Chicken Scratch

My chicken scratch.

Today was painfully, tragically, dishearteningly, deathly slow. I spent the majority of my time in the office reading and rereading photocopied police reports of a drug smuggling case that I’m going to cover next week.

I tried to work, honestly, I did. I wanted to do my interviews with the warden and sheriff today, but it’s apparently a day off, so most county jobs were out. That also meant I couldn’t give my source for a story I’m writing about an upcoming, free GED program a phone call. And, of course, the paper has Monday off for memorial day, so Tuesday is going to be a mad rush of quote-wrangling and note-scribbling.

Which brings me to my point of discussion for the day. Given the abnormal amount of free time I had this afternoon, I started thinking about a comment my editor made to me yesterday. She plopped down on the stool beside my desk to help me find the Maryland Judiciary website, but as she peeked over my shoulder at the computer screen, she happened to glance down at my half-filled reporter’s note book.

“Are those notes?” she asked me, her eyes widening. “Is that even English? That looks like something someone wrote a hundred years ago!”

People have commented on my handwriting before. Based on my interview notes, you’d think my writing is as sloppy as a sixth-grade boy’s answers on a homework assignment he filled out during homeroom.

On the contrary, I pride myself on my neat, cursive-ish handwriting. But that isn’t my reporter handwriting. I have two distinct handwriting styles: the calligraphic penmanship I use for class notes and letter-writing, and then the mile-a-minute chicken scratch that fills up my reporter notebooks.

I know doctors are notorious for their illegible penmanship, but I think we journalists should be given some credit, too. No one can expect readability when the note-taker was scrambling to jot down the words of an interview-high subject. I can’t speak for every reporter, but I’ve developed my own, completely personal and otherwise unreadable form of shorthand over the years. When I first started writing articles in high school, I actually thought it ironic that reporters were supposed to keep all of their notes in case someone ever disputed a quote or fact. After all, who can decipher the loops and curly-q’s of a deadline-crunched reporter?

Some journalists rely on audio recording for interviews, but that’s just not a method I’ve been able to ease into yet. Sometimes, when I remember that my iPhone has Dragon Dictation, I’ll ask to record interviews, but usually I prefer the old-school route. I’m not sure why, actually. It might be the comfort of having something to do with my hands while I’m listening to someone, or maybe it gives me the excuse to avoid the otherwise constant eye contact I have to make. Maybe I just like looking like a reporter, giving the impression that I’m an expert note-taker who carries her own, professional, pocket-sized reporter’s notebook.

Whatever the reason, my system works. Granted, I have to transcribe my interviews within an hour or two of an interview, because the longer I wait, the harder it is to make out my scribbles and scratches. But otherwise, my way works.

There’s no single right way to be a good journalist. This is my fourth internship with a publication, and I’ve worked for two school newspapers, and every system works differently. Different publications print on different schedules; each has its own style, its own guidelines and rules to keep things running smoothly. It only makes sense that reporters have their own styles as well.

My style might not be the easiest to read, but it sure works for me.

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One thought on “Chicken Scratch

  1. Cait says:

    I do the same thing when I’m doing an interview…I have to fill in missing words right after or my notes won’t make any sense!

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