Tips from NESPA’s Board of Judges

How staffs can improve writing, content and presentation

Judges of this year’s Special Achievement entries offered advice about ways staffs can improve writing, content and presentation.

The judges—all experienced journalism teachers and publication advisers—looked at work that staffs from all over New England and a variety of media had submitted as their best of the year.

Award winners, judges said, stood out for their canniness, creativity, conciseness, clarity and audience appeal.

While looking at some of the entries, however, judges working together on an April afternoon found that they kept repeating the same expression: “What a shame . . .”

“What a shame they have run-on sentences.”

“What a shame the images are so small, and it’s so hard to tell what the sequence is supposed to be.”

“What a shame this type is so hard to read.”

In the interest of improving connections between staffs and their school audiences, and because it is the New England Scholastic Press Association’s 62nd year, here are 62 suggestions judges offered to help staffs continue to move forward.

Writing of fiction, nonfiction and journalism

1. Use a minimum of punctuation, and use it accurately.

2. Control pronouns and their referents. If the noun is singular, make the pronoun singular. For example, a team is an “it,” not a “they.”

3. Unless the writing is autobiographical, use third person, avoiding “you,” “I” or “we.”

4. Use the active voice, not the passive voice unless you have a good reason for the passive.

5. Be accurate with tenses.

6. Have a reason for changing tenses, preferring consistency rather than slipping and sliding back and forth.

7. For direct quotations longer than one paragraph begin every paragraph with quotation marks, but do not close the quote until the speaker has finished.

8. Use indentation for emphasis and clarity.

9. Consider the sound.

10. Never let anything you write be published until you have checked to see that all the grammatical and spelling errors are gone.

11. Know your audience.


12. Avoid the overuse of talking heads.

13. Cite sources for any information that is not generally known.

14. Focus on the action itself, keeping what is newsworthy and of greatest interest in the foreground.

15. Do not include bloopers with your entry. Edit them out.

16. In general, let the interview source catch his breath before you expect him to talk.


17. Be sure your entries are easily accessible.

18. Make navigation through the site as simple as possible.

19. Keep in mind that there is no substitute for clarity.

20. Provide levels of emphasis.

21. Use captions and credits on the photos.

22. Make it clear exactly when an item went online.


23. Run pictures big. As Prof. Robert Baram, our organization’s founder, used to say, “If you can cover a head with a dime, it’s not worth a cent.”

24. Avoid smiley snapshots.

25. Avoid multiple staged photos.

26. Crop to eliminate dead space.

27. Have a dominant photo and levels of emphasis by size.

28. Credit every single picture.

29. Give every picture its own caption. Don’t “gang them up.”

30. Write captions that identify left to right, front row, second row, back row—not first row, second row, third row.


Keep simplicity as a goal here. According to one old saying: “Type should be invisible.” The audience should see the message, not the type itself.

31. Avoid large areas of gray and type in odd, hard-to-decipher shapes.

32. Use white space as relief.

33. Do not use reverse plate in body type—especially not reverse plate in small, sans serif body type.

34. Keep lines of body type to one and a half times the length of the lower case alphabet, and use grafs (one- or two-sentence units), not paragraphs so as to pick up the pace.

35. Be sure that headlines show levels of emphasis by varying  their sizes and degrees of boldness.

36. Stay with one single-line head on facing pages, varying into multi-line primary headlines and also incorporating subheads in a contrasting type face.

37. Keep to one main typographical style throughout, avoiding the tendency to experiment just for the sake of experimentation.

38. Do not begin a story below a picture, then wrap it up alongside the picture. Instead, make it clear how the reader is to get through the type in a simple sequence.

39. Keep to a good general rule: “Type below art.”

News Coverage

40. Provide attribution for any statement a reader might question.

41. In the same vein, cite sources for statistics. Let people know how recent the numbers are, along with the size and nature of the sampling.

42. Quote people with a variety of viewpoints. In sports, for instance, go beyond the school’s own teams and coaches to get quotes from opponents.

43. So as to avoid staleness cover not just what has happened, but also what is happening and what might happen next.

44. Don’t summarize what we don’t all know.

Writing in news publications and broadcasts

45. Emphasize what is about to happen, not stale information.

46. Emphasize the school angle, showing how events affect your own audience.

47. Use quotes that are telling, not trite.

48. Put in a telling quote close to the top of the story.

49. Use headlines that combine subjects and verbs.

50, Avoid label headlines, like a succession of names of sports teams: Baseball, Golf, Boys’ lacrosse, Girls’ lacrosse  . . . Instead, say what the teams are actually doing or are about to do.

51. Avoid clichés.

News and feature leads

These openings need to get right to the point, telling and selling the stories in the first 20 words.

52. Find the real feature of the story and emphasize it by leading with it

53. Do not lead with the “where.”

54. Do not lead with the “when.”

55. Do not lead with a direct quote.

56. Do not lead with a question.

Columns, editorials and reviews

57. Connect the subject matter to your school audience and students’ day-to-day lives.

58. Stay focused. Sometimes subheads every few grafs can be helpful.

59. Keep in mind that a column is bylined, but an editorial is unsigned.

60. Use “we” in an editorial to mean the staff of the publication or broadcast.

61. Avoid general descriptive terms—“amazing,’ “wonderful,” “beautiful”—in reviews.

62. Do not preach. Again quoting Prof. Baram, remember when writing an opinion piece that you were “appointed, not anointed.”

—Helen F. Smith