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Richard M.

Kavuma rose from a freelance sports

reporter while in secondary school in 1996,
to editor of Ugandas Observer newspaper, a
position he held for five years through March
2017. This is his second book, after Writing
People, Raising Issues (2012), which was
supported by the Population Reference Bureau,
and the African Centre for Media Excellence,
where he is a subscriber and guest-trainer.

Like the first book, Write Right, Tight reflects Kavumas passion for

Write Right, Tight

supporting young and upcoming journalists, just as he was welcomed
when he first walked into a newsroom at The Monitor newspaper in
Kavuma has also worked with the UKs Guardian and Observer
publications, including three years covering the award-winning
Katine Project. Among other organisations, Kavuma previously
worked part-time for Radio One in Kampala, BBC Media Action in
London, and the German Technical Cooperation in Uganda.

He has won several journalism awards, including the 2007 CNN
MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Award and the 2006 United
Nations Foundation Award for Development and Humanitarian
A holder of a masters degree in media and communications from
Goldsmiths, University of London, and a bachelors degree in social

Richard M. Kavuma
sciences from Makerere University, Kavuma has attended the CNN
Journalism Fellowship and various local and international training

ISBN: 978-9970-560-00-4 Navigating Common Mistakes

in News Reporting & Writing
ISBN: 978-9970-560-00-4

9 789970 560004

Richard M. Kavuma
Write Right, Tight
Navigating Common Mistakes
in News Reporting & Writing

Richard M. Kavuma
Writing People, Raising Issues: How to plan, report and write
award-winning features on development and public affairs
Write Right, Tight
Copyright 2017 by Richard M. Kavuma

First published in 2017 by African Centre for Media Excellence

Plot 124 Nanjala Road (Bunga-Soya), off Ggaba Road
P. O. Box 11283 Kampala, Uganda
Tel: +256 393 202 351
Facebook: ACME.UG
Twitter: @ACME_Uganda

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying and recording, or any
other information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from
the author or the publisher.

ISBN: 978-9970-560-00-4

Book layout and design by Murshid Lutalo

Printed and bound by Digiprint Systems (U) Ltd, Plot 69 Nkrumah Road,

First Edition

With the sponsorship of the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa
For my mother, Ms Imelda Nabulya, for whom even my best effort
could have been better.
Foreword...................................................................................................... ix
Acknowledgements........................................................................................ xi
PART I: THE IDEA........................................................................... XIII
1. Introduction............................................................................... 1
2. On Writing Well......................................................................... 5
PART II: COMMON REPORTING PROBLEMS............................... 11
3. What is the Story?..................................................................... 13
4. Have You Spoken to All the Key Sources?................................. 17
5. Failing to Plan, Planning to Fail................................................ 20
6. Get the Facts Right................................................................... 23
7. Sweeping Statements: Is That Actually True?............................. 27
8. Whats the Context/Background of this Story?.......................... 30
9. Be Extra Careful with Social Media.......................................... 33
PART III: SLIPPERY WORLD OF WORDS......................................... 37
10. Often Confused Words/Phrases................................................ 39
11. Structural Matters..................................................................... 68
12. Style & Elegance....................................................................... 72
13. Punctuation & Grammar.......................................................... 95
14. Miscellaneous ........................................................................ 104
15. The Editing Process ................................................................ 111
PART IV: PORTRAITS OF PROGRESSION...................................... 117
16. Attitude is Key........................................................................ 119
17. Passion for Excellence............................................................. 122
18. Read, Read, Read.................................................................... 124
19. Grab the Chance to Learn....................................................... 127
20. Your Story, Your Skills, Your Career........................................ 130
21. Integrity & its Dilemmas........................................................ 132
22. Back to the Basics................................................................... 135
23. A Competitive Streak.............................................................. 137
24. Tapping, Shaping, and Keeping Talent.................................... 140
25. From Katanga Slum to Deputy News Editor:
One Scribes Route.................................................................. 144
26. The Last Words: On Desire, Bills and Dreams........................ 151
Further Reading........................................................................................ 154


Richard M. Kavuma has done it again.

Write Right, Tight is another powerful handbook that should inspire
young and old journalists alike.
In his first handbook, Writing People, Raising Issues, Mr Kavuma, or
Rimkav to his many friends, outdid himself providing solid tips on
planning, reporting and writing award-winning features on development
and public affairs. The winner of the CNN African Journalist of the
Year Award in 2007 for his 2006 series on the Millennium Development
Goals, Mr Kavuma delivered the message that, with some planning and
thought, journalists can make boring but important and significant
subjects such as poverty and hunger as well as environmental sustainability
interesting and engaging.
In his new offering, Mr Kavuma has, instead of lamenting only, gone to
great lengths to point out common mistakes in our journalism (especially
in reporting and writing) and, above all, offered practical tips on how
to navigate these enduring challenges.
From coming up with doable, focused and compelling story ideas,
sourcing, planning, getting it right, through verification and being alive
to the new dangers posed by the rise of social media, The Observer editor
explores common reporting problems with an eagle eye.
He dedicates, rightly so, quite a lot of space to what he cleverly calls
the Slippery World of Words. In this section, Mr Kavuma explores
common mistakes in grammar and style while also offering a stylebook-
type guide on words and phrases that are often misused in Ugandan
Write Right, Tight also offers insight into attributes and practices that
define winning journalists, including my favourites the right attitude,
passion, and the willingness to learn.
For now, it appears, this handbook is Mr Kavumas parting gift to
Ugandan journalism. By the time the ink dries on the first copy, he will
have left The Observer to join an international organisation where he

Write Right, Tight

will start a new career in public communications. That organisations

gain is journalisms loss.
Mr Kavuma, who became editor of The Observer in 2012 (the first one
outside the circle of the papers owners to occupy that position), should
be every publishers (and employers) dream. He is passionate about his
work, diligent, delivers to perfection, and dedicates time to mentoring
young journalists who show promise.
Although he may no longer mentor journalists directly from the
newsroom, he has left behind enough resources to lay a solid foundation
for those willing to learn or improve.
Write Right, Tight is the best of them.
On behalf of the African Centre for Media Excellence, I thank The Open
Society Initiative for Eastern Africa for funding the writing, editing and
publication of this handbook.
I hope more Ugandan journalists will emulate Mr Kavuma and share
their experiences for the benefit of current and future generations of
news people, journalism students, and scholars.
Peter G. Mwesige, Ph.D.
Executive Director
African Centre for Media Excellence
Kampala, March 2017


First, I thank my directors and colleagues at The Observer newspaper,

who have contributed immensely to my professional growth. Most of
what I write here springs from my experience at The Observer. Some of
the confused words and phrases are drawn from The Observer Stylebook,
which I helped to compile in 2010. And at the critical moment, The
Observer granted me unpaid leave to write this handbook. Without all
that, I would not have been able to do this. In particular, I thank my
managing director James Tumusiime and revise editor John Musinguzi
for routinely challenging my knowledge and ultimately educating me.
Special credit goes to the African Centre for Media Excellence, especially
Dr Peter Mwesige and Mr Bernard Tabaire, for embracing and supporting
the idea of this handbook. Most of these chapters were written in the
ACME resource centre, and all the staff made me feel at home and
supported me immeasurably, including putting up with the unholy
working hours I had to adopt for this task.
The work of writing this handbook would have been much more stressful
were it not for the support of the Open Society Initiative for Eastern
Africa (OSIEA). After I had secured leave, OSIEA, through ACME,
paid my bills, which was most appreciated.
I am eternally grateful to the following current and former editors,
who I interviewed for this handbook: Charles Odoobo Bichachi (Daily
Monitor); Francis Kagolo and Robert Mudhasi (New Vision); Robert
Crispin Mukasa (The Observer); Julie Nabwire (The EastAfrican);
Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume (Makerere University); Bernard Tabaire
(ACME); and Joseph Were (The Independent). Their insights should help
inspire the next crop of top-quality journalists and editors.
To ACMEs Bernard Tabaire and Dr Peter Mwesige, and Northwestern
Universitys Dr Moses Khisa, thank you for reading each word of the
manuscript, correcting mistakes and proposing many useful changes.
Even the best writing needs a good editor. Many thanks to my editor
Daniel Kalinaki for his eagle eye and insightful calls.

Write Right, Tight

Finally, I thank my wife Martha and the children for understanding

when I spent many long days away working on this handbook.
Richard M. Kavuma
March 2017


Having made and seen so many mistakes, one editor stops to take
stock, interviews accomplished colleagues, and charts a course for
sustainable improvement.



A story is told of a prominent Ugandan who visited an editor at one of

Kampalas newspapers. While his host had stepped out, the visitor peeked
at the editors computer screen and nodded his approval.
Hmmm, quite a good writer you are editing there, the visitor reportedly
remarked when the editor returned.
You should have seen the raw copy, the editor sighed pitifully.
The moral of this story is that sometimes there is a world of difference
between the good stories you read in Ugandas quality newspapers and
what reporters and writers actually submit.
Editors and sub-editors account for that difference, correcting, shortening
and sometimes totally rewriting articles to push them closer to the
standards you expect.
Obviously, I am generalising. Uganda has many excellent writers.
When Kevin Aliro, the founding managing director of The Observer
Media, died, his colleague Charles Onyango-Obbo, with whom they
had founded The Monitor, wrote that Kevin would file a 3,000-word
article and you would fail to find a word to change. As Op-Ed editors
will testify, there are many Ugandans out there like Kevin.
Still, the general view is that the quality of our newspaper writing has been
in decline for some time. This has led to irritated and frustrated editors,
and bemused reporters wondering what their editors are fussing about.
Unfortunately, the two sides are not discussing the problem. What results
borders on surrender: editors resigned that some writers will never learn,
and writers taking a the-editor-will-fix-it approach.
And so came the idea of this handbook.

Write Right, Tight

For writers and editors eager to improve, I explain the commonest

problems that could be holding you back. The handbook will support
you to focus on and eliminate those problems from your work, and clear
your path to excellence.
In a way, the present crisis in newsrooms is perplexing. Across the world,
veteran journalists envy todays younger writers because of the immense
resources now available. Can you imagine being a national journalist
without any hope of getting internet sites such as Google, Wikipedia
or news websites? Without cable television? Without a mobile phone?
Without social media or news-breaking FM radio stations? Without
boda boda?
Yet that was the environment in which our forefathers entered
Todays journalists are highly educated, many aiming at two degrees.
Increasingly, they also come from better family backgrounds.
So, why are standards of reporting and writing falling?
I cannot claim to have all the answers. In contemporary speak, it is
complicated. In some cases, the problem actually stems from some of
todays advantages. For instance, some observers think the permissiveness
of social media makes many a young journalist think that those are the
standards of mainstream media. And although todays media houses are
much richer, the pursuit of bottom lines and deadlines frustrates many
would-be great journalists; while they would dream of emulating top
New York Times reporters, their reality only allows them decent reportage,
before they move on to other careers.
This handbook attempts to contribute to what can only be a multi-faceted
solution to a complex problem.
Part of the problem has to do with language. From confused words
to outright misuse of phrases, I explain some of the problems editors
routinely fix. If writers can address these, editors can concentrate on
improving the good stories, putting the perfect icing on a great cake.
Another layer of shortcomings relates to the reporting, and the kind
of information from which we build our stories. This area has huge
problems, with which many reporters condemn editors to early
retirement and I suspect drive readers off newspapers.


Then there is the craft of writing well with elegance, finesse and style.
This is more difficult to break down, but there are some simple practices
and habits that would help.
More importantly, besides the slackening academics and mechanics of
journalism, the problem mostly lies in the character and attitude of the
journalist. To that end, at least eight accomplished editors give us insights
into the problem and how we can overcome it. They share excerpts from
their journeys to where they are today; and I hope that by thinking about
what helped them, you can appreciate your own situation better, and
chart your own path to excellence.

Using this Handbook

As stated earlier, this handbook is only part of efforts to arrest the malaise
that afflicts our writing. Although the work was inspired by newsroom
flaws, the resultant handbook will prove useful to non-journalists keen
to better their writing. It cannot replace all the many resources in place
for that purpose the dictionary, your house style guide, the myriad of
journalism books and online resources, and of course our newspapers
and news websites. Used and consulted regularly alongside those other
resources, this title should hasten your progress.
We may think of writing as a journey, from our first words to big stories
or books. Often its a long, tortuous trip. Its a continuous struggle to
communicate effectively. Wherever you are on that journey, I trust this
handbook will be of help.

Parts and Chapters

This handbook comprises four parts. The first traces the origin of the
idea, introduces the book that has grown out of it, and attempts to
contextualize the handbooks mission and authors vision.
Part II (chapters 3-9) explores some of the commonest reporting problems
that editors find in stories problems related to how we gather and treat
information from news sources. These range from failing to nail down
the story, inadequate sourcing, disjointed structure, inaccuracy, failure
to crosscheck information, lack of context/background and problems
associated with social media. Here, accomplished editors also offer their
advice to reporters on how to navigate these problems.

Write Right, Tight

Part III (chapters 10-15) discusses flaws in the quality of the copy. The
issues include commonly confused words. The author hopes that by
flagging and discussing them here, writers will pay more attention to
them as they work, and hence minimise the confusion. Other chapters
in this part deal with key aspects of good writing, structure, punctuation
and grammar, as well as the editing process. I believe every good writer
needs the latter either to edit their own work or, eventually, to edit the
work of other writers.
Finally, Part IV (chapters 16-25) peers into the careers of some of
Ugandas leading editors to see what helped them to succeed. This is
important because many a young journalist admires successful seniors
as if they come from another planet. I hope this part will demystify
journalistic success by breaking it down to its constituent parts. The
mission of this part is to show younger writers the raw materials for
journalistic progression in order to inspire unflinching resolve and
unbridled passion for top-quality reporting and writing.


On Writing Well

One morning in July 2011, on a flight from London Heathrow airport

to Entebbe, I sat next to a Ugandan who had lived in the United States
of America for nearly 30 years. On hearing that I was a journalist, she
volunteered her views on our media:
Yeah, I try to read through your newspapers from time to
time to get a sense of what is happening at home. It helps,
you know, to know. But one thing that often disturbs me is
the quality. Sometimes you find that the writers cannot get
simple things right even those taught in primary schools.
And, you know, that leaves me wondering if I should trust
the rest of the stuff someone is writing.
This horrified me. Perhaps, like many people, I had started believing
that specks of bad grammar and language did not matter much as long
as the meaning came through. To hear this woman sting us left me
feeling naked.
Certainly every newspaper makes mistakes but many serious editors
dread goofs and slip-ups. The above conversation suggested that what
we think of as just a mistake irritates more readers than we imagine,
and damages the already waning credibility of our newspapers.
This brings me to a recurring question for editors and senior writers: do
things like spelling, punctuation, grammar, diction, brevity, etc., really
matter to readers? Well, the Ugandan on the British Airways flight
suggested that they do.
So did Sir Harold Evans, who edited Britains Sunday Times newspaper
for 14 years. Evans, now a British journalism legend, titled his book:
Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. The catch is in the

Write Right, Tight

subtitle and the book demonstrates the confusion sloppy writing can
cause, and how editors intervene.
When I did my masters at Goldsmiths, University of London, I was
embarrassed that my supervisor, Dr Natalie Fenton, corrected my
commas and colons.
Oh yes, she looked straight at me when I murmured my surprise.At
this level we want people to write well.
Joseph M. Williams makes the same point in Style: Toward Clarity and
Grace: Whatever else a well-educated person can do, that person should
be able to write clearly and to understand what it means to do that.

Clarity is important because we do not write just to indulge our passion.
Although some writers may not be very conscious of their target audience,
most of us try to give a specific message to readers squeezed for time.
If we can make our point clearly and concisely, we can hopefully hold
onto those readers for the next edition.

Without clarity, we risk confusing readers and losing them to other
publications or platforms. A comma in a wrong place, or locked out
altogether, can totally change the message the reader gets. And soon we
could have no reader left to confuse except maybe ourselves.

English is the medium of instruction in Uganda and many parents badly
want their children to master it. Youngsters are often told in primary
school that to learn English quickly, one must read it and speak it, and
thereby learn to write it. Many children take this message seriously.
At The Observer, pupils from the nearby Kitante primary school often
ask the security officer if he has an old newspaper. Now, these pupils
should not pick up wrong punctuation or poorly used prepositions
and end up losing marks in the final exams. One lost mark may turn a
would-be distinction in the English-language exam into a credit; a child
who would have been admitted to a premier secondary school may end
up in a second-rate one.

On Writing Well

As members of the community, we owe it to our young readers to further

their aspirations, not to fail them.

Costly Errors
As stated in the introductory chapter, this handbook targets all the
problems in writing, including a range of factual errors. Writing well also
means tackling such errors systematically. These errors can be expensive.
One time a newspaper published a picture of a woman in a story about
divorce proceedings; it turned out to be the wrong picture, and the
woman in the photo went to court, pleading that she had suffered
reputation damage and marriage stress. Court awarded her millions of
shillings in damages. It was a genuine mistake, but costly! Most people
only demand a correction, but it can get worse. If writers and editors
consciously valued proper writing, our stories would be much better. If
we strived for excellence, we could salvage the quality of journalism. To
that end, this handbook seeks to contribute.

Convention in Fluid Times

Language is dynamic and so is style. New words creep into vogue and
others slip out of favour. And because speech often precedes writing,
some of the things that were wrong yesterday are considered conventional
today. This is compounded by the fluidity and free-flow brought about
by the internet and social media. Matooke used to be vernacular; now it
is in the Oxford dictionary. We learnt in primary school that we should
write Prince Charless book; now it is okay to write Prince Charles
book. Thus it is difficult to have anything close to a definitive guide
on right and wrong. Indeed the major value of a handbook like this
is to focus us on the importance of principles and best practices. The
specifics are far from static, and a good user of language must keep an
eye on the trends.
In that regard, many authors and house styles are going with the drift
on aspects such as the limited use of capital letters and periods in
abbreviations. For example, the Financial Times style guide argues that
the fewer capital letters we use, the better, and the Macmillan dictionary
lists e.g. alongside eg.

Write Right, Tight

Break The Rules You Have Learnt

Its said that writing has no real rules, only guidelines. And that we learn
the rules so that we can break them not out of ignorance, but out of
This is important especially for maturing writers. Many of the principles
of good writing can be broken with a good reason. But first, we should
try to learn them and appreciate how they aid good, clear writing.
For example, we are told to prefer shorter sentences. But a passage with
20 sentences all between five and 10 words short will fail. Instead, a
good writer will know when to use a sentence of 35 words, followed by
one of three.
Or think about the ageless advice of using active rather than passive
sentences. Sometimes the writer prefers the passive sentence, for instance
when the recipient of the action is far more important that the subject
or doer of the action. Or when cohesion demands that you start with
the object rather than the subject.

Perfectionism or Journalism?
You have probably heard that when doctors make mistakes, their
mistakes are buried six feet deep (or cremated, for that matter); but when
journalists err, their mistakes are hung up for everyone to see.
Not surprisingly, journalism always seemed to set the bar extremely high.
Speaking about the role of a copy or revise editor, New Visions Robert
Mudhasi captures the attendant stress in all newsrooms:
It is a very stressful job; and its a thankless job. When the
paper is okay, the following morning you have passed the
exam but no one comes to congratulate you. But if there is
one error, then its like you have not even worked for a single
day in the whole year.
What is more, while the boss may be mad about these mistakes, it is
worse for the editor who oversaw the problematic article or page. The
personal anguish, or the sleeplessness Bernard Tabaire talks about later
in the book, often makes the editors world one of lonesome torment.
But today, across the world, in an era of more rationalism, when form
is in ascendance over substance, this relentless pursuit of excellence

On Writing Well

seems to be in decline. The general talk is that seeking perfectionism

is madness. So what if there is a wrong word or a misplaced comma, as
long as people got the message?
Does this not worry editors like Monitor Publications Charles Odoobo
Bichachi, who still push for a super-clean newspaper?
Bichachi locates this laxity in a kind of fatalism in all walks of life
that what can you do? This is the way things are. You will not change
anything. Just make good of what you can and sail along.
But on second thoughts, he argues that there were always people in society
who believed that they couldnt do anything. Trouble is that now they
seem to be very many or at least they have used the pervasive media
to propagate their creed.
Previously people used to be ashamed for not doing it well,
but now people actually take pride. They think it is okay and
after all, have you not got the message? They think that the
bigger picture counts more than the small things. Our view
then was [and still is] that these small things actually matter
and add up to the bigger picture.
Unfortunately, it is ingrained in a lot of our journalists and
sub-editors today. They think if you have this mistake in the
paper, its okay. Its just a mistake. You laugh it off; you shrug
it off which cumulatively leads to a much bigger problem.
This brings to mind Peter Day, who spent 42 years working with BBC
World Service, the last 16 as presenter of the Global Business programme.
In an interview in September 2016, after he formally retired, Mr Day
was asked what form he thought the World Service should take. The
BBC, Mr Day said, should never stop setting its standards very high,
and should never stop aspiring to the truth because not many other
people are doing this.
Maybe one could say the same of our newspapers. At a time when social
media and blogging are taking centre stage, with their own standards,
will quality newspapers be a place where one still finds good, clean,
clear writing?


This section looks at some of the recurring problems in journalists
writing emanating from the reporting. As we settle down to write
or revise each story, let us turn each chapter title in this section into
a question to ourselves. For instance, what exactly is the story I am
writing? Or, have I spoken to all the major sources and asked the
critical questions? That way we can check if we have avoided the
commonest mistakes in the newsroom.


What is the Story?

