7 real world internship tips I didn’t learn at college

There are some experiences college can’t prepare you for. Interning at a media company is one of them.

This summer I interned at Ragan Communications. As an incoming sophomore, this was my first substantive internship, which made for a valuable and challenging summer.

While college prepared me for an internship in many ways, there were some experiences it did not provide—experiences you can gain only in a workplace.

As my summer as an editorial intern comes to a close, I have compiled a list of things writing interns must know, but don’t necessarily learn in college.

Concise writing

Contrary to what you might think, your writing is not ready to be published.

That paper you gave your sociology professor after a Red Bull-fueled all-nighter might get you a passing grade, but it certainly won’t pass the red pen of your editor—nor the billions of eyes online.

Long words, winding sentences, and intellectual buzzwords can slow down punchy and concise writing.

There is a time and place for a multipart thesis, and a time for a five-word lead.

Online audiences want the five-word lead, which took me a while to get used to.

The following sentences are from the original draft of my first story:

“Take the time and explore new ways to engage your followers. Develop ways to make new connections and incorporate as many people as you can.”

They didn’t last very long on the page. The shorter (and better) replacement is below.

“Find ways to engage your followers; don’t be afraid to try something new.”

Twenty-five words pared to 13.

In short—cut the long writing.

Takeaway: Your blog post isn’t a midterm. Keep it short and simple.

Brush up on AP style

Know the AP Stylebook like the back of your hand. Know it sideways, upside down, forward, and backward (but not forwards and backwards).

College professors look at big-picture writing. They have neither the time nor the patience to deal with AP style. Whether “ten” was a numeral or a word doesn’t matter to them.

Online audiences, however, do care. Improperly capitalized words and inaccurate abbreviations make a good piece of writing look sloppy.

I quickly familiarized myself with the AP Stylebook, and soon all my references to “Twitter” and “Facebook” were capitalized, my abbreviations perfected, and my hyphens reorganized.

Following AP style will make you look like a seasoned writer—and it doesn’t take too long for you to get the hang of it.

Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to crack open your AP Stylebook. Your editor will thank you.

The Internet: the ultimate editor

Once your editor cuts your over-intellectualized sentence structure and AP style errors, double-check your work. Then triple-check it.

More than 2 billion people use the Internet. Besides the millions of other editors online, writing enthusiasts from around the world read your content; don’t expect them to be generous with praise.

In my second story, I erroneously assumed that TSA stood for Transport Security Agency. Within minutes, readers informed me that TSA actually stood for Transportation Security Administration.

Whether you miss a comma or mistake one acronym for another—Internet users will find the gaffe and point it out.

Takeaway: You and your editor will not be the only ones who read your work.

Act with confidence

College classrooms are familiar to students. Teachers talk with you and answer questions. Office hours are readily available, and you know what resources you have.

Reporting/writing a story is completely different. You start out with no resources and have to get quotes and background information from people you’ve probably never spoken with. Not to mention the fact that you’re now on a 3 p.m. deadline—definitely a challenge for a new intern.

I learned you should behave as though you know what you’re doing. Outside the office, nobody knows you’re a first-timer. By phone or by email, you are on the same playing field as every other intern.

I’d never interviewed someone over the phone before and had to do so for my first story. My contact was the CEO of a large social media company. To interview such an impressive figure was daunting.

I put myself in a confident mindset for the interview, acting as if I had done it a million times.

The interview went really well, and the quotes I obtained added a lot to my story. Apparently I sounded more confident than I was, because the CEO ended up asking me about Ragan Communications.

Takeaway: Be confident. Act as though you know what you’re doing and things will work out.

Be insistent

In my experience, it is rare that someone responds to a generic email address. Info@xyz.com is probably not checked often.

It may take a lot more than an email to reach the prized contact you want.

To get sources, I had to be persistent. I researched Twitter accounts, examined LinkedIn for emails, and called up offices to get correct phone numbers.

The people I contacted made my stories substantive. I talked to the spokesman of the TSA about Instagram and discussed Smokey Bear’s new look with the CEO of HelpsGood, the campaign’s social media agency.

Takeaway: Never just rely on email. There are more ways to contact sources.

Three strikes, and you’re out: pitching

In college, you never have to decide what to write about. Your assignments come from the material you read; prompts, quizzes, and discussions are all based on a known text.

At Ragan there are no central texts. It was up to me to search the Web for content that could run on Ragan.com. It wasn’t easy.

During my internship, more of my pitches were rejected than accepted. For a story to be approved, it had to be about communications or social media, be timely, and have a fresh angle.

After many unsuccessful pitches, I began to hone my searches—focusing more narrowly on key words and phrases (social media, tips, communications, etc.). I discovered websites, blogs, and authors who focused on those topics, and then I used those source materials to create stories.

Takeaway: Know your subject area, and find sites that matter to your readers.

Stay active

In my freshman year, my papers contained long, boring, passive sentences. Passive phrases like “having been of the opinion that” riddled my papers.

But no more.

When I turned in my first editing assignment, my editor recognized my passive “Achilles heel.” She showed me how to identify and rewrite passive verbs.

“Think,” “write,” “learn” and “said” replaced “thinking,” “writing,” “learning,” and “he had said.”

I learned to chop down sentences and make every word count—something I would not have learned at school.

Takeaway: Always write in the active voice.

My internship taught me that experience is the best teacher.

As much as you study in college, school doesn’t teach you all the real-world, practical skills you’ll need. As summer ends, I go back to school with new skills just as valuable as others I will acquire there.


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