'm in pain), but in reality I might not be able to write a few sentences because there is so much fluid in my fingers or I might scream out in pain when I stand up from a chair because my joints have seized up and decided to attack my own body.

So to do what I can to keep healthy and fit, I try little things in moderation, like eating homemade fresh healthy food and/or doing as much exercise as I can without risking injury.

In terms of food, I am a great believer in eating fresh food with meals that you can make from scratch yourself - if you can't recreate something from a menu at home, I would be dubious as to what is actually in it.

My Mam makes everything from scratch and always has. Our house growing up was always filled with the delectable smells of fresh baking (we were always jealous of other kids who got to have sweets or fizzy drinks, but there would always have been things like eclairs, scones, brown bread and cakes or biscuits, which Mam had just whipped up). It's not that there wasn't any sugar in our diets, but at least she knew what was in the food we were eating and there were no nasty MSG or E numbers to consider.

Likewise, if I was to make something like spaghetti bolognese, I'd do it the way Mam does it - using fresh ingredients, tomatoes and a mixture of herbs to create a tasty and wholesome meal and if I had lots of vegetables, I'm much more likely to make a big batch of soup than I am to let them go off and have to throw them away.

I would also go beyond that by making my own home made yoghurt and fresh fruit compote, but unlike my wonderful mammy, I am not blessed when it comes to baking (as my boyfriend will attest to, I once made what was meant to be a lovely Victorian sponge cake and he still describes it to this day as a large deformed scone – I will point out that he conveniently forgets about the successful birthday cakes I have created since).

Over the years, I have noticed people looking at me with that judgemental sidelong glance and they think they are helping when they tell you gently or harshly (depending on their personality) to do more exercises, eat less crap or embrace a more active lifestyle.

I do what I can, when I can and considering that a lot of my food is not processed and is homemade, I think I'm doing pretty well. I'm also not all that caught up about my weight, I do go through bouts of losing weight, usually when I'm less busy and can dedicate more time to the things like daily walks, yoga or pilates or aqua aerobics or a bit of jog/walking (interval training) and I'm also stricter when it comes to things like eating fruit, vegetables and nuts or seeds instead of all of the lovely treats in Centra. 

People would comment when I've lost weight, but it's not something I keep track of - we don't have a weighing scales, as I think it can become an obsessive thing, but if my jeans are a little looser or a dress looks a bit better then yay and if not, ah well.

I was a little bit reluctant to do a post like this, because you are literally opening the flood gates for the nay-sayers and do-gooders, but hey, on the other hand it might give people pause for thought and make them think about what someone's going through in their own life or what else they have to contend with before they make their 'well meaning' remark about someone else's way of life.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Don't just point and shoot - some basic photography tips and hints

When I finished my MA in Journalism more than five years ago and set off enthusiastically into my first job in The Evening Echo in Cork (Ireland), I was lucky to be going into a job that matched my training (and some), but since then every single job has brought with it more duties and extended roles.

Now, instead of being the journalist and features writer, I am in The Avondhu in Mitchelstown where I source and write the stories, decide where they will go in the paper, secure advertising if appropriate, take pictures, sub-edit, proof read and I also liaise with clients and customers to build professional relationships.

One of the biggest shocks of the extra duties that I was given when I first came to The Avondhu almost four years ago was that I was handed a very professional and daunting look camera and after I was given some perfunctory tips, it was a case of point, shoot and make sure you get people's names for captions.

When I look back on my first pictures, I don't cringe, but I do say a silent 'thank God' that my writing was good enough to prop up my very poor photography skills.

One of the main problems was that I was a trained journalist, but I also had to take photographs - now I still consider myself a journalist first and a photographer second, but I love taking pictures now and I truly appreciate what they can add to my stories.

My interest in photography has developed so much that I will now catch myself saying things like 'hold on, let me get my phone' so that I can freeze a perfect moment in time or capture that once in a lifetime flicker of an eye.

In light of all of this and to get to my point, I thought I would share a few tips that might help people, who like me had to take on something like this without any formal training or for people who want to use pictures to enhance their own writing and works.

- When taking scenery shots, use the third rule, which gives the image nice symmetry and makes it more aesthetically pleasing. Basically, make sure that each element takes up a third of the shot.

- If you are taking a picture of between one and four people, take it like a portrait and go full length, but make sure that the background is quite plain or that it enhances the picture (a nice scenic view or a blank canvas like a wooden door or painted wall all work well as backdrops and that is worth remembering - it is a backdrop, so don't let the scenery out do the subjects), otherwise take it landscape and just take in their head, shoulders and a little bit of upper body.

- For larger group pictures, avoid pictures that have everyone in the same position looking quite static and almost bored. Instead, make it more interesting by getting them to form a semi-circle or soften the shot by getting the people at each end to turn in slightly towards the others.

- To capture a relaxed and natural picture, tell a joke first and get them to relax - if you can capture that natural and often goofy smile, your picture will tell its own story.

- Avoid staging pictures in front of windows, large glass doors or under bright lights, as it will distort your subjects' faces.

- For children, get them to look at the lens and tell them a little story about a fairy living in the camera - it will capture their imagination and also get them to stay still for the half a minute that you might need. A double click function also works well here, as the camera will take four or five shots for every image and it eliminates the problems of children blinking, poking each other or gazing off into the distance. If you are not doing this professionally, but only taking pictures of little cousins or nieces or nephews, it is unlikely you would have things like toys, props and other accessories that professionals would have on hand for these shoots.

- Even if you are not a naturally organised person, get into the habit of creating folders on your computer and categorise these into the year, month and event using keywords that you will later associate with the photoshoot. This will not only help with archiving, but it will also make referencing very easy. I also format my SD card each week after I have saved the pictures onto my desktop and I keep a spare card in my camera bag. On that note, I also keep a spare notebook, spare batteries for my flash and spare pens (I should keep a pencil too, as a pen won't work if I'm outside in the rain) in the bag as well.

- With a fancy and advanced camera, it is easy to get bogged down by detail and get carried away worrying about the tiny features that you will probably never need to rely on. My advice here is to get comfortable with the equipment and then just set everything to Auto and let the camera do all of the thinking until you are more savvy with it.

- Finally, please don't just point and shoot - if you do, your pictures will reflect that. Take time with the pictures and give them the effort and attention that they deserve.