It happens often that a reporter writes 700 words on a topical issue only
for the frustrated editor to ask: what is the story here? I dont get it.
Editors expect the reporter to differentiate the story or angle from the
topic. Imagine this scenario: A young reporter breezes into the newsroom
and declares to the editor that he has a story.
Ed: What is the story?
Rp: Besigye has been addressing a press conference and I was there.
Ed: Okay, so whats the story?
Rp: Its Besigye; he had many journalists at his home!
Ed: Okay, what kind of story do you want to write?
Rp: [nervous]: Boss, Besigye, the former FDC candidate, was
addressing us
Ed: [impatient]: Okay, what did he say?
Rp: He talked about many things: the defiance campaign, the way
the elections were stolen by Museveni, how the donors should
support a recount of the votes. Many things, boss.
From that topic of the Besigye press briefing, the reporter was guided to
arrive at the right angle for the story. Other writers are not so fortunate
to have a patient editor who will listen and guide. They come up with
a story, write it and hand it over to the relevant editor.
But without getting the angle right, one can write so many words and
the editor will still ask: what is the story? Some basics will aid our ability
to find the right news angle:
One, we must understand our subject and know the latest developments
about it. Otherwise, we can write news that is not really news because

Write Right, Tight

readers already know it. New Vision deputy news editor Francis Kagolo
reminds us of the value of reading and keeping abreast with the news.
He says if reporters are not religiously reading their newspaper and its
competitors, they risk taking old angles. And if the editor also missed
the story, the newspaper can readily publish old news.
Secondly, reporters need to discuss possible story angles with their editors
before writing. Obviously some editors might be too busy and they will
ask you to write the freshest angle, but normally they would hear your
options and back or guide you.
Kagolo says that story angles are even more important in this era of
the internet, FM radio and social media, which publish the obvious
angle almost instantly. If our newspapers are to be relevant the next day,
when readers have already dissected the story on Facebook, Twitter or
WhatsApp, editors and reporters must dig deeper to find the right angle.
Reporters, especially, need to be more expansive during debriefing. As
Kagolo suggests, the right angle might come from a careful, 360-degree
look at your notes.
The reporter comes, briefs you, [but] he doesnt mention other
issues that would probably bring some exciting story. But then
after she has written the story, you realise there is this other
issue that she didnt put emphasis on, which is more exciting
and newsworthy than the angle she has taken. So you have
either to rewrite or call the reporter to redo it. Now, that
consumes a lot of time given our tight deadlines

Uninverting the Pyramid

Traditionally, journalists were told to write stories in the inverted pyramid
shape with the most important news at the top. But as we struggle to
hold onto readers who already know the 5Ws+H (What, who, where,
when, why +how) of the story from social media and online editions,
Kagolo argues that we need to topple or uninvert the pyramid. This
thinking is already pushing even some daily newspapers towards what
you would call Day Two stories and human-interest news features.
There is this inverted pyramid style of news writing We need
to rethink it. You may have a headline that tells the story but
when it comes to writing, you may change [the approach].
Okay, this is the story you want to tell, but you can start with

What is the Story?

[something else]: freshen it up. Maybe theres an anecdote

somewhere. For instance, there has been an HIV conference
and theres an orphan who has given testimony on how she
has lived with HIV. I think we need to, even in colleges they
need to, rethink this pyramid style.

How Do We See News?

For non-daily publications like The Independent, The Observer or The
EastAfrican, finding the unique angle is even more important. The
Independent managing editor Joseph Were says the biggest skills gap in
newsrooms is how to generate news ideas that will deliver value to readers.
You find most of our journalists now are he said /she said.
They like press conferences. Press conferences are good but what
do you pick from them? Because press conferences should act
as tips, not as [sources of ready news].
You must be a critical thinker to be a journalist; when
something happens, you must be able to reflect deeply on it
and ask yourself one fundamental question: Why should my
reader, my viewers, my listeners, care about this thing that
has happened?
After you have understood, you say: okay, this is a very
important story that the audience needs to pay attention
to. Then you ask yourself: why am I telling the audience
about it? In my journalism, you tell the audience to help
the audience make correct decisions. Its not merely a question
of providing people with information. Its not enough to
tell people that an accident has happened at this place. You
must provide information that makes people say: Okay that
accident has happened; how can it be avoided? Maybe the
road needs to be turned into a one-way; maybe they need
humps. Maybe there should be a zebra crossing.
We need to move ahead... not in a didactic way, not in a
lecturing way, but you present all the facts there is this
view, and there is this view so that a logical member of the
audience will be able to arrive at a certain decision.

Write Right, Tight

Most journalists are schooled in the 5Ws+H. But as these become
instantly available to audiences on social media or even FM radio
newspapers are under pressure to infuse more of what Joseph Were calls
thinking into their reports. More thinking on our part should lead to
more analysis of possibilities; more importantly, it should get readers to
think in a more nuanced manner about what has happened.
Hence to the 5Ws+H, we should consider adding I for implications and
P for prescriptions so that we end up with 5Ws+HIP.
This is just as well, because according to the dictionary, something hip
is modern and fashionable or contemporary. The hip newspaper story
should certainly go beyond the traditional 5Ws+H. In addition to all
our good reporting and investigations, this requires us to ask questions
such as:
1. Why should the reader care about this? Why is it important?
2. How significant is it?
3. What implications/ramifications/effect might this development
4. How can this issue/problem be addressed? What needs to be
Once we have identified the relevant questions and sub-questions, our job
is half done. We only have to find the best-placed, most knowledgeable
sources and ask them. Our presentation of their answers and how the
different arguments from the different sources relate to one another will
leave readers enlightened.
This means that quality journalism has to go beyond casual storytelling
and cursory dissemination of information. It is a craft of weaving together
facts with context to produce a narrative that informs, engages and
captures readers deeper imagination.


Have You Spoken to All the Key


In August 2016, former Lubaga South MP Ken Lukyamuzi published

a book in which he attacked his political rival Kato Lubwama and CBS
radio. In one newsroom, an editor on duty got the story but noticed
rather late that the writer had not bothered to speak to Kato Lubwama
and CBS for their response. The story was published anyway, but it left
the editor unhappy.
Poorly sourced stories were among the most common problems raised
during interviews with editors. Many editors want a story to have at
least three sources from different sides. Unfortunately, offending stories
are often published for instance because the flaw is spotted too late.
Multiple and varied voices should help to ensure that anyone accused
of wrongdoing gets a chance to give his or her side of the story. This
can help a media house seeking mitigation if the accused person sues
for defamation. According to New Visions Robert Mudhasi, if you
insist on having at least three sources, you are more likely to be fair in
all your stories.

Necessary Distrust
Talking to an accused person is not just a formality as some journalists
seem to think. Rather, it gives us a chance to crosscheck the information
we already have. Crosschecking or verification is a cardinal duty in
journalism, but many of us forget or detest it. The Macmillan dictionary
defines crosscheck as to check that information is correct by checking it
again using a different method. For journalism, it means that we should
only write what we know or have verified to be correct.

Write Right, Tight

For example, lets assume that one source tells you that the security
minister said certain newsworthy things at a party at Hotel Africana
yesterday. You do not simply write the story just because you trust
your source. You crosscheck the information. Can you find another
person unrelated to your source who attended the party and ask him/
her which prominent people were present. If the security minister is not
mentioned, you may ask if your second source saw the security minister.
If yes, does your source remember what the security minister said? If
the accounts of two other sources tally with the firsts, you can be more
confident that your information is correct. If they contradict, question
the contentious claims. There is always the possibility that your sources
information is inaccurate. What if your half-drunk source mistook
the defence permanent secretary for the security minister? What if the
security minister was in Nairobi yesterday?
Both The Observer news editor Robert Mukasa and Monitor Publications
executive editor Charles Odoobo Bichachi lament that journalists tend to
overly trust the initial source or documents; they want the story published
even if the other side has not been heard. When a journalist talks to
another source, they often do it just because the editor demands it.
Media trainer and former editor Bernard Tabaire suspects that some
journalists think it is too much (unnecessary) work to talk to many
sources, yet the rule of thumb is that you collect a lot more information
than you will need for any particular story.
That way, you have a large pool from which to pick the best quotes,
the most concrete info for the specific story, he says. Besides, any
leftover information can always be used in future stories, or to inform
future stories.
Without the essential journalistic scepticism, distrust, or critical thinking,
such reporters miss an opportunity to learn more about the issue under
investigation, debunk lies or exaggerations told by one side, and write
with more authority.
This point was recently echoed by Marty Baron, executive editor of the
Washington Post, who called for a return to the good old journalism skill
of true listening:
Too often now, stories are written based on hypothesis no
matter what. The only reason journalists are calling people

Have You Spoken to all the Key Sources?

or most of the time, emailing people is to plug in a comment,

to show that they did their job and to get another point of view.
Thats not journalism; its check-box journalism. Its terrible1.
Makerere University journalism lecturer Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume
is also appalled by sloppy journalism and armchair editing when we
fail to source stories properly. A former sub-editor at Daily Monitor and
news editor at The Observer, Ntulume distrusts sentences like Mr XZ
was not available to [or even for] comment.
Editors should also ask questions. I believe it might not
be possible to give everyone equal space, but at least equal
opportunity. You get the feeling that a certain source provided
this information, or a journalist is privy to this information
and then they go in detail in trying to nail down this person. I
get this feeling that the story had been typed and its neat, and
then they get the phone and try to call this other person. And
when the person cant comment because he is in a meeting or
says he is not ready to comment, the story goes because its the
last thing the reporter had to do. The editor should tell the
reporter this is not satisfactory. I know its sometimes difficult
to sleep on the story because competitors might get it, but its
unfair [to the person who could not comment immediately
or who the reporter did not do enough to get].
We need, from the outset, to step back and ask ourselves certain
questions: beyond the obvious, who else might be affected by this story
or would have some useful information or perspective on this? One trick
is to politely ask the people we interview: who else knows something
about this story? Often, people share names and contacts, and we quickly
find new potential sources from whom we can choose. The bottom
line is that the more sources we seek out, the higher the chances for a
richer, more accurate story.

1 Quoted in: Trends in Newsrooms 2016, available at www.thehinducentre.com/



Failing to Plan, Planning to Fail

In part, poorly sourced stories reflect inadequate planning. Journalism

can be such a fast-paced job that planning is seen as time-consuming.
But the adages haste makes waste and more haste, less speed spring
to mind.
Indeed, as Joseph Were argues, a journalist must be a critical thinker.
We start by thinking about whether what we have is a viable story idea
and why. Then we have to consider how to report it: who do we talk
to? What questions are we trying to answer? What tactics shall we use to
get the sources to speak to us? Thirdly, we have to endure the draining
exercise of writing questioning the various claims, how to structure
the story; which content to include/exclude and which tone to adopt.
With so much interrelated information to consider, so many questions
to answer and so many issues to grapple with, one way to ensure success
is to step back and brainstorm about what you are going to do, why,
when, and how?
Not surprisingly, Monitors Charles Odoobo Bichachi mentions planning
as one of the factors in his career progression. He accepts that planning
gets easier with experience, but says being able to step back and think
about what he was going to do enabled him to produce good work early
in his career.
As he puts it, we need to plan both for how to collect content and how
to present it for reporting, writing, and even layout. Bichachi argues
that because of lack of planning, many of our stories dont cohere or flow
well, although they may have all the critical information.

Failing to Plan, Planning to Fail

I always tell my feature writers and those who do analysis that

you need to outline your story. It makes the [writing] very easy;
it makes the stories flow very well; it joins the [parts] very well.
Planning the reporting is particularly important. Stories are often sparked
by something but once the idea has been conceived and accepted, the
reporter and the editor need to agree on some minimum programme.
Says Bichachi:
What are the aspects that must be in this story? What else
relates to this kind of story? If all that is consciously planned,
then you will get a very good story. It will be very easy for the
one who knows how to write, very easy for the one who is
editing, and it will be very easy for the one who is reading.
But planning is also particularly important for editors and subeditors,
who often have the final say on the shape of the story. Bichachi recalls
that when he started out a subeditor, he always stepped back to visualise
how he wanted his pages to look. This made him plan ahead, even before
the copy arrived.
From the time a reporter is assigned, we should start planning
for the storys layout. For instance, which graphics shall we use?
Which pictures shall we need? A good story poorly presented
is a disservice to the reader, whereas good graphics and layout
may even lift an average story.
Obviously writers have different temperaments, which inhibit or favour
one disposition or another. But journalistic best practices can be learned
once one appreciates the value they bring to ones work.
Some people erroneously argue that planning inhibits creativity and
would rather plunge in. These mistake planning for a kind of mental
prison. Instead, planning is only meant to make the story solid in
terms of content and organisation.
You may have been used to alternative approaches, but why not, as
Bichachi advises, try something new?
I talk to reporters a lot about planning and those who have
picked up, you can see that they can now write the big stories.
But if you dont, then you will go winding; you throw in
something here, then you will pick it up again.

Write Right, Tight

Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume is another planner something she learned

from two of her best journalism teachers Onapito Ekomoloit and
Simwogerere Kyazze.
They both taught me that if you plan a story and its not
flowing, if you dont understand it but still force your way
around it, the reader wont understand it. You need to
appreciate the story if the reader is going to understand it.
Plan well, know whom you are going to talk to, know what
is going to come first.
Its the same even as I do my academic work. If I have planned
my work, however simple the plan is, there is no way [I can
go wrong]. For me the trick is this: plan. I write a one-page
plan, bounce it off my colleagues and anyone who cares to
read it. Does it make sense? Is this the right theory? And then
I go into the writing and piling and it can take me two or
three months or one month. When I dont plan, I can spend
a year and something.
You may be among those who do not see the value of planning because
you believe you do well without it. But that is the nature of the arts:
almost everything is debatable its a matter of degree. What is true is
that we can succeed in spite of the way we work, or we can thrive because
of our approach.


Get the Facts Right

All editors interviewed agree that facts that are not facts as Robert
Mudhasi put it are most annoying. This is not least because editors
can be helpless, as it is the reporters who gather the information and
should know better.
We often make mistakes because we have not trained ourselves to double-
check things and pay attention to the smallest details. Take a parliament
reporter who wrote about the Rural Electrification Agency (ERA)
being summoned to Parliament over misused money. The newspaper
was embarrassed. Why, because ERA is a well-known acronym for the
Electricity Regulatory Authority. In brackets, the reporter should have
written REA. My bet is that that is what the reporter thought she wrote.
The catch is in proofreading our work in such a way that we see each
letter, word, sentence, and paragraph.
And why? Because one wrong letter changes the meaning of a word; one
word kills a sentence, and one bad sentence spoils a story.
Lets consider this hypothetical sentence in a news story submitted to
an editor.
Wakiso municipality MP and junior primary education
minister Rose Sseninde yesterday visited Greenhill Senior
Secondary School in Namuwongo, where she was received
by lord mayor Elias Lukwago and former minister Joash
Mayanja Nkangi.
How many problems can you spot in the sentence?
I counted at least six. The minister is the Wakiso Woman MP (not
municipality). Her actual name is Rosemary Seninde (note the
spelling). The school is called Greenhill Academy, located at Kibuli

Write Right, Tight

(separated from Namuwongo by a road). The lord mayor is Erias (not

Elias) and the former minister, who has since passed, was Jehoash (not
With the exception of the constituency name, all the other mistakes are
available on the internet, including on websites of quality newspapers.
Like many other editors, Joseph Were finds it unforgivable to get proper
nouns wrong.
A person should know how to spell names of people and places.
At least any journalist should be able to get that right. Get the
title of the person and get the name, and spell it correctly. Dont
assume that you know Kavumas name. As a rule, whether I
know Richard Kavuma [or not], the moment I am going to
put that name in print, I double-check it.
That last sentence is key. No one expects us to know everything. The
discipline of journalism is to double-check things. Recently, a reporter
wrote about a one Gilbert Gomushabe, a lecturer at Makerere
University. Of course the reporter was sure of the spelling, but his editor
had never come across such a name. A Google check found a Gilbert
Gomushabe at Makerere; but the editor was not convinced, because
Google also had a Gilbert Gumoshabe at Makerere. Over the phone,
one of Gilberts university colleagues was asked, and he spelt G-o-m-u-
s-h-a-b-e. Finally the editor telephoned Gilbert and asked him to spell
his name: G-u-m-o-s-h-a-b-e.
Monitors Odoobo Bichachi says that once we miswrite someones name,
we create a different person: For example, Oloka-Onyango. If you call
him Onyango Oloka, thats a different person and a lot of us journalists
do not see a problem with mixing up names.
Another reporter recently got a press release quoting a one Peter Mwesige
(who probably comes from Fort Portal) of the African Centre for Media
Excellence. But in the resultant story, the reporter quoted Peter Mwesigye
(presumably from Kabale).
This is a case of not paying attention to detail, and we can all learn from
such mistakes if we resolve to strive for better writing. In the end, it is
that disposition to pay attention to detail that will force us to go an extra
mile to avoid getting things wrong.

Get the Facts Right

As Were says, we need to have the humility to crosscheck things. Let

us not be afraid to ask: How do you spell that? Some of us fear that
by asking, we appear dumb. But wouldnt I rather appear dumb to this
one person (and earn his respect) than advertise my sloppiness to the
hundreds or thousands of people who know how his name is written?
When we cant get the person, we often crosscheck names in documents
and on the internet. However, be careful where you check. The internet
has both the correct spellings and the wrong ones. You could look for
two or three official sources and see if you have a consistent spelling.
Neither do you want to yell out in the newsroom what a certain fact
is and go with what a colleague yells back. Human memory is way too
fallible compared to documented sources.
Yet documents can only be as accurate as the mind that created them. In
November 2016, President Museveni nominated Hajjat Aisha Lubega
to the Electoral Commission. In its backgrounder, a newspaper wrote
that in 2002, Museveni had nominated Hajjat Lubega to the Education
Service Commission but she was rejected. This mistake could have been
the work of a fading memory.
A Google search brought up a November 2002 New Vision story about
Hajjat Lubega. MPs had rejected her nomination to the Electoral
Commission because her husband was already chairing the Education
Service Commission.
Of course, officialdom is not guarantee for accuracy especially in a
country where websites may not be updated for months. Mudhasi says
it is important for editors to go about the exercise of verification with
humility: You must always keep your mind open to surprises. But if
you say you have seen it all, that will close your mind to new things.
He told of a reporter who wrote a story about a car called a Dodge.
But the editor knew it as a Ford. The reporter insisted. Soon the editor
investigated and found out that Dodge was formerly part of Ford.
Technically, both were right, but if the editor had not been humble
enough, he would not have learnt that history.
This humility to check is very important. The writer often deserves the
benefit of the doubt and a good editor/sub will ask the writer before
changing things unless something is as certain as the spelling of the
editors name. But reporters can make it easier by always doing their best

Write Right, Tight

to get things right. Editors tend to trust reporters who always do their
best more than those who are perpetually erratic and sloppy. Yet even
the best reporter can have a bad day with below-par writing, hence the
need for consistent and rigorous gate-keeping by editors.


Sweeping Statements:
Is That Actually True?

Part of the difficulty of journalism lies in the paradox of the powerful

messenger. On the one hand, we journalists are not to be killed because
we are only carrying the message. But on the other, we wield power
because between us and our editors, we can determine which voice/
message gets to be heard and which one is suppressed.
Hence a common problem, according to editors, is that messenger-
reporters often reproduce sweeping statements in their stories simply
because their sources have made them. Moreover, increasingly reporters
reproduce these statements as matters of fact without attributing them
to anyone.
Sources, especially politicians and victims of injustice, often speak in
hyperbole or with exaggeration. We need to interrogate what they are
saying so that we avoid spreading falsehoods that damage our credibility.
New Visions Robert Mudhasi gives this example:
A reporter can write that according to a source, most women in
Uganda are above 40 years of age but when he gives the figures from
the ministry, it is 45% of women who are above 40. Now, the statement
most women is technically inaccurate. Thats why many an editor
will find safer alternatives to unproven superlatives (like replacing most
with many)
Writers and editors must always be interested in what they
are writing or reading. Without interest in what you are
covering, you will leave a lot of questions unanswered. You
will go there, listen and report what you heard, but you do

Write Right, Tight

not question, you do not probe, you do not investigate; you

take what you have been told as if it is automatically factual.
Often, when an editor challenges a reporter about a claim in the story, the
reporter will say: But that is what he said. That is not enough defence
from an adult of sound mind. Ideally, we should publish things because
we know or believe them to be true not simply because someone else
has said them.
Yes, a minister may claim that the opposition leaders had planned to
burn down the whole city; but if we must carry such a statement, one,
it should be attributed to its source; two, let us carry the allegation side
by side with what the accused has said in response. For example:
The minister claimed that Besigye was arrested because he
had planned to burn down the city. However, Dr Besigye
has consistently rejected this claim as part of government lies
meant to criminalise legitimate political opposition.

Where is the Evidence?

On a normal day, The Observer managing director James Tumusiime can
be heard telling one of his charges: Show me, dont tell me, or Your
headline and intro are not in the story. I have read up to the end but I
cant find them.
This is a common problem. It may be that one of our sources made an
attractive statement and the reporter thought that could make a good
angle. He actually writes the intro based on that angle, but when he
assembles the rest of the story, the angle has no pillars to stand on.
The reporter should quickly realise that there is no basis for that angle.
Its like a police detective who believes that a suspect killed the victim
and sets out to find evidence to charge a man with murder. After the
investigations, the Director of Public Prosecutions rules that they change
the charge to manslaughter because the evidence on file can only
support that.
As we craft our stories and look at the broad claims we are making, we
need to routinely ask ourselves: do I have evidence in the story to back up
this or that particular claim? It is not enough to publish wild falsehoods
simply because we have given the accused person space to deny them.

Sweeping Statements: Is That Actually True?

