By-lines for beginners

Media students should stop at nothing to get their name in print, writes Stephen Wade

Anyone teaching a general media studies course must have thought about one of the recurrent problems of planning and delivering it, from GCSE to BTEC Diploma, and that is how do the aspiring writers in the group find outlets for their work?

Every piece of feedback from student competitions relays the same message: that the best students, the ones who get the foot in the door, are the ones who were published way before the end of their GCSE, diploma or degree.

Picture the scenario: your school or college is in a town. The provinces have few outlets for work experience. The local newspaper is inundated with letters from students and teachers begging for journalistic experience. The new intake of students for your BTEC or general national vocational qualification includes maybe one or two youngsters who have contributed to a school magazine. Where do you go from there?

The possibilities given are the obvious: predictable freebie magazines like those produced by charities and support groups or the youth page (if there is such a thing) of the local paper. Other than these, you're left with the daunting prospect of national writing competitions.

There is nothing wrong with any of these options. But there are others. Here are some suggestions of how to start on a modest scale: short writing courses such as the Arvon Foundation (bursaries are available); magazines from local writing groups; arts association diaries; music fanzines. There are also national student magazines such as Cascando, but these are usually for fiction or more literary writing. (All the above can be found in The Writers and Artists' Yearbook, published by A C Black).

The only problem left is the most difficult one: how to give your students the notion that efforts towards possible publication are worth it. In five years of teaching media studies, I have come up against two main hurdles here: lack of self-belief and a refusal to consider anything but the best. The latter is about wanting to write for the New Musical Express, not some fanzine on a band. The first reason is more serious and involves plenty of first-term work on producing the college or school magazine.

I want to argue that all these activities are crucial to media students. The competition is intense for media work, and virtually everything involves writing. This is why the portfolio is so useful. My students have to spend the first term compiling a portfolio that comprises three commentaries on extracts from favourite journalists, scriptwriters or fiction-writers, a short story, a feature article and a three-minute script.

This material forms the basis of an anthology, to be produced for circulation within college, and it tends to be the opposite of anything that might have an "Eng Lit" flavour, so there is a real sense of having taken the first steps in journalism, often with plenty of humour, strong opinions and reviews.

A sure winner for a portfolio is to include a short column from each student, with a photo, much like the "My Media" idea as used by the Guardian, where a profile of the writer as media consumer is written in a laid-back style.

The point is that a general media course asks the students to produce everything, from advert scripts and research notes, to documentary texts. We have to do everything we can to get them into print, and there have never been so many opportunities in alternative and local publishing as now.

Stephen Wade is lecturer in media studies at North Lindsey College, Scunthorpe

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