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How Journalism Trains the Mind to Write Great Essays

Over the summer of 2017, I released Byline, an academic writing curriculum that focuses on journalism. It’s my answer to many requests for an essay writing curriculum from families who use Cover Story and The One Year Adventure Novel.

On the surface, a journalism course may not seem to teach academic writing, but the truth is, the skill set required for journalism translates to writing strong essays. I would go as far as to say that it results in better essays than those produced by students consciously concentrating on the formal essay structure. Plus, many teens balk at academic writing, but get them thinking about newspaper reporting, and they are intrigued.

The journalism in Byline could be more accurately termed chronojournalism. Which is my way of saying we are reporting on the past—giving readers “Yesterday’s news today.” We study history. And that unique combination is what gives Byline its distinctive 1930s theme. Before World War II, big city newspapers were still the most powerful media. And modern kids think of the 1930s as ancient history.

Benefits of Journalism

Journalism trains the mind in three ways that aren’t obvious to students.

It teaches critical thinking

The skills of observation, inference, analysis, and interpretation are essential to writing. If you can’t think well, you won’t write well.

It inoculates against propaganda

Yes, the sort of propaganda that has taken over social media, and, to be honest, pretty much every form of media. Propaganda isn’t about telling lies. It’s about creating interpretations of facts. This is why major media outlets can both fact-check their work and be perceived by political rivals as biased.

We’re not living in the information age. We’re living in the MISinformation age. The student who learns to separate fact from interpretation is much harder to indoctrinate.

It teaches essay writing

Modern education often sees the essay as a canvas for academic jargon. We make students memorize terms like exposition and delineation—which is fine—but we don’t tell them why these terms matter, or what they can be used for.

We take the storytelling out of it. We suck out the conflict and the humor and the personality, and then expect them to be good writers.

It gets even worse after high school. I’m not saying professors are looking for jargon. On the contrary, most professors would agree that such writing is the bane of their existence. The problem is, by the time most students get to college, they think this is what good academic writing is like.

College professors wage a frustrating war of red ink. They have to strip students of the illusion that making sentences longer and grammatically obtuse somehow makes them more literary.

The opposite is true. Clarity of thought and presentation will set any college student apart. For that matter, it will set any writer apart. C. S. Lewis isn’t just admired for his imagination. His work endures partly because he was so good at saying profound things in a simple way. He knew the jargon. He just avoided it. And I can promise you: a student who practices essay writing using a more relaxed and personable style—for instance, the style employed by journalists—will have a huge advantage over students who don’t.

When professors encounter a student who thinks clearly, supports her conclusions with evidence, and makes an argument in a conversational style, they are delighted. They start saving that student’s papers to read last, like dessert.

And those three things are, coincidentally, what chronojournalism teaches: clarity of thought, supporting research, and a conversational style.

Writing essays doesn’t have to be boring.

Journalism proves it.

Daniel Schwabauer, award-winning novelist and creator of The One Year Adventure Novel, Cover Story, and Byline—curricula for homeschool students—is passionate about teaching young writers how Story works. He is the author of Runt the Brave, Runt the Hunted, and The Curse of the Seer (AMG Publishers).

Byline, published by Clear Water Press, is an innovative essay curriculum that turns 8th–12th graders into time-traveling reporters who practice journalism on the forgotten corners of history (1 high school credit). Clear Water Press also publishes Cover Story (6th–9th) and The One Year Adventure Novel (ages 13+).

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