Contrived Conflict
The day I interviewed Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume at Makerere, one
newspaper had a story about the former Forum for Democratic Change
president Kizza Besigye. It claimed that Besigye was using leaders of the
Walk-to-Work movement to revitalise his defiance campaign, but current
party president Mugisha Muntu was opposed to Besigyes scheme. The
problem, Ntulume said, was that the evidence in the story and the
quotes showed that Muntu supported the defiance campaign alongside
his efforts to mobilise and organise party structures. Muntu was quoted
as saying that the semblance of conflict is because inexperienced FDC
supporters fail to appreciate the need for two approaches. He also said
the misunderstandings between the two approaches had tremendously
narrowed. Ntulume says editors must not forget to subject all stories to
scrutiny including those of senior journalists.
I see there is this tendency to try to create conflict where there
is no conflict. Of course conflict sells, definitely, and where
a journalist sees potential conflict, they will try to milk it. If
there are drops, they will try to make it flow even more and
its understandable because you need to sell a story. Then show
the conflict if its there.
I see this as a story that is trying so hard to bring out the
conflict between Muntu and Besigye. Yet when I see the news
on TV, Muntu is always at Kizza Besigyes press conferences.
They are always seated together, talking. There could be
something in this; but as a journalist, he should bring it
and show it. Sometimes there is that dependence on senior
journalists and that complete trust; then we forget that they
actually have to verify everything.
Every grand claim in the story needs to be backed up by evidence or
at least properly attributed, alongside authoritative counter claims.
Otherwise, as Ntulume says, it is not fair to readers. More importantly, it
undermines the credibility of our journalism: if readers feel they cant trust
what we are writing, they will move on and leave us in deeper trouble.


Whats the Context/

Background of this Story?

Lack of proper context and background is another common complaint

from editors across the world. News rarely happens out of the blue.
Certain related developments came before, which provide the context
or bigger picture in which the latest news is to be understood.
Sadly, as Bernard Tabaire argues, many newsrooms are not doing enough
to locate stories in their proper contexts and discuss their bigger-picture
significance. It means we are not helping enlighten readers; we are not
getting readers to exclaim: Now I understand this thing!
During Ugandas presidential election campaigns in December 2015,
FDC candidate Kizza Besigye held rallies in Mityana. The Observer
reporter filed a small story and his editor called to get more details. For
instance, the editor asked, which politicians accompanied Besigye to
Mityana? Among the names the reporter mentioned was Hussein Kyanjo,
the only MP and leading politician from the Justice Forum (Jeema) party.
Not only did Kyanjo attend the rally, he took to the podium and asked
people to vote for Besigye.
To the editor, this was significant because until then, Kyanjo and his
Jeema had rallied behind independent candidate Amama Mbabazi.
Kyanjos presence at Besigyes rally suggested an admission of Besigyes
significance in Kampala, where the MPs son was standing for the
Makindye West parliamentary seat. It also fed into the then emerging
narrative that even some of Mbabazis supporters were starting to doubt
his electability.

Whats the Context/Background of this Story?

But the reporter had not even mentioned Kyanjo hence missing a
critical detail. Neither was there a sentence about how the population
here voted at the previous elections. The reader of his story would not
have been any better off than someone who listened to radio clips from
the rally.
This is what Joseph Were at The Independent says about context:
One of the most irritating things for me is stories that
lack context and background. In what context is this story
happening? How did we get here? And it goes back to hard
work and outlook because reporters these days because they
do not read [although there is an avalanche of information].
Reporters do not focus on one thing deeply. So, they do not
understand things.
Discussing context, Tabaire cites the takeover of Crane Bank by Bank of
Uganda in October 2016. For days, he says, newspapers did not try to
firmly relate the story to the outcry about a struggling economy and banks
struggling with non-performing loans. Discussions about businessmen
seeking a government bailout to escape foreclosure had earlier dominated
the media: could this be related to Crane Banks troubles? If that was
the case, what implications did the takeover of Crane Bank have for the
economy? If some of the heavily indebted businessmen and women had
loans from Crane Bank, was the takeover of the bank tantamount to
bailing the businesses out?
Now, how would a young journalist covering the story know all this?
They do not have to know everything. But if one has been reading the
news consistently, one will have an idea. Secondly, by identifying and
listening to credible sector-experts, a reporter can dramatically improve
their understanding of their field. Reporters should not only talk to
sources for comments, but also to help them understand their beat better.
Such on- or off-record interactions might prove more important to the
reporter than the official quotes.
Another example, again in October 2016, had to do with the Uganda
National Roads Authority (Unra). Executive director Allen Kagina
apologised in Parliament that Unra had paid Shs 22 billion to a Chinese
firm it had not contracted, to build the Kanoni-Sembabule road.

Write Right, Tight

The press stories did not say that Kagina had arrived at Unra with
messianic status, after corruption threatened to bring the authority
down. That some of these irregularities happened under her watch should
have raised eyebrows and should have been an opportunity to ask some
hard questions. The broader narrative would then be: Is Uganda and
Parliament shielding Kagina from due scrutiny because of her earlier
reputation? Well, later, an article on www.eagle.co.ug asked: why is
Parliament handling Kagina with kid gloves?
De-contextualised reporting and writing touches a much bigger problem
for newspapers today. For Tabaire, the whole discussion about context
and background is about giving value to the reader by giving respect
to the story. And as both Were and Francis Kagolo of New Vision
point out, it goes back to the fundamental question: how much and
how deeply do we journalists read? If we are not reading enough, we
are living dangerously.


Be Extra Careful with

Social Media

Some scholars and commentators have argued that Facebook, Twitter,

WhatsApp and other social media platforms are aiding the internet
to slowly kill print media. How soon the burial arrangements will be
announced is not known. But clearly, social media is upon us. Not long
ago, newspapers broke news; now social media does that. Newspapers
prided in being a forum for public discourse; now social media has more
inclusive, impassioned debates about everything from peasant agriculture
to Donald Trumps locker-room banter. Entertainment? Social media
is ahead what with all those jokes and caricatures on everything and
everyone from President Mugabe to Pope Francis?
To their credit, enterprising journalists are using social media as a
reporting tool. Some interviews are now conducted on Facebook and
WhatsApp. And you can get any telephone number by asking your social
media friends. Even politicians who wont answer their phone calls can
find their Facebook or Twitter comments quoted in the papers.
But according to journalism teacher Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume,
journalists need to be careful about using social media information as
gospel truth. With billions of users, social media has no control over
the authenticity of the information it carries. In other words, we should
crosscheck information on social media before we use it in our reporting.
For example, when the controversy over Greenhill Academys sex
education books erupted in August 2016, Ntulume shared a WhatsApp
group discussion about the topic with another group. She included other
pictures about other (potentially more alarming) sex education comic
books that children in other countries had access to. The gist of her

Write Right, Tight

message was that parents should watch what their children read because
this is how bad things can get. From that WhatsApp group, someone
shared Ntulumes pictures with a journalists group.
Minutes later, a Twitter account of a national newspaper carried
Ntulumes pictures with a grand claim that Greenhill was giving these
books to its pupils, and without attributing the source of the pictures.
Ntulume tried to complain to the newspaper, but the mistake was not
corrected until several hours later. By the next morning, the messages
were in the tabloid press. The ministry of education issued a press release
on the issue presumably reacting to the media reports.
For Ntulume, this was a classic example of how the mainstream media
must uphold higher standards for itself than social media does.
We tend to take it for granted that because this information
is out there, its necessarily factual. Because its out there...
everyone is talking about this on WhatsApp; everyone is
talking about this on Facebook; so, its right. Maybe the
journalists will not look for the specific sources to get the right
information and the editors are not demanding, and the
public is not demanding things to be done in a certain way.
Many media houses now have policies on social media usage and they
ought to be followed. For instance, the guide for the National Public
Radio in the United States urges staff to focus on accuracy and to be
careful and sceptical.
Its often easier to falsify ones identity online than it is in the
offline world. And tonal or contextual nuances can be lost in
online exchanges. So when appropriate, clarify and confirm
information collected online through phone and in-person
interviews. For example, when a social media posting is itself
news, try to contact the source to confirm the origin of the
information and attain a better understanding of its meaning.
We must try to be as sophisticated in our use of social media
as our audience and users are.
At a time when newspapers are in steady decline, one of the few saving
graces relates to trust. WhatsApp users cannot tell if President Robert

Be Extra Careful With Social Media

Mugabe of Zimbabwe really made that silly comment about pregnancy2;

but newspaper readers should have the confidence that if The Observer
or The EastAfrican has printed this, it must be true. If we lower our
standards to those of social media, we have only ourselves to blame. Its
up to us to give our readers more confidence.

2 Social media has been awash with what President Trump would call false news
comments allegedly made by Mr Mugabe. In one, Mugabe allegedly equated
pregnancy to evidence of sexual activity. Most of the time the president has
never said those things.


English has its idiosyncrasies, many of them. Editors spend valuable
time fixing good words used the wrong way. Is it Excellence or
Excellency, for instance?
This section discusses some of the commonest tricky words. One
suggestion is that when you write a word that has made this list,
step back and ask yourself: is this the word (and not the other) that
you actually meant to write?
Words are special, says The Bloomberg Way3.Treat words with
reverence and your writing will ring true.
And according to Bernard Tabaire, a former Monitor Publications
managing editor (weekend editions) and former journalism lecturer
at Makerere University, you do not have to guess.
A dictionary now is everywhere, a thesaurus is everywhere.
On your computer, on your phone, over and above the
physical dictionary. I think people should have the discipline
to check and just be sure that even if its an everyday word,
am I using it properly in this context? Is it helping me to
communicate effectively and communicate clearly?

3 Matthew Winkler (2014), The Bloomberg Way. A Guide for Reporters and Editors,
John Wiley and Sons Ltd.


Often Confused Words/


NOT astone throw
This city is the capital of Nigeria Not Lagos anymore
Note the position of the apostrophe.
ADF (Ugandan rebel group)
ADF is the Allied Democratic FrontForces.
This is another case of a verb (advise) and a noun usually confused both
in speech and writing.
She advised Moses to ignore your advice

Management will effect fundamental changes. These changes
will not affect staffing levels in the department. The changes take
effect on 1 June 2017, but their full effect may not be known until

AGO (adj & adv) / A GO (n):

A long time ago, it was rare for a woman to have a go at her husband.
One aircraft, 10 aircraft. One aeroplane, 10 aeroplanes.

Write Right, Tight


Altogether means completely or totally.
Abraham complained that his wife was coming home late, and she
decided to stay away altogether.
All together means everything combined or added.
We have four goats, 37 cows, and 11 sheep all together 52 animals.

A person who attended a particular school or college.
(Alumnus is singular; alumni is plural for males or mixture of males
and females)
*The specific word for a female former student is alumna (plural is
People write Am sick when they mean to write Im sick.
Im is a contraction of I am.
A sentence using am without I would be grammatically incomplete,
because it would not have a subject. I is the subject while am is a form
of the verb to be
Not always. Leave it out when the sentence has indicated that the list
is not exhaustive.
The traders included Okello, Mukasa, and Mukiibi, among others.
During his presidency, Obama has visited countries such as Kenya,
Ethiopia and Ghana.

When listing things in a negative sentence, use or instead of and.
I dont have milk andor sugar.
The hospital operates in crumbling buildings, with no reliable
electricity andor qualified staff.

To annex (v) is to seize a country or part of another country.
An annexe (n) is an extension to a building or an addition at the end
of a document.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

Russia says it will not annex other territories after Crimea.

St Marys SS Kitende Annexe was the best school in the country.


Most of us imagine calling them Riot would suggest they do the rioting.
But thats not the case.
Riot police used batons to hit the demonstrators.
Look again at what you have written.
@Umeme once tweeted: We really apologies for the delay They
meant to say apologise.
Appraise = to evaluate
Apprise means to inform.
The minister ordered line managers to appraise staff.
The minister demanded that we keep him apprised of the progress.

These two are always potential banana skins, and the dictionary would
help avoid embarrassing mistakes.
Kinene urged argued that the new position was beneath his
His mother argued urged him to try it for a month.
His supervisor urged patience and caution. But three months later,
he could no longer resist the urge to quit.

The august House

Note the capital H.
Bark cloth is that cloth hammered from the bark of a tree.
Back cloth is clothing hanging at the back of a stage in a theatre.


Between should go with and
INSTEAD OF: Organisers expect between 400 900 participants.
WRITE: Organisers expect between 400 and 900 participants.

Write Right, Tight

OR: Organisers expect 400-900 participants.

Biannual refers to something happening twice in a year.
Biennial, on the other hand, means once every two years.
The project was subjected to biannual reviews by the board in June
and December.
The Africa Cup of Nations is a biennial tournament; it takes place
every two years.

This is confusing and a prudent writer would probably avoid it.
It means both twice every month AND once every two months.
BlackBerry is a smart phone (Never mind what proud iPhone owners
say). Trouble often comes when we use its plural form (BlackBerrys),
which sounds like the small fruits called blackberries.
People spoke on their BlackBerrys as they ate blackberries.

Boarder refers to a person in a boarding school (or who pays to stay in
someones home), while border relates to boundaries.
Busia town is located at the Uganda-Kenya border.
The school has both boarders and day-students.

To boost is to help.
To boast is to brag or simply have something good.
The president boasted about his political experience.
Uganda boostsboasts hundreds of unique bird species.
His recovery boosted the team.

When we use the direct quotation marks, we are telling the reader that
this is exactly what the Speaker said. But sometimes we intervene to
improve clarity of the quoted text: we use the square brackets [ ] to
indicate something we have inserted within a direct quote.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

I have told him [Mbabazi] to avoid escalating this conflict because

it does not help the party, the president said.
The above example means the writer/editor has inserted the word
Mbabazi to help the reader understand what the president meant by
Outside the quotation marks or mathematics, please use the usual
(round) brackets or parentheses.
You have probably seen a sentence like: Ms Katatumba is the brainchild
of the charity project for disabled children in the north.
This arises out of a common confusion regarding the two terms:
brainchild and brains behind. The correct version would be:
Ms Katatumba is the brains behind the charity project. (Literally,
it is Katatumbas brains that have put the project together)
The charity project is the brainchild of Ms Katatumba. (Literally,
the project was produced by her brains).

For vehicles not breaking.
Also, vehicles use brakes for stopping, not breaks.
Is the capital city of Brazil (not Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo).
Just like Pretoria (not Cape Town or Johannesburg) is the capital of
South Africa.
The patient could not breathe properly.
If you dont brush your teeth, you can get bad breath.

Buddo is the name of the village off Kampala-Masaka road, home to
several schools, some of which have long abandoned the complicated
process of correcting an initial spelling mistake:
Kings College Budo
Budo Junior School.
Buddo Secondary School.

Write Right, Tight

A canon refers to a type of Christian leader, or to religious principles.
E.g., Canon law or Canon Mbabazi
A cannon is a type of gun.
Canvas is a type of material used to make tents/shoes or painting, etc.
To canvass is to seek support for a party or cause.
That, he said, would be putting the catcart before the hose horse.
We need a horsepipehosepipe to take water from the tap to the

Serere district was carved (created) out of the much older Soroti district.
The road to the new district has many curves (bends).
The CBR is the policy rate or signal rate, which influences other rates
in the economy.
CBR is NOT the rate at which the central bank lends to commercial
banks; thats called the repo rate)
The young bird is a chick.
Peter said Maria was chic, meaning she was smart.
Some young men call girls chicks, but some women detest this.


To cite already means to give something as an example.
Namisango citedthe example of the five police officers who tortured
a student last year.


A cohort is a group of contemporaries.
To be in cahoots with someone means to be part of the same bad group
or plan.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

The opposition leader accused the reporter of being in cahoots with

state agents.

The former means to work together; the latter means to give matching
Makerere University and Columbia University are collaborating
on the study.
The editor wanted us to talk to other sources to corroborate
Lukyamuzis claims.

Colombia is the Latin American country.
Columbia is a United States district. There is also Columbia University
in New York
Note the hyphens.
Comparing Mother Theresa to Nelson Mandela means to suggest that
they are similar.
To compare Yoweri Museveni with Milton Obote could mean to rate
one against the other, for instance by evaluating their strengths and
To compliment is to say a word of praise or appreciation.
Thanks for the compliment!
Journalists are asking for complimentary tickets to the show.
To complement is to combine well with something or with what
someone has done.
They were a perfect couple, her industry complementing his artistry.
Their personalities are complementary.
For young people, chicken is the perfect complement to chips.

Write Right, Tight


As a verb that means to regard to believe, Consider does not need as,
neither does Appoint. But as a nouns, they may take as.
Angela had always considered Jumaas a gentleman.
He does not consider her as a powerful woman.
Tumwebaze was first appointed as minister for the Presidency; so
his appointment as minister for ICT was not surprising.
But when it means to evaluate or analyse, consider goes with as
Before we dismiss Napoleon as a Frenchman, let us consider him
as a soldier; I think he was a great fighter.

What have you written? And what did you mean to write?
Not Court of arms
Deference = Respect for and willingness to accept someone elses view.
Difference = Quality of being dissimilar.
These verbs do not need the preposition for; its the associated nouns
that do.
We normally demand reform, not for reform. But once that
demand has been made, we can expect action on our demand for
the reform.
Musoke demanded for a book yesterday. His demand for a book
was rejected.
He orderedfor an inquiry into the disappearance of the money. The
presidents order for an inquiry was ignored.
The archbishop requested the presidents assistance. He is now
waiting for a response to his request for assistance.
The NGO has been advocating free education for orphans. The
NGO was recognised for its advocacy for free education for orphans.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

Readers crave (for) context and perspective. (Both crave and crave
for are used as verbs)


I take care of a cousin who is one of my dependants. (American
English also uses dependents)
His education is dependent on me getting money for school fees.


Descent has to do with origin.
Decent means smart or good-mannered, reasonable, sufficient, etc.
Dissent is disagreement or protest.
Someone of Ugandan descent should not do such a thing. Ugandans
are very decent people.
Human Rights Watch accused the government of failing to tolerate
political dissent.
The so-called rebel MPs were simply NRM dissenters.

Discreet means tactful or cautious.
Discrete means separate.

Disinterested means not biased.
Uninterested means not keen on or interested in something.
The Electoral Commission boss said he was totally disinterested in
the result of the presidential election but could not be uninterested
in the conduct of the polls.
I bought him a piano but he is uninterested in music.

One means unique or typical, the other prominent
Bbale Francis had a distinctive voice.
Dangote is one of Africas distinguished business leaders.

A draftsman may be found in a law firm or somewhere else drafting
A draughtsman makes drawings, for instance for architects.

Write Right, Tight

Dubai is NOT the same as a country called the United Arab Emirates
UAE has seven emirates (federal city-states) and Dubai is just one of
The capital of UAE is Abu Dhabi, not Dubai.
Two words! Each other used to refer to two items; one another to more
than two. But they are now interchangeable.
First, Clinton and Trump attacked each other on stage; then, outside
the hall, their supporters hurled water bottles at one another.

Educationist is used in American English
In British English, the emcee is different from the MC (master of
For the British, an emcee is a person whosaysthewordsinrapmusic.
MC, then, is simply short form for master of ceremonies.
American English allows interchangeable usage.

Enable something, but enable someone to do something.
The changes will enable faster processing of applications.
The changes will enable staff to process traders applications quickly.

Not Enrollment
His Excellency the president is passionate about the pursuit of excellence
in public service.
This means formally or in writing.
It does NOT mean quickly.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

Payments above Shs 1 million must be expressly authorised by the

The MD will do his best to handle such requisitions expressly

House rules may apply, but many media houses use Facebook or Twitter
(upper case).
A message posted on Twitter is called a tweet (not a twit)
Your address on Twitter is called a Twitter handle, e.g., @pmwesige.
She moved far away from the capital. She lives in a faraway village.

An engaged man is the womans fianc.
The woman is his fiance
The firing line does the shooting.
What they are shooting at is in the line of fire.

To flout is to break laws or principles. To flaunt is to show off.
In the novel, an American model is accused of flouting Saudi Arabias
morality laws by flaunting her body in a short skirt.

One word
One way to end the confusion is to think of the latter as the one that is
mentioned later, whereas the former was mentioned earlier.
We had planned to interview the director general and the prime
minister but we failed to get the latter (i.e. the prime minister).


Mixing from and the dash is inelegant.
From should go with to and not with the dash or hyphen.

Write Right, Tight

INSTEAD OF: Government will raise a corporals monthly pay from

Shs 350,000 Shs 500,000.
WRITE: Government will raise a corporals monthly pay from Shs
350,000 to Shs 500,000.
The man claimed that the soldiers had gang-raped him.
Four years later the soldiers were jailed for the gang rape of the farmer.

A graduand is someone who is about to graduate or who has just
graduated especially on graduation day.
A graduate is anyone who holds a degree or diploma from an institution.
We say grassroots action (not grassroot)
*** Some dictionaries write grass roots (two words) or grass-roots.
The country can be as confusing as the language it gave the world.
Great Britain comprises Scotland, England and Wales.
Great Britain + Northern Ireland = the United Kingdom (or simply

One word
A Hajji (note the spelling) is a Muslim man who has performed the
Hajj the holy pilgrimage to Mecca.
A Muslim woman who has done the pilgrimage to Medina is called a
No need for hyphens.
He worked hand in hand with my sister.

4 Interesting to note is that Britain is geographically bigger than Great Britain!

Often Confused Words/Phrases

These three words often tease us. But I have just checked the dictionary
This error appeared in a Kampala newspaper on November 15:
He became chairperson for several committees until 2001, when he
hang his political gloves and did not contest.
The correct word should have been hung, the past tense of hang
When I was in London we hangedhung out at Kabira.
The verb to hang has two categories of meaning, and depending on the
usage, its conjugated differently.
1. To kill
2. To suspend plus several other usages
Meaning Infinitive Past tense Participle
Killing (only) To hang hanged hanged
Suspend (+ all other To hang hung hung

The morning after the night at the bar, Marie had a terrible hangover.
Not heads.
The army officer is said to have a ranch with 10,000 head of cattle.
Many women tend to write double L.
Often, men with this name write one L.
NOT humourous
Hustle (n) means a lot of noisy activity or dishonest means.
As a verb, it can mean to push someone to go quickly where you want
them to go.

Write Right, Tight

The hustle and bustle of the city.

Dont hustle me; its not my problem that you came late.
Hassle means a situation that is difficult or annoying, or to annoy
I hope it wont be so much of a hassle for you to get me the CDs!
This usually stands for information and communications technology.
(NOT information, communication and technology).
Incidence (singular) means the rate of prevalence, for instance of disease
or crime.
Incident (countable) means a case or an occurrence of something.
There are so many incidencesincidents of murder and the police
must act decisively.
We must take steps to reduce the incidence of malaria.

Institute generally refers to an educational or research entity. Institution
is a generic term for any large organisation such as a bank, institute,
church, hospital, etc.
As part of a name of a college or school, the usual word is institute. E.g.,
Kamengo Technical Institute (KTI).
But KTI can be generally described as a vocational institution. Just
as some scholars define marriage as an institution. Makerere and
Mubs are generally described as tertiary institutions (but we rarely
hear anyone call them institutes).

Its = a short form of It is.
Its = a possessive form for it.
Its wrong to write that the company has fired its finance manager.
It has fired its finance manager

Often Confused Words/Phrases


The pastor said: If you think your wife is too jealous, its time to ask
yourself if you are the cause of her jealousy.
Not Karamajong or Karamojong
Their language is Ngakarimojong.
Kira is in Kampala and Wakiso (E.g. Kira road; Kira Road police
station; Kira municipality)
BUT Kiira is mostly associated with River Nile and Busoga. (E.g.
Kiira regional police commander)

KCCA will license you by giving you a licence.
Another confused pair, especially because of the multiple meanings
and overlaps in usage. A past tense of one verb is the infinitive form
of another.
The verb to lie has different meanings or groups of meanings,
each with different conjugation:
1. To tell lies.
2. To be in a low position or simply be somewhere.
But the verb to lay means to place or put something somewhere
among other usages.
Verb/ Continuous Past tense Participle
To lie (tell lies Lying Lied Lied
or deceive) Mr Mukasa He had lied to
lied under the committee.
oath in 2015.
To lie (to Lying Lay Lain
be in a low When I The keys had
position or be reached lain on the
somewhere) home, I lay table for two
on the bed, days when he
feeling dizzy. found them.

Write Right, Tight

To lay (place Laying Laid Laid

some-thing The minister I have laid
somewhere) yesterday laid your pressed
+ other the bill before blouse and
meanings Parliament. pants on the
bed, he told

One word
If you lose (verb) something very valuable, then you have made a
big loss (noun).
On the other hand, if something is loose (not tight), it means you
can easily lose it.

MADHVANI (Ugandan business family)

Not Madhivani or any other spelling.
(NOT Magistrates)
Note the position of the apostrophe.
He has a bachelors / masters (degree) in Business Administration.
He has a Master of Business Administration degree.
She got a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry.
He has graduated with MastersMaster of Arts in Literature.

One word
During the charity walk, we will march through town to music
from the Police band.
The number on your badge must match with that on your T-shirt.
In the evening there will be a charity football match.
In March 2016, the big stories were the Amama Mbabazi court
petition and the police siege at Kizza Besigyes home.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

May be (two words) is a phrasal verb. Maybe is an adverb that means
perhaps or about.
It may be a good idea to go to the park. Maybe we will run into
the Beckhams.


The common noun is a meeting.
But headline writers keen to avoid any extra letter often replace meeting
with meet.
Officials clash at FDC party meet.
BUT formally, meet (n) means a sports tournament or a fox-hunting
expedition on horsebacks.
Abbreviated as MW (caps).
E.g, 250MW .Not mw.
These can be confusing, especially because we erroneously think that
every meter is simply the American version of metre.
Metre is a unit of length equalling 100cm
Meter is a gadget for measuring something, e.g., water meter or electricity
Not more over.
No need for a hyphen in this word.
Naught is nothing.
Nought is the figure zero (0)
Neither goes with nor
Not goes with or
Mr Nyombi did not answer nor or return our calls at the weekend.

Write Right, Tight

Mr Nyombi neither answered nor returned our calls at the weekend.
He gave us neither money nor wine.
He did not give us money or wine.

NOT nerve-wrecking (even if something wrecks your nerves).

No doubt means it is certainly true.
No question means it is impossible.
No doubt Obama was president for two terms.
There is no question that Museveni was born in America.

None means no one.
Non- means un- or not-
We invited all the directors but none came.
Uganda has been branded a non-committed member of the Non-
Aligned Movement.
Lecturers say they will strike over non-payment of their allowances.

That makes no sense; it is utter nonsense.
Not on one hand
Literally both usages can be correct, but the idiomatic expression
normally requires track.
We have boarded the right Isuzu truck in time; our plan is on the
right track.


A thin line here: For ones part is best used during attribution.
For her part, Sandra pleaded she was not in the city when the incident

Often Confused Words/Phrases

On ones part best goes with apportioning responsibility.

It was an error on her part not to leave the key behind.
If someone is leaving a position, we say he/she is outgoing.
After he/she has left, we refer to him/her as the former (Not out-gone).
He criticised out-gone former prime minister Apolo Nsibambi.


He was arrested for over-speeding yesterday.

Commonly confused. Double-check during revision.
With is often unnecessary (except when using the phrasal verb partner
Unicef has partnered the newspaper to promote girl-child education.
Michael Carrick partnered Paul Pogba in the Manchester United
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger partnered up Sanchez with Giroud
in attack, but they managed only one shot on goal.

To peddle is to sell; the other belongs to the bicycle.
KCCA law enforcement officers yesterday arrested 10 hawkers found
peddling fruits on Luwum Street.
I cant ride my bicycle because the pedals are broken.
Baby Sandra is learning to ride a bicycle but she cant pedal yet.

To perpetrate means to do something bad, e.g., commit a crime.
To perpetuate is to help something, for example a belief, survive or

5 Partner is a transitive verb (Peter partnered Mohammed). Partner up is both

transitive and intransitive (Peter partnered up with Mohammed. Wenger
partnered Peter and Mohammed).

Write Right, Tight

There are no tough punishments for perpetuatorsperpetrators of

violent crime.
The presidents 10-day trip to Europe will only perpetuate the myth
that he spends more time abroad than at work.
This means not in uniform usually in reference to armed forces who
are normally expected to be in uniform.
I saw a plain-clothes policeman.
Look again: One means a stance or a place. The latter means something
you have or own.
He practised regularly and he improved because of his practice.

To take precedence is to come first; a precedent is a principle derived
from a development.
In February 1986, the president yelled at his secretary that his Class
A instructions must take precedence over other business.
This legal precedent was set in the 2001 Supreme Court ruling in
the Kifefe Vs Uganda petition.

Tip: the prefix pre means before.
The presidents who came before Museveni are his predecessors (e.g.
Obote). The one who comes after will be his successor.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC)
(Note the spelling)
A principal (noun) is a head of an institution.
He is the principal of Kichwamba Technical College
Principal is also an adjective, meaning major or senior.
He is the studys principal investigator.
He scored four principal passes.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

A principle = a law or guideline on which something is based, e.g.,

principles of good writing.
People who follow certain principles religiously are described as
So, a good college principal should be a principled person.
He was the man to prophesy that important prophecy.
NOT publically
A line of people is a queue.
On the pool/snooker table, each player has a cue.
To take a cue from someone is to follow what they have done.
A rag means a (tattered) piece of cloth or old clothes.
A rug is a small carpet.
His story is one of from rags to riches.
Mushega pulled the rug from under Besigye (stopped supporting


The prefix re means again, but many writers wonder when to follow it
with a hyphen and when to simply merge it with the verb it is modifying.
Should we say re-edit or reedit? Re-launch or relaunch?
Opinion is divided, and if you have a house rule on this, the better. For
instance, the UK Guardian Stylebook advises:
Use re- (with hyphen) when followed by the vowel e or a u that
is not pronounced as yu: E.g. re-entry, re-examine, re-urge.
For all other cases, then, you may use re without a hyphen.
Reintegrate, reorder, reuse, rearrange;
But where the Guardian recommends re-edit, the Chicago Manual on
Style wants reedit.

Write Right, Tight

Generally, compounds start as two words, before they are wedded by a

hyphen. Eventually, they become one word. When the latter happens, we
cannot know, but the dictionary often changes to reflect popular usage.
Incontestable is that if simply adding re would cause confusion with
another word, use re-. For instance, when you write recover do you mean
to cover again or to get back? Does your resign mean to sign again
or to quit ones position?
Consider the following hypothetical sentences:
Jose Mourinho, who re-signed Paul Pogba, has resigned as
Manchester United manager.
The waiter decided to re-cover the table after the table cloth was
blown away, but she failed to recover the money that went with
the wind.
Without a risk of such confusion, you may omit the hyphen, or follow
your house rules.
A refugee is someone who seeks refuge in another country.
Those who flee to other areas within their country are called internally
displaced persons (IDPs)
Not re-enforce
If I say that he is a reknownedrenowned reporter, it means he is a
journalist of great renown.
Reknowned as of February 2017 is simply a misspelling of renowned.
Result in something is the more common usage.
His injury resulted intoin the teams narrow loss.
NOT Revolutionalise
Thugs rob you or a bank; but they steal your property or money.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

WRONG: They have stolen me.

WRONG: They have robbed my money.
RIGHT: The thugs robbed Peter (of all his money) yesterday. They
stole his money.

Is the South Southern African Development Community.
Salon is a place for styling/cutting hair OR a shop for expensive designer
A saloon car (or sedan) has a boot closed off from the sitting area. Its
opposite is the hatchback.
A saloon bar is a comfortable shop (e.g., within a pub) with seats for
selling and drinking alcohol. (Compare: fruit saloon)
We drove her white saloon car to Birungi Beauty Salon, where I
cut my hair and she had hers retouched.

Not satelite
Drop out is a verb, dropout a noun.
If you drop out of school, people will call you a school dropout.

Transparency activists complain that corrupt politicians go scorch-
freescot-free (i.e. unpunished).
The chief executive of a large organisation such as the UN or a political
party is its secretary-general.
Note that many smaller organisations have a general secretary.
Plural is secretaries-general (not secretary generals).
Also consider:
Director general: plural is directors general
Accountant general: plural is accountants general

Write Right, Tight

One president is a head of state; many are heads of state (not heads of
The spell-checker is many a keen writers favourite friend, but sometimes
it cant help. Take separable or other phrasal verbs, which need only a
hyphen or merging for them to morph into nouns. The writer should
identify such bogey words and work out strategies to master them.
If you set up an organisation, then you can discuss its set-up.
She makes up stories about institutions; I want to understand the
make-up of these institutions.
You must back up your claims with facts; did you really have a
system backup?
But there are several exceptions, which can be termed hyphenated verbs
such as double-check, role-play or blow-dry. You need to be aware of
these as you go along.
The crisis in Burundi has seen several atrocities committed against
helpless civilians. Soldiers routinely gang-rape women, but no
soldier has been arrested for a gang rape.
For most of the following cases, two separate words are the verb, but
one word (merged or hyphenated) is the noun or adjective.

Verb Noun Verb Noun

Break up Break-up Set up set-up
Build up Build-up Make up make-up
Check up Check-up Wake up wake-up
Clean up Clean-up Buy in buy-in
Close up Close-up Gang-rape Gang rape
Cover up Cover-up Jump-start Jump start
Flare up Flare-up Double-check Double check
Round up Round-up Role-play Role play
Shake up Shake-up Blow-dry Blow-dry
Back up backup
There are many more verbs/nouns that follow the majority format above.
But not all phrasal verbs have a matching hyphenated noun. Before you
create a noun from a verb, consult your dictionary.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

This is both singular and plural, meaning a set or various sets of related
This series has 10 parts; it is a 10-part series. This is the fourth in
the 10-part series.
NTV has introduced three new series.


Severally does NOT mean several times.
Severally means separately or individually rather than as a group.
Museveni severallyrepeatedly accused the opposition of sabotage.
Over the last year, ministers have severally warned Museveni to
consider slowing down.


Its not unusual to hear a five-year-old child asking for his short. You
cant blame him if the chart in class has a pair of shorts labelled simply
Junior, dont say my short. Either you say my shorts or my
pair of shorts.

His statement smacks of a conspiracy against me, Okello said, as
his rival smirked (smiled meanly).

The word species is both singular and plural (Lets not write specie).
Scientists have discovered one species of birds in Uganda.
At least four species of plants in Karamoja face extinction.

These two words have several usages, some interchangeable. Check the
dictionary to be sure.
You cannot expect to stamp out corruption by stamping your feet.
Government provided Shs 5 billion and donors stumped up the
rest of the money.
The secretary stamped the documents.

Write Right, Tight

Stationary means not moving.
We buy books, pens and files from a stationery shop.
If a building has 12 storeys (floors), in British English we speak of a
12-storeyed (NOT storied) structure.
But we can also say a 12-storey or a 12-floor building.
One word
Look again; which one did you mean to write?
After the rain subsided, the meeting started, villagers demanding
subsidised fertilisers.

These are often confused: what we wear or whats before court is a suit.
There is also the verb to suit.
The rest are suites.
He has filed a legal suit against her in the High Court.
Many lawyers wear black suits to court.
Our hotel is called Prime Suites.
The hotel has a presidential suite and four bridal suites.
I have to buy another Adobe suite.

This is an adjective, not a verb.
This tantamountedwas tantamount to treason.
The bills were tabled in 2010 by Hope Mwesigye. At the time, she was
the minister.
The bills were tabled in 2010 by thenthe then minister, Hope Mwesigye.
NOT fare

Often Confused Words/Phrases

One trouser is just for one leg (so, you cant wear atrouser).
I have bought a pair of trousers.
My new trousers are already torn.


Tens of thousands of people turned up for the UB40 concert last week.
This means the turnout (NOT turn-up) was very impressive.
Before going for the concert, I took my trousers to the tailor to fix the
UNHCR is the United Nations High Commissioner (NOT
commission) for Refugees.
UNHCR means both the UN agency responsible for refugees as well
as the head of this agency. Strange but true.

Officially, the term varsity is an adjectival contraction of university not
a noun. But newspaper editors desperate for a short word for a headline
now write Makerere varsity.
The varsity football team has travelled to Nairobi.
BUT: Ndejje varsity University has reopened.

The Kiswahili word for citizens is wananchi NOT Wanainchi
The word well is often combined with other words to form compound
adjectives: well-done, well-regarded, well-played, etc.
Two points to note, according to the Macmillan dictionary.
When used before a noun, keep the hyphen in.
E.g.: A well-done job or a well-bred dog.
But when the compound appears after the noun, you can leave out
the hyphen.
E.g. He said my work was well done. OR: The dog was simply well

Write Right, Tight

The West: Capital W is used when referring to Europe and America6.
Avoid writing whom, when you mean who.
Generally, whom is used where who is accompanied by such a preposition
as to, with, for, under, etc.
Be hesitant to use whom where it refers to the subject of the sentence.
This is the man whom who donated the bull.
She is the woman to whom the animal was given.
For Whom the Bell Tolls was written by Ernest Hemingway, who
was born in America.
Youth groups entertained the audience, singing praises of Amama
Mbabazi, whomwho they wished would declare his presidential bid.

Beat or defeat an opponent; win the match or fight.
Manchester United can beat Arsenal but they cannot win Arsenal.
Instead they win the game or the contest.

Windbreak refers to trees meant to guard against extreme wind
or clothes or other shields for the same purpose e.g., on a beach;
windbreaker is a type of jacket used against wind or rain.

Some polite reporters think its rude to call a woman a woman. So, they
call Joseph a businessman but Maria becomes a business lady!
Under normal circumstances, for instance in hard news reporting, a
woman is a woman.
Do not feel pressured to call a woman a lady unless you have a
compelling contextual reason.

6 But some Ugandans use west to refer to western Uganda. It might be better
to use the latter so as not to confuse it with West (Europe and America). Or if
we must use west, then we can keep it lower case.

Often Confused Words/Phrases

To worm your way into/through something means to go slowly or
using clever methods.
To warm someones heart means to make someone happy or

One teenager/young adult (aged between 14 and 35) is a youth
(countable noun).
Several of these people are called youths.
A countrys youthful population taken as a whole can be referred
to as its youth (plural; uncountable).
E.g. Ugandas youth have been short-changed by the education
Youth (uncountable) also means the period of your life from teenage
to about 35 years).
E.g. In her youth, she was the citys best-known, heart-stopping
Youth (adj) can be used to mean that something is related to or has
to do with youths.
E.g. Youth unemployment is very high in Uganda or The Youth
Livelihood Programme has been launched.


Structural Matters

A good story thrives not just on its content but also on its structure as
well as design. Good writers spend lots of valuable time grappling with
where to start the story, or where to put which paragraph, and what to
follow it up with.
Part of the writers mission is to craft a story with a logical structure,
giving specific pieces of information at the precise points the discerning
reader would expect them. Obviously, second-guessing the reader is a
huge task, but a good structure is integral to excellent writing.

Where was All This?

A common problem with stories especially straight news stories is the
failure by writers to locate action/speech in time and place early enough.
Some stories go on for hundreds of words without telling the reader
where and when the story incident occurred.
For instance, the intro quotes the chief justice as having lamented the
rising incidence of corruption among magistrates. Paragraph 2 adds:
The chief justice said more magistrates were arrested for bribery in 2015
than in 2014 Paragraph 3 opens with a direct quote and ends with
the chief justice said. Paragraph 4 paraphrases what the chief justice
said about how the judiciary was letting the country down.
And then paragraph 6 opens thus: The chief justice was speaking at a
two-day workshop for magistrates organised by the Uganda Judicial
By this stage, the reader has been asking him/herself: where was this?
Was this in an interview with the reporter? When was this? And each
successive paragraph has not answered those questions.

Structural Matters

Obviously the writer could argue that the reader will find the information
as long as it is in the story. But good writers structure their writing to
deliberately guide the reader to proceed smoothly without prompting
disruptive questions.
One way around this problem is to answer some basic questions as early
as possible and let the reader proceed smoothly.
Para. 1: Chief Justice Benjamin Mutungi has decried the rising
incidence of corruption among magistrates in Uganda.
Para. 2: Speaking at a two-day workshop for magistrates at Serena
hotel yesterday, Justice Mutungi said more judges were
arrested for bribery in 2015 than in 2014.
Paragraph 3 might bring a quote, followed by information about the
organisers of the workshop, before the story continues according to the
chosen scope.
Another option, which allows you to postpone this basic information by
a paragraph or two, employs what you could call a present tense fallacy.
By using the present tense, it is as if the story is happening right here
and now which has the psychological effect of holding off questions
about where and when.
This style is mostly used in features. But you can use it even in hard news
provided you move smoothly from the present tense to the past. Lets
try this with the magistrates workshop mentioned above.
P1: President Museveni has vowed to ensure that any soldier guilty
of corruption rots in jail.
P2: Museveni argues that because courts have been lenient, soldiers
now rank among the most corrupt public servants in the country.
P3: I can no longer afford to look on as my soldiers become leeches
on the people of Uganda, and I will personally ensure that thieves
rot in jail, the president told a magistrates workshop in Entebbe
A word of caution here: jumping from one tense to another has its own
risks. If you have employed the above approach in a hard news story,
it may be safer to stick to the past tense for the remaining part of your
reporting from the event.

Write Right, Tight

But assuming you wanted to introduce another voice for example a

criminology professor from the university you can still employ the
present tense to introduce the criminologist and his view on Musevenis
P8: However, a leading Makerere University criminologist believes
Museveni has little choice if police detectives and state prosecutors
continue to file weak cases in court.
P9: It is good that the president is angry about corruption, but anger
alone will not keep the corrupt in prison, Dr Mohamed Kayihura
told The Kampala Chronicle by phone last evening. What the
president should do is to overhaul, staff and equip the investigative
and prosecution units of the state.

Rushed Background / Quotes

Sometimes background information and direct quotes are introduced
too soon and too abruptly, leaving readers irritated.
Let us think of the reader as a visitor and the story as your home. Even
before your visitor has sat down, you are already bringing a direct
quote about the matter for discussion. Or before the visitor knows the
substantive matter, you introduce four paragraphs of history that dates
seven years back.
P1: Health minister Peter Okello has urged nurses and midwives to
live for their patients or leave their jobs.
P2: If I hear again that a nurse has neglected a patient with fatal
consequences, I will ensure that the culprit goes to jail, Okello
P3: Mr Okello added that the oath of service health workers take
requires them to fully dedicate themselves to the welfare of their
patients and doing otherwise would be a form of fraud.
The story starts well, but the quote in paragraph 2 is too abrupt, just as
the reader expects to get the where and when of the story.
Moreover, as the writer introduces the quote, he misses an opportunity
to provide that basic information.

Structural Matters

It would be smoother to usher your visitor into your living room,

introduce the issue and main parties, and then let people speak (direct
quotes) or give them pertinent background or context.
However, if the writer had used the intro to answer the when (or, to a
lesser extent, where) question, this problem would have been significantly
P1: Health minister Peter Okello yesterday urged nurses and midwives
to live for their patients or leave their jobs.
P2: If I hear again that a nurse has neglected a patient with fatal
consequences, I will ensure that the culprit goes to jail, Okello
told the National Nurses Conference in Entebbe.
Admittedly, sometimes its difficult for a reader to follow the story
without getting a bit of the background. But if some of the background
is to come in the second paragraph, it ought to be kept to the minimum
needed to follow the story. The rest of it can be served in smaller bits at
appropriate junctures later in the story.
Perhaps we can remind ourselves of the structure of a very basic news story
(below the headline). Some simplify the basic structure into headline,
lead and body. But perhaps it would be helpful to nuance the body so
as to ensure a smooth structure. This is where, again, planning becomes
important that the writer spends time thinking what should follow
what for the story to have the power it deserves.

A Basic News Story Structure

1. The lead (intro) - captures the essence as compellingly, yet as
concisely, as possible.
2. Backup to the lead builds on the lead, explains impact, and
adds aspects of the 5Ws+H excluded from the intro.
3. Major quote encapsulates and advances the story.
4. Urgent context/background information.
5. More detailed reporting as per the story plan, interspersed
with more quotes, context and background at appropriate


Style & Elegance

The Sentence
It is difficult to discuss good writing without a detour on the sentence,
a basic unit of communicated action. A sentence is made up of words
and groups of words known as clauses. At the very basic level, a clause
includes a subject and a verb.
If we can fix the health of our sentences, we can fix many of the problems
in our writing.

Parts of a Sentence
A basic sentence has two essential parts a subject and a verb often
(but not always) with an object.
Subject + verb (+ object) S + V (+O).
The subject is the agent or doer of the action, the verb is the action word,
and the object is the recipient or sufferer of the action.
The main clause of a sentence must include the subject and the verb (plus
the object if necessary) and should be able to make sense on its own.
But the minor clause although it adds meaning to the main clause
would not make sense without the main one.

Style & Elegance

For example:
Subject Verb Object
Trump triumphed
Raila Odinga attacked Uhuru Kenyatta
The doctor ignored our patient
The Speaker will control the MPs
Thinking about this relationship at the revision stage, a writer should, at
the back of their mind, be able to ask themselves: which is the subject,
which is the verb and which is the object? This can help us revise dense
sentences into shorter, clearer units.

Complex Sentences
The S+V+O sentence is, however, only what you would call a simple
sentence as opposed to a complex one.
In a complex sentence, besides the main or independent clause of S+V
(+O), you also have a subordinate clause. These subordinate clauses are
usually introduced by subordinating conjunctions such as although,
as, when, because, if, as long as, or as much as.
You will notice that subordinate clauses cannot make sense on their own
(without being part of the main clause). Two, the sentence still makes
sense if you remove the subordinate clause.

Subordinate clause Main clause

Because of the post-election Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto
violence, were investigated by the International
Criminal Court.
As long as they do not work writers are bound to produce inferior
hard, copy.

Compound Sentences
According to the Macmillan dictionary, a compound sentence contains
two or more independent clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction.
Hence while complex sentences have subordinating conjunctions,
compound sentence clauses are held together by coordinating words
such as but, and, or.

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Independent clause 1 Coordinating Independent clause II

I badly wanted to see him but he said he was not well
The minister has been because the president felt he was
dismissed incompetent
When you add adjectives, adverbs and subordinate and independent
clauses, a sentence can become dense and harder to follow.

Subject+ Subordinate Adverb Verb Object

Adjective clause +Adjective
A resplendent whose father served repeatedly attacked the
Raila in the Independence youthful
Odinga, government of Jomo Uhuru
Kenyatta, Kenyatta.
The moody angered by our completely ignored our dying
doctor, refusal to pay patient.
for gloves in a
government hospital
where services are
supposed to be free,
You may have noticed that as we add details to the sentence, we delay
the communication of the main action (verb) which is the major
point of the sentence. In the second example above, the basic sentence
is that the doctor ignored the patient (five words); but our elaborate
sentence is 27 words long, and you have to read another 22 words to
know what the doctor did.
Writers need to be alert, to know when they are adding too much detail
and making the sentences tedious. Even when adding valuable details, a
good sentence needs to quickly and clearly communicate its main action.

Mixed Lengths
We are often advised to write shorter sentences, but this is not just
a word-counting principle. Shorter sentences are expected to deliver
meaning quicker and more clearly.7

7 However, sometimes writers prefer long sentences on account of rhythm and

flow, which can be curtailed by short sentences.

Style & Elegance

When The Observer was starting in 2004, founding MD Kevin Aliro

advised writers to aim at 15-22 words per sentence especially the intro.
Needless to say, that was only a guideline, albeit a very important one.
Since a sentence is a unit of meaning, a writer or sub-editor needs to
step back and ask how many different ideas are crammed in the 39-word
sentence. The writer then has to decide if the different ideas cant be put
in two or three different sentences so that the reader easily follows the
Here is the opening part of an April 2016 story that came in the middle
of the bitter race for Speaker of Parliament between incumbent Rebecca
Kadaga and her deputy Jacob Oulanyah. Look particularly at the second
paragraph, a single sentence of 46 words:
Deputy Speaker of Parliament Jacob Oulanyah yesterday
sought to regain the initiative in the race for Speaker by
defending his record in the 2005 removal of term limits and
his tenure in the Ninth Parliament.
Mr Oulanyah, who is seeking endorsement of NRM to wrest
the countrys third office from his boss, Ms Rebecca Kadaga,
said in an interview that the 2005 removal of term limits
was determined at plenary stage after the committee he was
chairing failed to reach consensus.
There are two main ideas in the 46-word sentence: what Oulanyah wants,
and what he said yesterday about 2005.
We could put a full stop at Kadaga, giving us two sentences of 19-words
and 27 words:
Mr Oulanyah is seeking endorsement of NRM to wrest the
countrys third-highest office from his boss, Ms Rebecca
Kadaga. He said in an interview that the 2005 removal of term
limits was determined at plenary stage after the committee he
was chairing failed to reach consensus.
But the writer could even agree that the first sentence (background) did
not have to come so early in the story.
Yet long sentences are not banned. In fact some ideas are better
communicated through sentences of 40 words than those of 14.

Write Right, Tight

As writers get better, they master the art of the long sentence, and deliver
it with elegant poise and singing sweetness.
Experts often recommend that writers mix sentences of different length,
depending on the desired pace or literary effect.
Shorter, simpler sentences mean the reader gains pace. But they can also
come in handy at points of high complexity, where each full stop works
like a speed bump. On the other hand, longer complex sentences almost
always slow the reader down.
A good writer may follow a series of long sentences with a short one
to dramatic effect. In the example on Page 87, the opening sentence is
61 words long! But it is followed by a sentence of four words, then 15
words, 5 6 4 11 8 6 44 16 words.
Now, this was a stop-the-press story, and the author would probably
have revised it better if he had the time. But the point is in the lengths
of the successive sentences.

Decongest Intros/Sentences
The length and shape of sentences can especially be an issue for the
intro of the story. A good opening sentence needs to be punchy, clear
and uncluttered so that it draws the reader in.
Open with a clumsy, muddled maze and the reader could flee to the next
story, promising to read this later. Often later never comes.
Compare these two openings to a story.
Shaken by the fast dwindling water levels of River Rwizi, the
main source of water for 10 districts, John Ssemujju, a local
council (LC1) chairman of Kasanyaraze Cell in Mbarara
municipality, points the finger of blame at encroachers on
wetlands upstream, who he says contaminate and shrink the
river.(original; 50 words)
The published version had two paragraphs of 20 & 26
Frightened by the dwindling water levels of River Rwizi in
Mbarara, local leader John Ssemujju blames encroachers on
wetlands upstream.

Style & Elegance

The local council chairman of Kasanyaraze cell in Mbarara

municipality says the encroachers contaminate and shrink the
river, the main source of water for 10 districts.
Not perfect, but more readable.

Keep Subject and Verb Closer

One strategy to deliver meaning earlier and more smoothly is to keep
the subject and verb of your sentence closer to each other.
Consider this sentence:
Mr Chrysostom Ssebanakitta, who was onetime Ugandas
high commissioner to the republics of Kenya, Tanzania and
South Africa, and who was famously threatened with castration
by the head of the police, has died.
After establishing the subject (Ssebanakitta), you have to endure 28
words to find out what Ssebanakitta has done (died).
Here is a 45-word sentence written by a young reporter:
Among other issues, the meetings, attended by FDC President
Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, his predecessor Kizza Besigye, DP
Secretary General Mathias Nsubuga, Gilbert Bukenya and
Hope Mwesigye (who led a three-member delegation that
represented Mbabazi) among others, discussed and agreed
to form a transition government.
Thirty-two words separate the subject (meetings) and the verb (discussed).
This seems an obvious candidate for splitting into two sentences; one
containing the decision, the other the participants.
Another example of this is given by Roy Peter Clark, author of 50
Writing Tools:
A bill that would exclude tax income from the assessed value
of new homes from the state education funding formula could
mean a loss of revenue for Chesapeake County schools.
As Clark notes, there are 18 words between the subject (bill) and its
verb could mean. Try improving that sentence and see what you come
up with.

Write Right, Tight

According to Clark, one strategy is to relocate the subject and verb close
to the beginning, and let the rest of the sentence branch to the right.
Once the reader knows what has happened to Ssebanakitta, he/she can
read on calmly or empathetically. Or a reader uninterested in the details
on the right may choose to move to the next paragraph.
Here is another example of rewriting for clarity, simply by reorganising
the words to make meaning early:
He was seen in state minister for Tourism, Antiquities and Wildlife
Agnes Akirors official car.
He was seen in the official car of Agnes Akiror, the state minister
for Tourism, Antiquities and Wildlife.

You will also find this where reporters are attributing direct quotes. In
the sentence below, you have to wade through 11words and two commas
to know what happened to Mr Okello:
I cannot and will not go against the wishes of the international
community, Mr Okello, 83, who was a United Nations
under-secretary-general in the 1970s, said.
This can be improved by placing the verb (said) just before the subject
(Mr Okello).
I cannot and will not go against the wishes of the international
community, said Mr Okello, 83, a United Nations under-
secretary-general in the 1970s.
Any matter that comes on the floor comes with the leave of
the Speaker, and that is the starting point; so, if there are any
lapses, then he is responsible, Jinja Municipality East MP,
Paul Mwiru, who was speaking after a heated argument with
Oulanyah in the South Committee room, said.

Style & Elegance

Any matter that comes on the floor comes with the leave of
the Speaker, and that is the starting point; so, if there are any
lapses, then he is responsible, said Jinja Municipality East
MP Paul Mwiru, after a heated argument with Oulanyah in
the South Committee room.

Monotony and the Sound of Writing

Coaches advise writers to read their sentences out loud and listen. Good
writing should sing like music, the voice rising and falling, with rhyme
and rhythm, with variety.

First Lines
While revising your story, pay some attention to how your sentences/
paragraphs begin. Within a paragraph, two or more consecutive sentences
that start exactly the same way (whether in structure or word choice)
can make tedious reading.
Para. 6: Responding to the criticism, Mr Mwesigye vowed to expose
the liars in his constituency who he accused of tarnishing his
Para. 7: Turning to the women groups to his left, Mwesigye wondered
how they could side with his opponent despite his sacrifices
for them.
Para. 8: Without mincing words, Mwesigye swore that he would not
accept defeat because the election had already been rigged
by local media.
During revision, you could leave paragraph P7 intact but change P6
and P8:
P6: Mr Mwesigye rejected the criticism and vowed to expose the liars
in his constituency, who he accused of tarnishing his name.
P8: He swore that he would not accept defeat because, as he put it,
the election had already been rigged by local media.

Some writers seek a flowing transition from one sentence/paragraph to
the next, only to end up with sterile prose. Beware of your clich words
and phrases those that you tend to overuse. Some of the common

Write Right, Tight

victims include however, yet, in addition to, besides, furthermore,

nevertheless, although and even but although or but however.
As you have figured out, such obsession with flow results into monotony.
You can search the text (ctrl+F) for the particular word to see the
frequency and spacing of the usage. Then you will not have every third
sentence start with however or but or in addition.
Transitions themselves are not bad. In fact, persuasive writers employ
them to keep readers seamlessly rushing from one paragraph onto another.
But overuse of a limited range of transitions does not work. The internet
offers inexhaustible resources on this topic. I found a useful list of 52
transitional words and phrases on one site8: they included alternatively,
altogether, by comparison, considering this, incidentally, on the
whole, and surprisingly.
Usually the catch is in defining the relationship between the last
paragraph and the one you are transitioning to, which helps to focus
your search for the perfect transition. To that end, the Writing Centre9 of
Texas A & M University lists several categories of transitions, including
sequence, comparison, cause and effect, time and example.
Yet to avoid the risk of sounding monotonous if every paragraph starts
with a bridge, sometimes the best transition to use is none. Careful
juxtaposition of a particular idea after another can work in such a way
that the second paragraph is seen to naturally flow from the first without
needing a conventional bridging word.

Writing Positively
Style experts argue that positive sentences yield stronger and more concise
language. Still, many people, especially politicians, often use ambiguous,
negative sentences:
Buying a new presidential jet is not the most useful thing for this
country at this moment, the opposition leader said.
This does not mean we should report the opposition leader as having said
that the presidential jet is useless. When writers paraphrase other people,

8 http://impertinentremarks.com/2013/03/52-transitional-phrases-to-keep-
9 http://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/

Style & Elegance

they must strive to reflect the meaning of the Speaker. But whenever we
can, let us avoid wordy, imprecise negative reportage:
The man who came was not tall. (i.e., he was short)
The traffic was not flowing fast at all. (The traffic was slow)

Avoiding Wordiness
Writers tend to reflect the spoken language in a given context. But the
discipline of written language requires us to prune our sentences of
much of the verbiage.

This is a topic that evokes This topic evokes
Mr Olal, who is the MD of Mr Olal, MD of
The word is used for attribution The word is (used) for attribution.
He uttered statements of an He uttered undiplomatic
undiplomatic nature. statements.

Repeating Words
One brevity trick is what Roy Peter Clark calls word autonomy. The
principle is that no key word should appear more than once in one
sentence or if you have your way in one paragraph. So, whenever
you see a key word reappearing in the same sentence, take that as an
invitation to cut out at least two or three words.
This also means that a writer should work towards expanding the variety
of key words available for use. Using different key words can help in
conveying meaning with precision and elegance.
Rewriting to eliminate the repetition almost always gives you a shorter
sentence. Consider this sentence:
Whereas gorilla tourism has thrived economically, there is rising
unease that communities are getting a raw deal out of the gorilla
tourism. (22 words)
The repetition of the phrase gorilla tourism could have been avoided.
One could rewrite this to:

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Whereas gorilla tourism has thrived, some fear that it is giving

communities a raw deal. (15 words)
Or consider revising this intro:
The National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises
(NUCAFE), a national coffee farmers organisation, has won the
Premagyan award. (20 words)
To this (pushing definition to the next para):
The National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises
(NUCAFE) has won the Premagyan award. (16 words)
Or even to this blind lead (pushing the name to the next paragraph):
A Ugandan coffee farmers organisation has won the Premagyan
award for what organisers called transformative work. (17 words)

The Stem and its Branch Clauses

Another image to consider in our quest for coherent complex sentences
is a tree. A living tree has leaves and branches sitting on the stem, which
is firmly rooted in the ground. If a branch is cut from the stem, that
branch will die. Sadly, we see endings to complex sentences that are
broken at the stem.
To appreciate this analogy, you have to identify the stem or trunk of
the sentence on which all leaves and branches must sit. In this example,
consider the part without the highlight as the trunk, and see if the various
highlighted parts would properly sit on the stem:
His daughter is a really bright girl and also very beautiful.
If you remove the green part, the sentence is disjointed. We can revise
this by rearranging the branches:
His daughter is a really bright and very beautiful girl.
If you removed really bright and, the remaining part would still be
sitting on the trunk as:
His daughter is a very beautiful girl.

Style & Elegance

Broken Fixed
The exercise was carried out The exercise was carried out in Masaka,
in Masaka, in Kampala, Kampala, Mbarara and Wakiso.
Mbarara and in Wakiso. OR
The exercise was carried out in Masaka,
in Kampala, in Mbarara and in Wakiso.

Positioning of Key Information

It is advisable to put the key words of your sentence either at the
beginning or at the end. The logic is that the reader is more likely to
grasp and remember what comes just after or just before a full stop. If
you studied some outstanding writers, and looked at the words at the
end of each sentence, you could find a pattern of powerful words.
Consider this passage from a speech by an opposition politician in an
African country:
This man captured power and promised a significant change,
but the country is in indignant rage. He promised to fight
corruption, but we are now ruled by greed. He said he would
strive for development but our country is now an enclave of
The last words: Rage, greed, decay.
The education budget has risen to Shs 1.2 trillion from Shs 800bn.
The education budget has risen from Shs 800bn to Shs 1.2 trillion.
The same principle explains why good writers often care how their stories
begin and how they end: How stories begin will determine if readers
attention is grabbed. How they end is what readers are likely to carry
with them as they move on.
BUT you can also put key words at the very beginning of the sentence.
They will especially become powerful if they are not the subject of the
sentence. (According to the S+V+O equation, the subject is expected

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to be at the beginning of the sentence and a normal subject would not

gain any additional force for being there.)
Beauty personified she was.

Mind Your Numbers

It is a common joke among some readers and editors that we journalists
cant count or that we failed mathematics. Thats not necessarily true.
We know many journalists who got distinctions in mathematics while
they studied it. Or in some cases it may well be true otherwise, maybe,
we would have been engineers. As many editors admitted in interviews,
our stories often mix up numbers and statistics, which only perpetuates
the stereotype about our numerical inadequacies.
But we dont have to be maths wizards to overcome this problem. The
late Observer newspaper founding MD Kevin Aliro often told his charges
that: Whenever you find a figure in a story, stop and think about it:
question it. Does it make sense?
That is useful advice for the writer and editor. You can highlight any
figure as you write and move on. During revision, you can go over that
figure and confirm that indeed it is accurate.
Numbers are important for telling a compelling story and impressing
key points upon the reader. But numbers and statistics can mislead and
misinform; so, a reporter and editor must stay alert and not be swayed
or intimidated by flashy numbers and impressive statistics. Context is
important. Crosscheck and verify.
Lets consider these examples:
1. Some 564 students received degrees and diplomas, 20 per cent
female and 73% male.
2. The World Bank has given Gulu district $15 million (Shs 502
billion) for fighting HIV/Aids. (*$1 = Shs 3,350)
3. The minister said that since 1986, Ugandas population had grown
from 14 million to 36 million a jump of 56 per cent.
Under pressure of deadlines, a reporter can write these figures, and
the editor can innocently assume that the author has got these basic
calculations right. But what if we apply Aliros prescription and cast a
fault-seeking eye at these figures?

Style & Elegance

Graduands: 20% female and 73% male? Does this add up? If you add
20 and 73, do you get 100%? No, you get 93%. So, are we telling the
reader that 7% (39) of the graduands were intersex people with both
male and female sex organs? Most unlikely.
This self-reflection could lead us to look for the right figures from the
reporters notebook or the fact sheet given out during the graduation
ceremony. If these do not help, we may have to call the university for
the correct figures.
Dollar conversion: So, Gulu district has got Shs 502 billion? That
sounds too big to be true! What is the budget for the ministry of health
or local government this financial year? Well, it could be true, but lets
calculate it again.
One dollar gets you Shs 3,350: if we multiply $15,000,000 by 3,350,
we get a more realistic Shs 50250000000.
A good reporter will try to simplify that figure by converting it to millions
or billions, but if you get one zero or comma wrong, you could create
an embarrassing mistake. Lets insert a comma before each three digits,
starting from the extreme right:
Shs 50,250,000,000.
This gives us Shs 50.25 billion. Not 502 billion.
According to Monitors Odoobo Bichachi, one step that can help is for
a newspaper to guide on which currency rates to use. For instance, can
we all go to the central bank website and use the days rates? Otherwise,
if we use different rates, we can end up with the same amount of dollars
converting to different amounts on different pages in the same edition
of the newspaper.
Population: There is nothing odd about the population growing by
56 per cent over several decades. After all, Ugandas population grows
faster than Usain Bolt runs. But what if we took that routine second
look at the figure?
A quick Google search will tell you that if a variable increases from 23
to 27, the percentage increase is (The new figure the old figure) / (the
old figure) X 100.
So, in the population figures, the percentage increase will be

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36 14 = 22
22/14 = 1.57
1.57 100 = 157%
So, actually the population has increased by 157% not 56%.

Over-writing and Adjectives

We are often reminded that stories need colour, detail, description or
something else to make readers feel or see what we are writing about.
And heaven knows we often try. But many an experienced editor will
admit there are times when they feel the writer is overdoing it. It is not
always clear, even to the editors, what constitutes overwriting, especially
when a reporter is describing things as they saw them. Perhaps intuitively,
we weed out some of the adjectives that the writer feels would concretise
his picture.
But that is as it should be.
In 50 Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark says that a good writer should know
when to back off and when to show off. Backing off means keeping
away your concretising adjectives, while showing off means indulging
Here is his formula: If the story is very serious, keep it plain and simple;
but if your story is light and lively, feel free to exaggerate.
Let us paint two scenarios: death in the city and a city carnival.

Plain Serious
When a great man or woman has died and his home is flooded by tears
of family and friends, there will certainly be people crying sorrowfully,
narrating sadly or recalling inconsolably. Yet you are often surprised by
how simply great writers report such events. Despite the temptation to
outdo yourself and make the reader feel, this is the time to back off and
let the plain facts do the talking. One argument is that if a moment is
so sad, then the reader is already weighed down and they do not need a
heavily adjectival emotional overload.
The death of Nelson Mandela is one such emotionally leaden story. But
lets look at how the British Guardian and the BBC websites started the
stories announcing his passing.

Style & Elegance

Nelson Mandela, the towering figure of Africas struggle for
freedom and a hero to millions around the world, has died
at the age of 95.
South Africas first black president died in the company of his
family at home in Johannesburg after years of declining health
that had caused him to withdraw from public life

South Africas first black president and anti-apartheid icon
Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95.
Mr Mandela led South Africas transition from white-minority
rule in the 1990s, after 27 years in prison for his political
He had been receiving intensive medical care at home for a
lung infection after spending three months in hospital.
Announcing the news on South African national TV, President
Jacob Zuma said Mr Mandela was at peace

Party of Words
In contrast, if you are reporting a great national victory or a fairy tale
wedding, you are free to throw in all the colour or adjectives that capture
the mood and spread the joy. Obviously a quality media house will not
accept ludicrous embellishments or concoctions, but it is too serious a
writer that cannot notice and take advantage of a happy moment.
Here is an extract from The Observer websites reporting of Stephen
Kiprotichs gold medal heroics in 2012:
In a feat now already etched in Ugandas sporting history, an
achievement that will be talked about for generations to come,
a success that catapulted an entire nation from a dead silence
to the highest scales of ecstasy, Stephen Kiprotich ran the race
of his life to win GOLD in the marathon on the closing day
of the London 2012 Olympics.
The reaction was indescribable. In London, the best-selling
Sun newspaper spoke of a shock win for the 23-year-old

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Ugandan. For many, it was disbelief. A few managed to get

excited. Then it was ululation.
And disbelief again what if he will be disqualified for
And then, it all started to sink in. Uganda was the Olympic
marathon champion. For the first time since John Akii Bua
stormed the big stage by winning the 400 metre hurdles in
Munich in 1972, Stephen Kiprotich had run a race many
Ugandan athletes dream of, but only a few ever run a race
of Olympic gold. On a day remarkable for its summer heat,
Kiprotich proved the hottest man in the pack.

Chorus Attribution?
When we put words in double quotation marks, we are telling the
reader that these are the specific words that were said by the person we
are quoting.
But sometimes you have direct quotes attributed to more than one
person. The reader is left wondering whether the quoted people were
reading from a written statement:
When the right time comes, the party organs will make
a decision and if they choose Museveni, he will stay, the
officials told journalists.
This is most probably inaccurate.
The reporter probably talked to a number of officials who severally made
the same point. He then chose to quote one of the officials, but used the
plural attribution to show that other people said the same thing.
Rather than say the officials said, we could write: One of the officials

Confusing Proximity
If we quote Mr Byamah and follow this immediately with another quote
attributed to Mr Okello, we risk creating disruptive confusion in the
readers mind. Yes, we eventually clarify the confusion, but why not
avoid it altogether? Consider these two consecutive paragraphs from a
story in which local leaders spoke about a meeting they had held with

Style & Elegance

former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who had not yet declared his
presidential ambitions:
He also told us that he could not just start running for
president. He added that he had not even discussed it with
Museveni, but was a loyal cadre, said Nelson Natukunda,
LC III chairman for Kihiihi sub-county, after a meeting with
Mbabazi in April 2014.
He insisted that there was no problem between him and Mr
Museveni, said Joseph Amanyire from Ndorwa.
After the first paragraph, you think that the second quote also belongs
to Mr Nelson Natukunda only to reach the end and find that it was
said by Amanyire. If you have nothing to put between the two quotes,
one option is to start the second quote by introducing the Speaker. That
way the reader knows upfront that we have moved on from Natukunda.
Joseph Amanyire, from Ndorwa, added of Mbabazi: He
insisted that there was no problem between him and Mr

Ordering Adjectives
One of the teasing aspects of English is the order of words: what comes
first when you have several adjectives in a sentence? Often most of us
simply follow our ear, but there is something close to a formula. (Of
course all formulas can be defied for a reason, but its worthwhile to
know them).

Place First, Then Time

Often the place comes before time. So, its location first. If it will aid
memory, we can think here about a real estate maxim: the value of a
property depends on location, location and location. If we have two or
more layers of place, we may start with the smaller location.
Lets look at these sentences:
1. This place is a paragon of reliability, Dr Okao said in
Bunamwaya on Tuesday at the company offices.
2. Some 8,000 cases of explosives, narcotics and ivory are tracked by
dogs every year within the country.

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3. The money was delivered on June 17 to the boda boda leaders by

Kinkiizi East MP Chris Baryomunsi during the official unveiling
of the Mitano temporary bridge.
Initially, one may not notice anything with these sentences (after all, all
the information is there). But read them out loud and a discerning reader
will find themselves halting. Lets attempt to apply the location first rule.
1. This place is a paragon of reliability, Dr Okao said at the
company offices in Bunamwaya on Tuesday.
2. Some 8,000 cases of explosives, narcotics and ivory are tracked by
dogs within the country every year.
3. The money was delivered to the boda boda leaders by Kinkiizi East
MP Chris Baryomunsi during the official unveiling of the Mitano
temporary bridge on June 17.
But as stated earlier, any of the guidelines/principles in this handbook
can be ignored to good effect. Sentence 3 can also be written thus.
The money was delivered to the boda boda leaders by Kinkiizi
East MP Chris Baryomunsi on June 17, during the official
unveiling of the Mitano temporary bridge.
Note that the second option comes with a comma mid-sentence. That
comma, when the sentence is read out loud, brings a certain acoustic

When What?
Sometimes you switch place and time around to avoid confusion or
improve clarity of the sentence.
Imagine it is Thursday in Kampala and the president says:
I am going to get this issue resolved once and for all.
Obeying the place before time rule, the Sunday paper reporter writes:
The president said in Kampala that he was going to get the issue
resolved on Thursday.
Of course the president spoke on Thursday but did not say when he
would handle the matter. Yet the reporters sentence suggests that the
issue will be addressed on Thursday.
The correct sentence should have been:

Style & Elegance

The president said in Kampala on Thursday that he was going to

get the issue resolved.

OSACoNaM Hierarchy
Away from adjectives of time and place, sometimes we combine three
or four adjectives to describe one noun. An editor will feel a certain
ordering of adjectives does not flow well. But what is flowing well? Or
is it down to the editors ear?
Opinion may be divided, but some writing resources give this hierarchy:
opinion, size, age, colour, nationality, material.

Opinion Size Age Colour Nationality Material

ugly short new red American woollen
cheap small used yellow Korean wooden
boring fat old brown Japanese plastic
That, of course, presupposes that you might need all these adjectives
plastered on one noun, but rarely will this situation arise.
She wore a fancy, long, red, Italian cotton dress.
He badly missed his girlfriend, a sexy, petite, young, light-skinned
African American woman.
A variant of this formula appears as: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-
It may not be possible to exhaust such a nuanced discussion here, but
a quick internet search will yield several resources for a keen writer to
explore. The point is that as a keen writer, you know that some orderings
will be smooth for the reader, while others will present speed bumps for
someone cruising through your work.

Isolated Pronouns
After three or four paragraphs of context, background and quotes, a
reporter may want to use a pronoun for one of the characters he last
referred to by name. But by simply using a pronoun, you risk having
readers going back to establish who exactly your pronoun refers to. To
avoid this, after a detour, it is better to use the characters name (and
maybe even title).

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P3: Education minister Jessica Alupo sneered at attempts to set up a

committee to probe her ministry.
P4: She argued that if there were any shortcomings, they were minor
and did not warrant what would be a disruptive investigation.
(This is followed by four paragraphs of context and background)
P9: She reasoned that it would be impossible to expect teachers to
know all the domestic problems children face at home.
The pronoun she would be better replaced with Minister Alupo, at
least for clarity.

Misallocated Pronouns
This is a very common problem, although few readers/editors think of
it as such: it has to do with a scenario where, for instance, the writer is
referring to the king, but then uses the reference she.
Let us refer to the S+V+O relationship we saw earlier in a complex
The king beat up the traders because they had dared to insult his
wife, the queen.
This compound sentence reports two actions:
One is in the first clause: The king beat up the traders.
(S) + (V) + (O)
Then the second clause: The traders insulted the queen.
(S) + (V) + (O)
Some journalists might write the full sentence in a reversed manner,
starting with the minor clause:
Because they [S] insulted [V] the queen [O], the king[S] beat
up [V] the traders [O].
Can you spot the problem?
With this latter construction, the noun referred to by the pronoun in the
first clause must be the same as the noun referred to at the start of the
second clause. Above, the first clause has they (traders) as its subject,
but the second clause starts by referring to the king as the subject.

Style & Elegance

Once we have mastered that principle, we can figure out how to rewrite
the sentence. Lets try:
Option 1: Because they insulted the queen, the traders were
beaten up by the king.
Here they in the first clause refers to the traders at the start of the
second clause.
Now, obviously you may not like the passive voice imposed on you by
this principle, but you can rewrite the sentence in the active voice:
Angry that the traders had insulted the queen, the king beat
them up.
It is the king who was angry, and it is the same king who beat the
Look at more examples of problematic sentences from our writing:
Two years after he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for
killing a 12-year-old boy in Masaka by the High Court, the Court of
Appeal yesterday upheld that sentence against businessman Godfrey
Kato Kajubi.
Obviously this 38-word sentence from one of our newspapers has other
problems, but lets focus on the misused pronoun (he). So, is the writer
suggesting that the Court of Appeal is the one that was convicted? Lets
Two years after he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for
killing a 12-year-old boy in Masaka by the High Court, businessman
Godfrey Kato Kajubi yesterday lost his appeal in the Court of Appeal.
Lets look at another example:
Murdered for exposing the affair, Sandra buried Okello at Nabweru.
The above sentence leaves a reader wondering how a woman who was
already murdered managed to bury Okello! Can you try to rewrite it?
OR consider this excerpt from an October 2016 article by a leading
Ugandan lawyer:
As a regulator, how could Crane Bank not only have failed to
meet its statutory minimum requirements but also dipped to
at least 50% or below the statutory minimum requirement?
As a regulator vested with the power to ensure compliance

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with all the provisions of the law..., how did BOU completely
miss this to justify the takeover premised on the bank having
been significantly undercapitalised?
A discerning reader might be left wondering if BOU and Crane Bank
are both regulators. The first sentence suggests that Crane Bank is a
regulator. The second means BOU is the regulator.


Punctuation & Grammar

First, let us clear up confusion that often crops up between grammar

and punctuation. Grammar can be taken as the system of classification
of words and their usage in sentences. Punctuation, on the other hand,
refers to the usage of specified marks to govern relationships between
words and phrases.
Its not unusual to hear reporters talk openly that they do not understand
punctuation or even denigrate editors who painstakingly try to make
their stories readable. Such reporters see grammar and punctuation as
irritants that need to be done away with.
That is unfortunate, because punctuation and grammar are taken
seriously by serious media houses. Editors break into stress-relieving
laughter every once in a while after catching grammar flaws that would
have embarrassed their media houses.
The internet is full of examples of sentences whose meaning can be
dramatically changed by missing or misplacing a comma or some other
punctuation mark.
Compare: Besigye said Museveni is responsible for terrorising police
With: Besigye, said Museveni, is responsible for terrorising police
Or: In 1998, Lwanga said Museveni was still a good man.
With: In 1998, Lwanga said, Museveni was still a good man.
In each pair, the comma changes the meaning of the sentence: in the first
pair, the first sentence means it was Besigye who made the statements.
But the second sentence means it was Museveni who spoke about Besigye.

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In the second pair, the first sentence means that Lwanga spoke in 1998.
On the other hand, the second sentence does not tell us when Lwanga
spoke. It only tells us when Museveni was still a good man in 1998.
Each writer could do with a periodic crash course in punctuation and
grammar and there are many available on the internet. Even the most
experienced writers will learn something new regarding a particular
aspect each time they take a five-minute refresher.
Here are a few grammar issues that keep coming up even from good

The Semicolon
The semicolon (;) is a regular irritant for good sub-editors because it
is frequently misused.
Here is a summary of what the semicolon does:
1. As a soft full stop, the semicolon separates two or more closely
related sentences. In this case for you to know if you have used
the semicolon well, replace it with a full stop and see if the two
sentences make perfect sense.
Mornings in London are extremely cold; the sweater and jacket
are my best friends.
A politician and a serious journalist should not really be friends;
most of the time they are simply using each other.
* Notice how the commas at cold and friends have been replaced with
2. A separator of compound or complex items: The semicolon is
used to separate phrasal items in a list. These phrases could be
several words long, or some items could already include a comma
such that it would confuse the reader to use a separation comma.
The project will be jointly implemented by the ministries of
finance, planning and economic development; agriculture,
animal industry and fisheries; and gender, labour and social
Joking with her sister, Cindy said her ideal man had to meet
the following criteria: be able to build her a seaside mansion
with a good view of the waterfront; buy her a red car capable of

Punctuation & Grammar

reaching 240 km/hr in eight seconds; and take her for a holiday
in a different continent each year.

Unwanted Semicolons & Missing Commas

Other districts are;areAmuria, Moroto, Kisoro and Kabale.
The letter has been copied to justices;justices Steven Kavuma,
Nshimye, Tibatemwa, Eldad Mwangusya, and Geoffrey
Kiryabwire, among others.
* NO semicolon is needed at justices or at are in the previous sentence.
The semicolon does not announce a list.
* Notice the comma at the end of a list just before among others.
The president highlighted several challenges facing the roads
sector in the western region, including shoddy works and
corruption during compensation.
* Comma inserted just before the gerund including.
Solomon paid attention to every word the minister said, taking
notes between sips of his soda.
* Comma inserted just before the gerund taking.

The Two-Comma Principle

Non-restrictive relative clauses are offset by two commas, splitting the
sentence into three parts.
Maj General Peter Dong, a brother of President Saul
Mandong, has fled the country.
But even good writers often only put one comma, ignoring the advice of
Strunk and White in Elements of Style its a lesser sin to have no comma
than to have only one. Indeed to a keen user of language, the sentence
below is only saved by the hope that the reader will understand.
Mutesi, who lost her father to HIV/Aids spoke about sleeping on the
streets 12 years ago.
*Second comma is needed after Aids.
One test to know if you have used this principle well is to try removing
the non-restrictive clause and its two commas and see if the remaining
sentence makes perfect sense.

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The judge said the suspect, for reasons best known to himself, had
murdered his wife.
Removing the highlighted clause would give you:
The judge said the suspect had murdered his wife.

Restrictive Clauses
But no commas are needed for restrictive clauses
A journalist who has no ethics is a ticking time bomb.

The two-comma principle does not apply to the above sentence. If we
tried to write it with commas, it would look like this:
A journalist, who has no ethics, is a ticking time bomb.

If we tried to remove the highlighted part with its two commas, the
sentence would read:
A journalist is a ticking time bomb.
Now, it is false to suggest that any journalist is a time bomb. But more
importantly, it is not what the writer meant.

Double Attribution
Sometimes writers attribute a direct quote at the beginning and at the
Francis Akello, a group member from Teso, said: We might
be looking at one person as a problem, but we might be our
own enemies. Why are we manipulated? he said.
The immediate intervention is to delete the attribution at the end.
Alternatively, one could have written:
We might be looking at one person as a problem, but we
might be our own enemies. Why are we manipulated? said
Frances Akello, a group member from Teso.

Punctuation & Grammar

Lists and Items with And

As you will remember from our primary school days, we are told to
separate items in a list with a comma, with and preceding the last item.
He came with Tom, Tina and Trevor.
But imagine your list comprises three ministries:
Education and Sports
Many people will write:
The president praised the ministries of Health, Finance, Education
and Sports.
To a reader, this suggests that Education is one ministry and Sports is
another, which is not the case in Uganda. If one of the items in the list
already includes an and, you still need another and before the last item:
The president praised the ministries of Health, Finance, and
Education and Sports.
* You have most probably noticed the comma after Finance, contrary
to what we learnt in school. As noted earlier in this book, language keeps
changing: more and more writers now take the liberty to put that extra
Oxford or serial comma because they hear it when they read their lists
out loud. This is usually so where some or all of the listed items are two
or more words long e.g. Education and Sports.
According to the Oxford dictionary, the serial comma is optional, and
rightly so. In the above example of Tom, Tina and Trevor, I did not hear
a comma. Yet I can think of speakers who would pause so heavily after
Tina that a reporter would feel compelled to denote that with a comma.
This reminds us, then, that the comma is primarily a function of voice.

The Hyphen (-) and Dash ()

Many writers use these two interchangeably but they are different.
Hyphens are some of the most under-appreciated punctuation marks,
but they can be critical to good writing and clarity.

Write Right, Tight

On most computer keyboard the hyphen (-) is located just below the
underscore (_). It is often used to join words or link figures, for instance
in sports scores.
A seven-kilometre road journey.
A three-man panel of judges.
He is a five-year-old boy. (BUT no hyphens in: He is five years old)
He died on the Jinja-Kamuli road.
Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-0.
* Notice, as in the first three examples, that the modified noun, even if
in plural, takes the singular form: kilometre, man, year.
The hyphen or lack of it can dramatically change the meaning of a
sentence. Consider the following two sentences:
1. I saw a man-eating crocodile out there.
2. I saw a man eating crocodile out there.
Sentence 1 means you saw a crocodile that eats people.
Sentence 2 means you saw a man who was eating crocodile meat.
If you miss the hyphen when reading sentence 1, you could be
eaten by the crocodile.
But if you love crocodile and you mis-read the second sentence,
you may end up like a chicken that flees from maize seeds thrown
at it.

Omitting the Hyphen

As stated earlier, language is dynamic. Some previously hyphenated
compound adjectives now go without the little sleeping stick.
According to the BBC language-teaching website, compound adjectives
with adverbs ending in -ly dont need the hyphen whether they come
before or after the noun. For example:
This book discusses 180 commonly repeated mistakes.
We have only tackled mistakes that are commonly repeated.

The Dash
The dash is about twice the size of the hyphen or longer. A major
difference is that while the hyphen stands between words, the dash
separates phrases.

Punctuation & Grammar

There are two types of dashes:

The en dash () is called so because it is about the width of the letter n.
Then there is the em dash (), which is about the width of letter m
in your font.
In most cases however, especially in British English, the shorter en dash
is preferred many people finding this em dash a little too long and

Typing the En Dash

The dash is a little more difficult to type and its usage more complicated.
But once you have mastered it, it will be as easy as pasta to Italians. There
are at least two ways of typing the dash:

1. The dash automatically forms if you type a hyphen between two
spaced words or letters and you follow them with a space.
For example: A+space+hyphen+space+B+space
On inserting the last space, you will notice that the hyphen becomes
a dash. You can then delete A and B and remain with your dash.
* This method is also used to get the em dash, only that here you type
two successive hyphens instead of one.

Using Numeric Keypad

The above method works well once you get used to it. Trouble is if you
type two spaces somewhere, it will not work. So, you might find yourself
longing for a more controlled way to dash forward.
You can use your numeric keypad. If you are working on a desktop, thats
easy: just ensure that the NumLock or NumLk light on the right-side
numeric keypad is on.
Then, hold Alt down and type 0150 on the numeric keyboard (Alt+0150).
Once you release the last zero, the dash should appear.
* For the em dash the shortcut is Alt+0151

Write Right, Tight

Laptop Users
For laptop users, the trick is in finding your numeric keypad. Most users
I know never use the numeric keypad on their laptops and so would not
know where to find it. I wouldnt have known, either, if it werent for
the all-knowing Google.
Your laptop numeric keypad is superimposed on part of your main
keypad. You can notice that keys like 7, 8, 9, etc. have smaller digits
and other characters. Those form your numeric keypad.
To activate your numeric keypad, press and hold down fn (in the
bottom left corner) + numlk in the top right corner. (Do the same
to deactivate the numeric keypad)
With the numeric keypad thus active, you can either press Alt+0150
(using numeric digits) for the en dash or you can press Ctrl+Minus
(Again using the numeric minus sign)
*For the em dash, the numeric shortcut is Ctrl+Alt+Minus
Note: The spefics might vary from one type of computer or laptop to another;
check with your user manual if in doubt.

The Dramatic Dash

Some sentences with clauses separated by commas can benefit from
a dash not a hyphen for more dramatic effect.
In the beginning there was no risk to life under Idi Amin until we
started speaking out.

Whats the If?

Used well, if-clauses exude quiet elegance; but they can also be easily
confused. These conditionals are sentences where the validity of one
statement depends on the validity of another.
If you do not give him money, he will end up in deep trouble.
If you do not read this book, you will miss a great opportunity.
The if-clauses follow a certain tense pattern, which writers must learn
lest they confuse readers. In school, if-clauses were such a confusing lot
that some would ask: and if I do not learn this?
Well, the inner voice would say, you will lose marks.

Punctuation & Grammar

We still write these sentences in a confused manner and leave editors,

sub-editors, or readers to sort things out.
We may not know what is if-zero or if-3, but we can easily master
the flow so that we do not mix things up. We can avoid writing the first
clause in if-1 and the second clause in if-3.
Here is a sample:

Type Conditional (if ) clause Result clause

If-zero If you beat people hard they get hurt
If-1 If you oppress him he will fight back
If-2 If you oppressed him he would fight back
If-2 If I were him I would leave the hospital now.
If-3 If you had oppressed him he would have fought back
If you study the above table, you will notice a certain pattern as regards
tense of the various categories: Lets look at those patterns

Type Conditional (if ) Result clause tense

clause tense
If-zero Present simple Present simple
If-1 Present simple Future simple
If-2 Past simple Past future (E.g. would play)
(E.g. played)
If-3 Past participle Modal past participle (E.g. would/
(E.g. had played) could/might+Have+played)
* Its important not to mix up a conditional clause of if-2with a result
clause of if-3.
For example, AVOID sentences like: If he attacked me, I would have
beaten him.
It should be: If he attacked me, I would beat him.
OR: If he had attacked me, I would have beaten him.



Army Ranks
Ranks of soldiers are not easy for journalists to master, unless one is
particularly keen on the military. But soldiers are known to take offence
when journalists demote them by assigning them lower ranks. Others
get nervous if given higher ranks lest their bosses think its Captain
Mukisa masquerading as a lieutenant colonel. Here are the commissioned
ranks, from the lowest.

Second Lieutenant 1 star

Lieutenant 2 stars
Captain 3 stars
Major 1 crane
Lieutenant Colonel 1 star and 1coat of arms
Colonel 2 stars and 1 coat of arms
Brigadier 3 stars and coat of arms
Major General 1 sword and 1 coat of arms
Lieutenant General 1 sword, 1 star, and 1 coat of arms
General 1 sword, 2 stars, and 1 coat of arms
In military speak, the brigadier is the first general (one-star general),
with the full general called a four-star general.
If you are not that interested in military matters, you might want to coin
one of those school-style shortcuts to remember the ranks so that on
deadline time, you do not write that a major is higher than a lieutenant


Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC)
Some of our spelling mistakes slip through because the misspelled word
actually exists in English, only that its the wrong choice. One spelling
aid taught by primary school English language teachers is that if a word
ends with a consonant-vowel-consonant combination of letters, then its
gerund and/or participle form is likely to have double letters. On the
contrary, a word that ends with a vowel-consonant-vowel combination
rarely takes a double-letter conjugation.
Some examples:
Let Letting
Hit hitting
Hate hating
Pip pipping/pipped
Pipe Piping/piped
Read reading
Rid ridding
Ride riding
Strip stripping/stripped
Stripe striped
Rap rapping/rapped
Rape raping/raped
As you notice, knowledge of the CVC rule can help you avoid the
embarrassment of writing stripped shirts (should be striped), piping
of soldiers or ridding bicycles.
Once you know that the infinitive verb you are using is sit or rap (both
CVC), you will not write that Peter was siting on the table or that
an opposition MP has raped (instead of rapped) the health minister.
(The gerund siting [pronounced Saiting] comes from another verb to
This knowledge also empowers you to overrule your computer, which
prompts you change the siting of a mast on top of the hill to sitting
At the very least you will consult an authoritative online dictionary such
as www.macmillandictionary.com before you make a mistake.

Write Right, Tight

Names and Places

It has been said that for many people, the most special word is ones
name. When they hear it, even if it is referring to someone else, something
clicks inside. When they come across it while reading, the mind circles
it even as the eyes move on to the next word. So, imagine the irritation,
even anger, of having ones name misspelled.
The solution is simple: lets ask people how they write their names. Let
us ask them what their exact title is otherwise, we will call Ms Maria
Kiwanuka the managing director of Radio One when she is a general
manager. Let us ask informed, literate locals what the name of their
village is and how it is written.

First Names First?

One common challenge is the ordering of names. Depending on several
factors, including family background and education, some people
introduce themselves first-name-first, while others start with their
surnames. Yet in globalised times, how one writes ones name influences
how other people use it.
For example, the current first lady of Uganda is normally introduced as
Janet Museveni; that of Kenya is Margaret Kenyatta while in the United
States it is, at the time of writing, Michelle Obama. In all these cases,
these women mention their surnames last.
Indeed in day-to-day usage, averagely educated Ugandans will give their
first names first.
But a typical 10-year-old girl in Kabanda village, in rural central Uganda,
is more likely to give her name as Namatovu Janet or Nakitto Margaret,
not the other way round.
Yet this is not simply a rural/urban thing. Many schools now produce
alphabetical listings arranged last-name-first. Hence you now find many
recent graduates referring to themselves by the surname first even if at
home they mostly go by their first names.
So, should reporters change the girls name to Janet Namatovu to reflect
mainstream practice or should they stick to how the owner states the
Your house rules should help.


But unless one insisted that the clan or family name must come first,
most journalists I know would go ahead to write the first name first.
(In our case, the first name usually refers to ones Christian or
Muslim or other given name, while the surname is the family or
clan name).
One reason for this is that the order of names gives other people clues on
usage. If I introduce a man as Mr Malala Ibrahim, the ordinary user of
English will, on subsequent usage, refer to a Mr Ibrahim (which is not
good grammar to use a title with a first name10). But if I introduced
him as Mr Ibrahim Malala, subsequent usage will be either Ibrahim
(informal or familiar) or Mr Malala (formal).

Eastern Names
Caution is needed, however, when dealing with oriental names. People
from East Asian countries such as China, Japan, Vietnam or Korea or
even Ethiopia normally give their family names first. This is contrary
to the Western order, used in most parts of the world, where first names
come first.
This means that on second reference, the former Ethiopian Prime
Minister Meles Zenawi as Mr Meles (Not Mr Zenawi); outgoing UN
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is Mr Ban and the former Manchester
United footballer Park Ji-sung is Mr Park (not Mr Ji-sung).
So, we need to take care when writing names from these parts of the
world. Again, if in doubt, ask about the persons name order11.

10 For instance, during the 2016 ACME lecture delivered by communication

expert Eric Chinje, the grammarian moderator, Vision Group CEO Robert
Kabushenga, felt compelled to educate his audience after someone directed his
question at a one Mr Eric. Said Kabushenga: Either you call him Eric or Mr
Chinje or Mr Eric Chinje [but not Mr Eric].
11 For instance, the spokeswoman of the Inspectorate of Government is Ms Munira
Ali not Ali Munira (Munira being the first name and Ali the family name).

Write Right, Tight

Examples of commonly misspelled names in Uganda

1. Mohammed Baswari Kezaala (ex-Jinja mayor and ex-DP
2. Lulume Bayigga, ex-Buikwe South MP
3. Justice Eldad Mwangusya
4. Justice Solome Bossa (Not Bbosa)
5. Muhammad Nsereko
6. Barnabas Tinkasiimire, MP
7. Mwambutsya Ndebesa, historian
8. John Ddumba-Ssentamu (surname is Ddumba-Ssentamu)
9. Abdu Katuntu (Bugweri MP)
10. Grace Freedom Kwiyucwiny (MP)
11. MacDosman Kabega (lawyer)
12. Mohmed Mbabazi (lawyer)
13. Richard Mulema Mukasa (lawyer, no hyphen)
14. Theodore Ssekikubo
15. Dr Edward Naddumba (Orthopaedic surgeon, once acting head
of Mulago hospital)
16. Dr Edward Ddumba (Physician, former executive director of
17. Katikkiro Charles Peter Mayiga
18. Dr Jane Ruth Aceng health minister (2016)
19. Ruth Achieng Former Kole MP.
20. Ebert Byenkya (lawyer).
21. Henry Mayega Former UPC politician.
22. Christopher Kibanzanga (MP)
23. Joseph Bossa (UPC politician)

Are You Over-Quoting?

Articles written by journalists are called stories and, save for a few
exceptions, the reporter is the storyteller. But often some reporters reduce
themselves to transcribers, instead of navigating the reader up and down
the highs and lows of the story. They write long quote after long quote,
some spanning several paragraphs longer than 100 words.
This rarely works. Journalism is a craft! The strength and fineness of the
story is as much about the material as it is about the authors skill in
weaving a narrative.


British journalism professor Peter Cole says your story should not be
simply a collection of quotes. As a reporter, you paraphrase information
from whatever sources to communicate the main points of your story.
Long quotes bring a story grinding to a halt, particularly if they are
from politicians, particularly local politicians, bureaucrats or bores, says
Cole, a former deputy editor of The Guardian. Short, incisive, direct
quotes change the pace of a story, add colour and character, illustrate
bald facts, and introduce personal experience.
Yes, there are exceptions. Those work for a particular type of story and
style an interview where the reporter interjects statements to introduce
the next quote. Once you have agreed with your editor to go that way,
there should be no problem.

Partial Quotes and Paraphrasing

When we paraphrase a speaker but directly quote some of the words, we
should ensure what we quote are exact words of the speaker. If not sure,
simply paraphrase everything. Using quotation marks means reproducing
someones exact words. Journalists often run into problems with news
sources when they attribute verbatim words to someone who denies ever
saying the words. We must take extra effort to get it right. Recording
a speech or an interview is handy, in case someone denies statements
attributed to them.
The minister said: Because the teachers are not teaching
we have to close the university and take decisive action.

Problematic Paraphrasing
The minister said because teachers were not teaching, they had to close
the university and take decisive action.
Better: The minister said because teachers were not teaching, they had
to close the university and take decisive action.

Why That Capital Letter?

Capitalisation, the writing of the first letter of a word in upper case, has
been in decline for some time. Of course proper names of people, places
and organisations retain their capital privileges.

Write Right, Tight

But progressive literary stylists believe as society becomes less deferential

and less formal, and writing gadgets ever smaller (with laptops, palmtops,
tabs and smart phones), having to capitalise becomes irksome.
At some point in Uganda, all names of ministries were capitalised, as
were words like the national president, government minister, etc. But
increasingly more media houses are dropping the capital letters.
Consult your house style guide on which words are capitalised.
Otherwise, whenever you come across a capital letter in your writing,
stop and question it: Should you write Kabanda Village in Kabanda
Parish in Kabanda Sub County?


The Editing Process

It happens often that a reporter comes to work and is asked by an editor

to help edit or clean up or reorganise an article written by someone
else. For many, that may be the first time they edit someone elses work
since journalism school. It can be an intimidating vote of confidence in
the reporter by the editor but it can also be a make-or-break moment.
If you really clean up the story to or beyond the editors expectations,
you may have put one foot on the promotion ladder, if you are keen,
often to an editing role.
But how do you start? If you are like most other people, you will approach
this task the only way you know; either by checking for errors and typos
or by rewriting the article so it reads as well as your own writing.
According to Julie Nabwire, an editor with The EastAfrican, the budding
copy editor needs to master not just the language but also the current
A new subeditor must be widely read and it must show, says Nabwire,
a Literature graduate from Makerere University. [They] must have a
grasp of a wide range of issues, so they need a little bit of training before
they can be trusted to fly alone.
Even with the right skills, process issues count. Here are some suggestions
on approaching sub-editing.

Polishing Stories/Shoes
Depending on the quality of the writing you are dealing with, editing can
be either a joy or a cry. According to Shola Oshunkeye, the 2006 CNN
MultiChoice African journalist of the year, when he is editing stories from
his best writers, he literally reads to enjoy. Nigerian Oshunkeye, now

Write Right, Tight

editor-in-chief of The Sun in Ghana, says this is because all his concerns
will have been taken care of by the writers and first-line editors. From
my interviews for this book, few Ugandan editors can say the same.
Let us compare editing to the process of shining shoes. Everyone loves
well-polished shoes, but very few relish finding the time to get their hands
dirty. From his base at Tufnell Drive in Kamwokya, Kampala, cobbler
Kanyankore helps many office folks shine their shoes. When I visit him,
I am struck by the consistency of his approach. This is his procedure:
1. Examine the shoes to gauge how dirty they are.
2. Wipe the shoes with a soft damp or wet cotton cloth.
3. Leave the shoes for a few minutes to dry.
4. Apply shoe polish or cream and brush to ensure uniform
5. Leave the shoes for a few minutes to dry
6. Shine the shoes using another, cleaner, brush.
After stage 6, the more Kanyankore brushes, the more the shoe shines.
Sometimes it shines so well you could use it as a mirror.
Incidentally, when I had more time, thats the procedure I used to follow
which points to a method to shining shoes. But it does not always
work like that. Sometimes I want Kanyankore to give me the shoes in
three minutes, which means skipping the first three stages. I wont be
particularly proud of my footwear that day, but they wont be dirty.
Like shoes, polishing stories takes time and a methodical approach. If
you omit one step, you still get the work done, but you raise the risk of
embarrassing mistakes. In the above analogy, for instance, if I encourage
Kanyankore to skip stage 2, he can apply polish on specks of mud, so
that a keen observer will see pimples on the leather. Of course you can
also be lucky that your shoes are generally clean and do not need a damp
cloth or even polish to shine just a bit of brushing and shining. But as
with other things, luck should reinforce not trump method. In fact
luck is often defined as opportunity meeting methodical preparation.
So, lets assume you have just received a 700-word story which you want
to reduce to 400 words, which editing steps might you follow?

The Editing Process

1. Read Without Touching

Take a quick but keen look at the article to weigh it: what the story really
is; what its central claim is; what its evidence is; and whether all the KEY
sources have been talked to (or else you send it back to the reporter or
ask them to get more details as you edit).
And is the story legally safe or is someone definitely going to sue
your organisation? This is critical, says The Independents Joseph Were,
because an editors first duty is to protect your media house. Protect
against embarrassing errors, against reputational damage, against costly
defamation lawsuits.
Avoid the temptation to plunge in and edit because the deadline is upon
you. That first step means you will progress much faster later. You could
end up berating the reporter for missing key information yet it is further
down in the story. You could reach the end of the editing and realise
that key sources are missing and, therefore, the story cant be published.
Imagine wasting 50 minutes at deadline hour!
Even if you decide that everything you want is in the story, Step 1 leaves
you with a mental map of the story, aware of which paragraphs need to
be moved, purged or whittled down.

2. Decide on Structure
You might feel that you need another, more critical look at key claims of
the story to ensure that you judged it well. Then its the structure the
way the different categories of information are arranged. Sometimes you
have to lift paragraphs from one place to another to improve the flow.

3. Edit for Clarity, Style, Flow

Once the structure works, you may start editing to ensure good word
choices, proper spellings, readable sentence length, house style, etc. It is
critical that the editor first understands what the writer means, before
changing it. If in doubt, consult the writer. If the editor misunderstands
an unclear sentence, they will change it into something much farther
from what the writer meant.

4. Spell-check
By now your piece has your desired structure and none of the common
style and language errors. But running a spellchecker can reduce the

Write Right, Tight

amount of the disruptive red ink underlining words the computer

does not recognise. Some editors do not use the spellchecker and some
junior writers do not even know it, but it helps eliminate certain types
(but not all) of mistakes and frees you up to concentrate on higher-level
problems. If, for instance, your second paragraph talks about a one Peter
Mwesige and the fourth refers to a Peter Mwesigye, the spellchecker will
help. At the first instance you can instruct the computer to ignore all
references to Mwesige. If it comes across Mwesigye, it will highlight
it, prompting you to change it to Mwesige. Your use of the spellchecker
will get better with experience.

5. Edit for Brevity

If by now you have not achieved the desired word count, you can read
the story again, specifically looking to tighten the writing. Brevity or
conciseness is one of the virtues of good editing. Under pressure to cut
words but retain content, try to ensure:
You ruthlessly delete anything that does not advance the story by
bringing new information or perspective to the story. Why, for
instance, quote three people all giving largely the same information?
You may cite the three but only directly quote the most quotable.
No sentence unnecessarily repeats information or phrases already
given earlier.
You avoid a major word/phrase reappearing in one sentence.
Rewriting to resolve this often gives you a shorter sentence.
No direct quote is simply a repetition of the information in the
preceding sentence.

6. One Final Read

Assuming that you now have the word-count you need, the final step
should be to read your story one last time. When I was starting out,
I used to print the story and read it on paper and mark any errors or
typos. But if your organisation will not permit too much printing, you
can put your text in a bigger font size (E.g. 36 or 48) and read it gently
and with maximum concentration.
After effecting the changes, you can spell-check one last time just in
case you introduced some typos as you finalised.

The Editing Process

For comparison, this is how The East Africans Julie Nabwire summarises
her first steps in story treatment:
When I get copy, I scan through. We ask reporters to give a
tentative headline. So I look at the headline and then scan
through the first six paragraphs and see whether they make
sense. Then I go back to the intro. I look out for the basics
the 5Ws and H and look for where they are and push them.
I then look at the intro. Is it punchy? What would I what
would someone want to look at first in that story? Then I
shorten the sentences especially the intro. I usually cut mine
to 20 or 25 words.
As you probably notice, producing writing that glitters like that pair of
shoe takes time and effort. But once the story is out and appreciated,
its worth it.


Habits of journalists destined for the top

Right now, there is no reason why anyone who is starting out in

journalism should be sloppy when there are so many resources at
their fingertips, says media trainer Bernard Tabaire. They were not
there when we were starting out; you had to find a Mcafee book,
Elements of Style, or whatever. But now you can download all these
e-books, PDFs.
Indeed it is a puzzle that todays better-schooled, better-equipped,
better-exposed journalists do not necessarily produce better work.
From separate conversations with high-achieving editors, it seems a
huge part of the problem lies outside the lecture rooms; instead, it is
in the mind of the journalist. In a way, our work is unlike bricklaying,
where knowing the right mix ratios and the right angles will suffice.
The different interviews confirm that besides technical skills,
top-quality journalism thrives on a system of habits, dispositions,
mannerisms and instincts.
This suggests that for the most part, journalism is an art, and the
journalist an artist. Actually, journalism is both an art and a science.

A subtle difference is that art depends more on the artist, while
science thrives more on proven principles.
For example, for hundreds of years, institutions have produced
engineers and doctors that build solid structures and perform
surgical operations following standardised procedures, with
generally standardised outcomes. On the other hand, replicating
artists like Picasso, Michael Jackson or William Shakespeare may
be unimaginable.
This book includes a scientific record of common mistakes or
problems with journalistic work, but this section focuses more on
the artist side of journalism. What does it take for one to avoid
common mistakes and therefore succeed almost by default?


Attitude is Key

Joseph Were, the managing editor of The Independent in Kampala,

confesses he never dreamt of being a journalist. He studied education
at Makerere University and was only called into The [Daily] Monitor
newsroom by the then editor Charles Onyango-Obbo. Eventually, he
went for the Hubert Humphrey journalism fellowship in the United
States, which sharpened his journalistic mind. He held several positions in
the newsroom, including gender editor, multimedia editor, and training
editor, before joining The Independent. He says the key to journalistic
excellence is attitude:
I have three ways I approach journalism. The first thing to
make a successful journalist is integrity, which is an ethical
attitude. The second thing is hard work; someone should be
ready to work hard, which is another attitude. The third
thing is not so much an attitude but it is also influenced by
attitude, which is skill. As long as you have the first two, its
very easy for you to acquire the skill.
Those three things are the biggest challenges newsrooms face,
and are most manifested at the reporting level. People are not
willing to work hard, they are willing to make up things, and
at that level, they do not have the requisite reporting skills.
This was echoed by CNNs Nigerian-born news anchor Zain Asher in
a 2016 interview with Daily Monitor. Asher was asked how she had
made it to one of the worlds premier media houses. She said: It is not
about how good you are, but how good you want to be. It is about the
determination, the work ethic, your state of mind, your faith. It is about
your belief.

Write Right, Tight

In 2008, Bernard Tabaire resigned as the managing editor (weekend

editions) at Monitor Publications. He teamed up with Dr Peter Mwesige
to start the African Centre for Media Excellence, arguably the regions
leading media development organisation. Having spent 12 years writing
and editing, and teaching journalism at Makerere University, Tabaire
echoes Joseph Were:
I think attitude is key again going back to life skills. Attitude
allows you to know that you want to excel, but also allows you
to be aware of what you dont know, of your shortcomings.
And then to seek to do better what you are good at, and to
take steps to get rid of the shortcomings.
Tabaire studied sociology and literature at Makerere University, from
where he joined The [Daily] Monitor. Going to the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign in the USA to study a Master of Science in
Journalism was part of a deliberate desire to delve deeper into the essence
of his chosen career.
Tabaires mind again meets Joseph Weres, on the effort required to
What it means is a little more work. It means a little more
diligence. So, you are not going to succeed, absolutely not
however much of a genius you are without putting in some
work. Actually, the difference then is do I put in more work
than you? Instead of working for eight hours, am I ready to
work for nine? I havent read of any genius, anywhere, who
did not put in a lot of work in any field.
TheEastAfricans Julie Nabwire echoes the above sentiment, when asked
to describe the good side of being an editor.
Good is when one has a good pitch, a diligent reporter who
tries to gather all the facts or is ready to go back to dig more
about the story and do follow-ups! A reporter who challenges
my knowledge, with whom we work together to produce a
great story, makes the work of editing super!
The same message came through in different words from the other
editors I interviewed: its down to ones attitude and determination.
As the author Napoleon Hill suggested in Think and Grow Rich, if you
can think of a goal and firmly believe with your unconscious mind

Attitude is Key

that you can achieve that goal, consider the goal yours. Many of the
challenges holding back some of the brightest journalists from realising
their full potential are down to the goals they conceive (how ambitious
they are) and the amount of belief they have both in the importance of
the goal and in their own capacity to achieve the goals. As an ambitious
journalist, listen to your successful senior colleagues say roughly the
same things, and BELIEVE that these life skills are important to your
career. The difference is in how much you desire to excel. The higher
your desire, the more likely you are to do what it takes!


Passion for Excellence

Many serious journalists regard their work not just as an occupation or

profession, but as a passion. To these passionistas, journalism is something
one does from the heart, with conviction that it is important and must
be done well.
The Macmillan dictionary defines passion as astrongenthusiasmor
interest for or in something. Other definitions of passion allude to
a powerful emotion such as love or anger. Either way, the essence
of passion is the heart or conviction as opposed to mathematical
calculations of where pay is higher, which job will make you more famous
faster, or which one will deliver a Ferrari in record time.
For many top journalists, it is that passion to do the good job better
each day that saw them rise through the ranks. Certainly it was key in
the rise of Charles Odoobo Bichachi from a freelancer covering Jinja and
Busia, living off his fathers generosity, to executive editor of Monitor
You need to have the passion in this business. If you dont
have it, then you will not survive the different pressures that
come. You will have pressure of money; you will have ethical
issues coming up; you will have issues of time and devotion.
For me I think having passion from the very beginning was
very important; and also having the passion to do it well,
because it is one thing to have the passion to do something,
but it is another to have that desire for excellence.
Picking up on excellence as the fuel for high-achievers, Tabaire says todays
journalists have so many resources they can use to launch great careers.

Passion for Excellence

But that has to be informed by the idea that excellence is a

good thing in itself, and that good work actually ultimately
pays. Thats what our journalists dont appreciate, maybe
because they think that within two years they should be
somebody else. Good work speaks for itself; good work will
be recognised ultimately; and good work will pay more than
the shortcuts.
As Bichachi seems to suggest, without the passion or love or emotional
attachment, journalism may actually not make much sense as a career.
There are many jobs where you work shorter hours, where you dont have
to jump on boda bodas to inhale tear gas, where you quickly get to drive
a cool car, and where you get paid much more. If one is just looking
for a comfortable job, there are better sectors to find it. But if you are
truly in love with this journalism thing, even when you are hungry and
angry, passion will keep you alive as you persevere towards better times.


Read, Read, Read

In October 2016, BBC Radio broadcast an interview with South Africa-

based author Michelle Nkamankeng, who had just been named among
the worlds top 10 youngest writers. With her innocent brilliance,
Michelle explained her story, about a child who had conquered her fear
of the sea. Here are excerpts from Michelles interview with the BBCs
David Whitty:
Whitty: How did you conquer that fear [of the sea]?
Michelle: When I start to like, start to believe in myself; then I go
there and take a chance; then when its the second time, its
not that scary anymore
Whitty: If you would say three things to other young children who
are listening who want to write a book, what are three pieces
of advice you would give them?
Michelle: Reading is Fun. Always follow your dreams [and] dont let
anybody get in your way. And, if you cant read, you cant
Mark that: If you cant read, you cant write. I should add that Michelle
is a seven-year-old girl born of Cameroonian parents. But this child has
already grasped arguably the greatest key to writing excellence.
Sadly, many of us dream of being great writers but we do not want to read
beyond glancing at the papers or looking up a few lines of background.
But maybe its human nature! A priest on the pulpit once narrated an
aeroplane encounter with a nine-year-old girl.
Girl [seeing the priests black shirt and white collar]: Excuse me sir, are
you a priest?

Read, Read, Read

Priest: Yes!
Girl: Why is it that Christians want to go to heaven but they dont
want to die?
If we want to go to the heavenly paradise of great writing, we must be
ready to die a little and bury ourselves in newspapers, books, or journal
articles. A journalists first assignment each day, wrote Leonard Witt,12
is to read his newspaper and its competitors. But how many of us read
as if our going to heaven depended on it?
All the Ugandan editors interviewed for this book echoed Michelles
advice: Read, read, read, and read critically!
Thats what Bernard Tabaire told his students when he taught journalism
at Makerere University.
Most important, you cannot talk about journalism and
writing if you are not an active reader. Read anything, but
find places where theres quality work. Read and find out
how stories are constructed, how characters are introduced
and how stories are put together. You learn a lot.
I always told my students: dont just read, but be an active
reader. See oh this sentence sounds nice. What about it? This
is how punctuation is used.
Tabaires point of reading actively cant be overstressed. The way a
journalist keen to improve his writing reads is not the same way an
ordinary reader reads. We literally study how great writers use their tools
so that we learn how to use them ourselves.

Broadening Your Outlook

You could say that you just want to be a good journalist and have no
dreams of becoming an author like Nigerias Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
or Ugandas Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi; still you have to read.
Joseph Were of The Independent argues that being a good journalist means
you explain things when you write. Even when we write simple reportage,
we are often striving to find the best words to deliver the message neatly
and concisely. Reading helps us to develop our language skills.

12 In The Complete Book of Feature Writing.

Write Right, Tight

But more importantly, how can we explain what we do not understand?

A journalist, Joseph Were says, has to read a lot and interact with experts
to understand contemporary issues and to broaden their outlook. In
other words, if we want to be good journalists, we must go deeper than
just knowing the 5Ws and H.
One of the most challenging things about journalism is that
today you are covering brain surgery, tomorrow you are
covering famine in Karamoja, the other day you are covering
a road not being built in Kasese... What does that mean? You
have to work very hard. Have a broad outlook, so that when
someone talks about road construction, you not only know
the issues there but you have certain views about how roads
should be constructed; what areas to focus on; what are the
The Observer news editor Robert Crispin Mukasa speaks of the
frustration of reporters who do not understand the importance of being
knowledgeable about issues they are covering.
Mukasa says that even if you are heading out for a press conference, try
to find out what the press conference is about; then quickly read up on
the matter to bring yourself up to speed with the latest developments.
That way, while average reporters are struggling to grasp the basics, you
will be thinking about the next step in the development of the story.
Says Mukasa:
For example, if they tell you that the minister for Kampala
has a press conference, they can even tell you the topic, and
still somebody goes very blank about the topic. If its vendors
versus traders, they dont know how long this entire thing has
been going on and how far so many people have tried and
failed to [resolve it].
He also echoes another huge frustration, which seems to stem from the
lack of what Tabaire calls active reading. He advises reporters to look at
their published stories in the morning and pick out a few action points
for self-improvement. Without such determination, a reporter can build
a reputation on the back of editors improvements of their work; but
that is not the solid growth that our hard work deserves.


Grab the Chance to Learn

The renowned sports journalist Hassan Badru Zziwa remembers hearing

a knock at his door at around 3.30a.m.,in September 1994. Zziwa was
a photojournalist at The Monitor, and at the door was Kevin Aliro, then
one of the company directors.
Aliro told Zziwa the two of them had to leave immediately for a critical
assignment in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Within
one hour, Zziwa walked out of the house and the journey was underway.
I did not ask questions, says Zziwa, now a director at The
Little wonder that when Aliro thought of starting The Observer, Zziwa
was one of the people he took with him from Monitor Publications.
Nearly 22 years after Aliros knock, an editor in Kampala found himself
in a dilemma. A famous preacher had suddenly died and the newspaper
needed to get a human-interest story. It was 7.45p.m., and the editor
could hardly find a senior reporter ready to travel the 40km to the
preachers vigil. Senior reporters were either not answering their phones
or were not interested in covering the story.
At around 8p.m., the editor called up a young freelancer who had shown
great spirit and initiative. Did he know the dead preacher?
Reporter: No, but I think I have heard of him.
Editor: Do you know a place called Bukalango?
Reporter: No.
Editor: But can you go there?
Reporter: Yes.

Write Right, Tight

Editor: I mean I want you to go there now and spend the night
because we need that story by 11a.m. tomorrow.
Reporter: Yes, I can go.
Editor: Okay. Do you have some money with you, because the cash
office is closed?
Reporter: I have about 10K [Shs 10,000], but I think I can borrow
from someone nearby.
Fifteen minutes later, the editor was back on the phone giving the reporter
directions and instructions. Two-and-a-half hours later, the reporter sent
a text message: I have arrived in Bukalango.
And in the editors judgement, the reporter wrote a great story.
Lets be honest: journalism may not be the most difficult job in the
world, but in many developing countries, its tough. And a common
thread running through life stories of successful journalists is a zeal to
learn new things, take on new assignments, and see challenging tasks
as a chance to prove oneself and lay a foundation for career progress.
The Independents Joseph Were cant stop urging young journalists to be
flexible and versatile and embrace on-the-job learning. At The Monitor,
whenever something new came up, Were was deliberately among the
first people to try it, including using Photoshop and serving as gender
editor and multimedia editor.
And if my editor asked me to do something, even if I didnt
know that thing, I did not say that Oh, sorry I dont know.
I would go and try to figure out how to do it.
It is something I want to inculcate in people because I know
it is what pushes someone ahead. That is what propelled me;
my editors, my supervisors knew that if they threw something
at me I would give it my best.
As I write this section, I am distracted by todays Sunday Vision column by
the Irish-born Ugandan doctor Ian Clarke, the founder of International
Hospital Kampala. He is urging job-seekers to focus on attitude and
work ethic.
If a young person gets an opportunity for employment,
no matter how menial, what will he make of it? Will he
immediately start complaining about the difficult working

Grab the Chance to Learn

conditions, the low salary, the hours, etc., or will he see this
employment as an opportunity to gain experience, to learn,
to shine, and get his foot on the ladder?
A keen attitude, a serious work ethic, honesty, and the desire
to learn, are all attributes which employers are looking for,
but which are often missing.
Dr Clarke did not attend my interviews with all the editors quoted in
this book. But he is saying pretty much the same things the editors told
me. Clearly, shortcuts to genuine progress are very few, and they often
lead nowhere.

Embracing Change
New Visions Robert Mudhasi urges us to be ready to embrace change,
including technological change. Mudhasi joined New Vision in 1996
as a chief proof-reader at a time when newsrooms used typewriters. As
technology ushered in computers, he quickly adjusted, retooled himself
and eventually rose to chief subeditor.
You must be patient and must be flexible and ready for
changes. One of the things I have seen because of the many
years is change. If you are not open to technological changes,
you will not survive. We started with typewriters; now we are
on computers, but there are also several computer packages
that come in and you must always adjust to new programmes,
to new ways of doing things.


Your Story, Your Skills,

Your Career

After 20 years in the New Vision newsroom, Robert Mudhasi has

concluded that your average reporter does not own the story. They
simply do what the editor wants. They fret about the word count, the
issues and the voices and once those are in, they will walk up to the
editors desk and declare: Your story is ready!
But wait a minute, whose story is the reporter writing? Ideally, the story
belongs to the reporter, which is why it carries their by-line. Granted, editors
play a big role in preparing the story for publication, but they are like film
directors: they play a critical role, but the real film stars are the actors.
Because they fail to realise that they are the stars of the story-show, many
reporters do not actually try to understand the issues they are covering.
Yet if we worked harder to really understand the stories we cover, we
would emerge more knowledgeable just for having written those stories.
If we accept the maxim that journalism informs, educates and entertains,
then journalism is an educative venture. But its educative first for the
reporter (for how do I educate others in something I dont understand?),
and then for the reader/audience.
Lets assume I am covering the National Union of Disabled Persons of
Uganda, which is complaining about the lack of progress in amending
sections of the PWDs Act. The executive director may even issue a
written statement that outlines the problematic clauses. But should I
the reporter be satisfied with merely quoting the statement? Is this not a
chance to actually read however briefly this particular law and related
texts? There is a good chance that I will notice other educative clauses
that will help me write with more knowledge and authority.

Your Story, Your Skills, Your Career

And if the secretary who typed the statement accidentally attributed a

particular statement to Section 27 (2), a knowledge-centred reporter will,
on reading the law, discover that Section 27 (2) has something else, and
that the cited statement actually is in section 37 (2).
As Mudhasi argues, many of the errors in our raw copy arise out of not
being knowledgeable about what we are writing about.
Many writers write like target workers; they hate details unless
the editor insists. They write to meet a story count, a target.
Yes, the editor sent a reporter to cover a story, but are all the
details there? Is the reporter investigating beyond the surface?
Someone who understands the subject is not as likely to make
so many factual mistakes as someone who is just plunging in.
Mudhasis namesake at The Observer, Robert Mukasa, shares this view,
arguing that writers need to assume more personal responsibility for
what they write instead of thinking that the editors will fix whatever
holes may be there.
And Bernard Tabaire speaks for many when he urges writers to be
serious-minded about their work.
I dont want my name to be associated with stuff that is not
good, is not quality stuff. How do people see my by-line with
these sorts of mistakes? Because then I wont sleep. Many times
when I was editing or writing, I would go home and say Oh
my God, I placed that comma in the wrong spot. The smallest
of mistakes should give you a sleepless night.
Obviously some will argue that this is not a fun way to live. But the
pursuit of all-round journalistic excellence is serious work. Promotions,
awards and recognition may be the outcome, but the process is not
always fun.
In his book, A Writers Coach, Jack Hart says writing is both agony and
ecstasy. The moment you have a great idea and when the article is finished
and polished that is fun. But everything else in between is agony.
Yes, like the Christians who must suffer the pain of death to reach the
paradise of heaven, reporters must embrace the agony of reporting and
writing to produce outstanding work.


Integrity & its Dilemmas

The Independents Joseph Were mentioned three attitudinal pillars of a

successful journalistic career: integrity, hard work and skills. We cant
avoid discussing integrity, particularly in these times.
One can be forgiven for thinking that the credibility of Ugandan
journalism has never been worse. Wherever I have spoken as an editor
in the last three years, I have been confronted by complaints about we
journalists soliciting money to kill or publish real and fabricated stories,
fighting over transport refund, using our journalism to work against one
entity to the benefit of another, or making up stories.
My instinct has always been to apologise for the mistakes of some of us,
while pointing out that there are still many honest journalists risking
everything to find and tell the truth.
A few bad apples should not nullify the honest endeavours of hundreds
of journalists. Yet we need to face up to this reality and resolve to resist
temptations to sell our souls even if we are so poorly paid. No one
wants to be poor, but as Abraham Lincoln famously told his sons teacher,
it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat. Journalism which has
poor but honest scribes is richer than that staffed with rich bribe-takers.
Like Joseph Were, Odoobo Bichachi believes that we must navigate
ethical dilemmas with a clear head.
There will be many temptations but you need to rise above
them, because if you dont, what you think is going to take
you up is actually what pulls you down.
There is way too much outcry about ethical issues today, and one wonders
why the problems have increased. Bichachi believes the ethical dilemmas
have always been there, only that the older crop of journalists was more

Integrity & its Dilemmas

invested in journalism as a career or a calling. Today, he argues, more

of us are just passing through journalism onto something greener and
more beautiful. Rather than protecting the long-term career, we look
around for what we can quickly gain before moving on.
Said Bichachi: But those who have tried to stick to their ethics have
grown and there are many examples [of passionate journalists]. Because
you need that in this profession. You need to believe in certain things
and you need to push yourself.
The first time I met the Ugandan-American journalist Shaka Ssali 12
years ago, he told me and my colleague Benon Oluka two things that
have stuck. One is that a journalist should know that every crisis also
presents opportunities. And two, that as long as you still want to be a
journalist, your biggest asset is your credibility.
Bichachi said as much when I interviewed him in October 2016:
journalists must protect their credibility and the best way to do that is
to observe the professional and ethical dictates of journalism.
Make no mistake: at all levels, it can be tempting. But its an ideal worth
striving for. A bank calls up a managing director of a newspaper and
says: If you drop that story, we will take out a full page advert for Shs 9
million. Someone tries to give a bulging brown envelope to a reporter/
editor so as to forget a particular story. In such cases, you want to muster
the courage to reject a proposal so indecent.

Pride and Plagiarism

Asked about some of her worst moments at work, Julie Nabwire of
The EastAfrican in Nairobi talks about plagiarism. She recalls the day
her reporter was accused of lifting work from other publications and
presenting it as her own. Plagiarism hurts the pride of organisations and
leaves an editor feeling foolish: how could they do this to us? Or how
did I even fail to smell a rat?
I had this very hardworking features writer who I came to
trust [in due course]. When her command of the language
improved, I did not bother to crosscheck. I felt I had done a
good job coaching, until a complaint of plagiarism landed
on my desk.

Write Right, Tight

Actually in serious jurisdictions, picking chunks of text and passing it

off as ones own is not just about personal pride; it is theft. It is criminal.
But since copyright laws are rather lax in Uganda, editors use other
disincentives to persuade reporters not to plagiarise.
One morning in November 2016, as an editors cursor darted across the
screen, something like an internetaddress flashed on the screen. That was
a red flag. It suggested to the editor that part of the story he was editing
had been taken from another site. But perhaps the reporter had used
his earlier reporting as background. Nothing wrong with that. But on
dragging the cursor back, the editor saw a URL web address belonging
to a different newspaper. A Google search found that the reporter had
lifted background and quotes from another site and had not bothered
to attribute.
As the editor put it, that was deeply frustrating.
Journalism don Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume is as frustrated.
I was reading a story about the 1988 plane accident in Rome;
its 28 years today. I read it and ended up going to Google to
find out more the pilot was my dads cousin. When I went to
Google, I found a lot of the information I was reading in the
stories is lifted word for word. In academia, editors are really
ruthless when it comes to plagiarism. In the newsrooms, its
something we take for granted; its okay. Its common in back-
grounding stories. I think [its] because editors dont demand
that you attribute. Theres nothing wrong in attributing.
Indeed, there is nothing wrong with attributing. In fact, it shows that
you are honest and at least you have the discipline to research. But
imagine the readers disappointment when they find out that you stole
those beautiful sentences from some website! One minute you are a star
writer, the next you are a thief, a fraud.


Back to the Basics

It is not unusual these days to hear senior journalists use the phrase good
old days. Obviously that is potentially problematic because younger
people are likely to think that whatever follows that phrase must be out-
dated. Not necessarily. From time immemorial, killing was considered
a vice, kindness a virtue. Likewise, journalism has some ageless truths
that an ambitious professional would do well to have in the bag for the
journey to the top.
Marty Baron of the Washington Post recently bemoaned the death of the
good old skill of true listening. Such a basic thing, you will say, but you
will be amazed how much we fail simply to listen to our sources. Quite
often when we interview sources, we are looking for nothing more than
a quote. True listening is more attentive, inquisitive, and reflective. And
even when we aim for a quote, we end up misquoting because of not
being super attentive to the source.

Then there is discipline. Again, such a basic thing, but as Robert
Mukasa says, it is still a problem that a serious journalist should resolve
to overcome.
A function starts at 9a.m. and the writer walks in an hour
later. They have missed stuff. Probably what was said [before
they arrived] was more important stuff. If you know that
a function is supposed to start at 10a.m., why do you start
preparing to go at 10.30a.m., just because some of these events
often start late?

Write Right, Tight

5Ws and H
Journalism lecturer Kawesa Ntulume also spoke about basics that some
journalists have forgotten or discarded.
I believe good old journalism had good principles. One of
the things I had was a small checklist, like the 5Ws. There
are many instances where writers, editors leave questions
unanswered in the readers mind. I would always have the
5Ws and where its necessary, I would ask the so what? Once
those were ticked, then I would look at those small things
like: do the quotes back up the information? I think anyone
starting in this line should pay attention to those small details.
Core Values
Then there are the values of professional journalism. Ntulume says that a
journalist who wants to make and keep their name needs to pay attention
to the standards of journalism.
Its about accuracy; you are not an activist, she says. Theres room for
activism somewhere; but for journalism, you are a journalist. Are you
being truthful? Are you being balanced? Are you accurate? Are you fair?
Have you answered the key questions?

Dictionary, Stylebook
When it comes to writing, there are many basics that editors are still
sorting out every day. Whether it is reported speech or how to use the
semicolon, these are things we can master if we decide to.
The dictionary and your media house stylebook are a mandatory
possession. When Ntulume reported to Makerere University for her Mass
Communication degree, lecturer Simwogerere Kyazze gave the freshers
one month to buy a dictionary and a thesaurus. Today as an academic,
Ntulume does not read the thick books much but only because she finds
them on the internet. It is important that we refer to the dictionary on
or offline to avoid misuse of words.
But consulting the dictionary, to ensure that even that common word is being
used properly, contributes to something bigger within us: the discipline and
humility to verify what and how we communicate that even if we have
1% doubt about a word, we check it. That disposition is vital.


A Competitive Streak

Sometimes when a loved one passes on, we say that they have fought
a good fight or run a good race. But if life is a race, it is a complex
marathon. It boils down to billions of marathon races at different levels.
Those who run better races get better rewards medals, cash prizes,
sponsorship deals, fame, name recognition, etc., at different levels.
The difference is that the life marathon is a phenomenon not of scarcity
but of abundance. Its not like the Olympic marathon with only one gold
medal. There can be as many gold medallists or silver medallists as the
number of people that have attained the gold or silver mark.
Building a thriving journalism career requires that competitive streak.
At least, we look over our shoulders to ensure that we are not 50 metres
behind the leader of the race we are in. We try to improve our tactics,
trying to learn from the Stephen Kiprotich of 2012, trying to beat him.
But why should we be competitive? Because the readers we are courting
have limited time and money and will only give these medals to
competitive products. Fortunately, its not a winner-take-all competition.
Readers may give three gold medals if they see three golden winners. If
each of the major national newspapers had an irresistible edition one
Wednesday, for instance, the total number of newspapers sold would
most likely rise compared to the day before. As Bernard Tabaire argues,
competition helps to get the best out of us.
You gotta love to compete, and I dont mean it in a negative
way: just that if you are in Parliament and you are all
journalists there, you want your story to be the best story
coming out of that particular session of Parliament. If [your
competitors] beat you, if your story was inferior, you have to

Write Right, Tight

go and look at their stories and see: how did they craft their
stories? How can I improve to beat them?
If other peoples stories are always better than yours and you dont feel
anything inside, you are lacking a critical ingredient for outstanding
You certainly have to say I am going to be the best and once youve set
yourself that goal, then you are going to work hard, Tabaire says. You
are not saying you are going to be perfect, but you are trying to be.
One Monday afternoon, a young reporter returned to his newsroom
from a press conference in Kampala. He quoted everyone important
at the press conference. But the editor was not satisfied. He needed a
Day Two story. He got the reporter to re-interview two key people at
the press conference to get details and particulars behind the general
statements they had made. The story was published on Wednesday, as
was another newspapers story, written by a senior journalist the young
reporter deeply admired.
After reading both accounts, the editor asked the rookie what he thought.
The reporter broke into a proud smile: I thought our story is better.
The editor was encouraged that the young reporter was developing a
competitive streak. If each of us aims to do a better story, the readers
will end up with outstanding news products. And better does not have
to be rated against our rivals alone but also against ourselves.
In fact some have suggested that competing against others makes you
bitter, while competing against yourself makes you better. This is not
necessarily true. As Tabaire argues, journalistic competition should be
positive, seeking to do the best possible work rather than pull down
our competitors.
The value of competing against yourself becomes more marked if you
have started becoming better than your peers. Where someone else would
sit back and put their legs up, you the driven journalist will try to make
your next story better than the last. This is what American football great
Steve Young meant when he said: The principle iscompeting against
yourself. Its about self-improvement, about being better than you were
the day before.

A Competitive Streak

The Observer news editor Robert Mukasa has been in the newsroom
for 21 years and counting. He previously held the same position at
Daily Monitor and went on to be managing director/editor at The
Razor newspaper. He, too, believes in competitive newsrooms albeit
for slightly different reasons. Without competition, he says, even an
outstanding reporter can give an average product.
The other issue that can improve us is creating competition in
the newsrooms, meaning sloppiness is eliminated organically.
If you cant step up, [the editor] goes with people who can.


Tapping, Shaping,
and Keeping Talent

This chapter is written with one eye fixed firmly on media managers and
directors. All the editors interviewed for this book are products of certain
work cultures and management systems. While the attitude, integrity,
and skills of reporters and editors are critical, managers also need to
create newsrooms that attract, groom and retain top talent. Otherwise,
even young journalists with great attitude will get frustrated if they do
not have a good stage on which to perform.
As we saw earlier, Joseph Were was spotted for his skills and trainability
and thrown into the newsroom, where he has swum excellently. He has
also trained and mentored many excellent reporters and editors.
Bernard Tabaire believes newsrooms must become smarter about
who they recruit. Many normally wait for people to show up at the
gate seeking an opportunity. But would you consider spying on the
journalism departments at universities, identifying brilliant students
who are keen on journalism and establishing a mentorship relationship
that could result into employment?
I think newsrooms, just like all businesses, should be more
proactive, more serious about how they recruit.
The idea is that instead of having 30 people, you have 15
people who are really good or 20 people who are really good
and they can produce the work of 30 people with ease and
it would be good work, likely [to] be recognised outside by
the market.

Tapping, Shaping, and Keeping Talent

But you see newsrooms try to go for shortcuts, just pick anyone
who comes or pick the cheapest person. They dont invest in
trying to retain the good people. But how can you thrive as a
[media] business when people are so secondary to what you
are doing? You cant. Machines can only do so much.
Getting talented and passionate people into the newsroom is one
thing. But, Tabaire argues, human resource departments and newsroom
managers need to work harder to create a supportive environment a
place where people really want to work. In fact a key problem of the
Ugandan mainstream media has been retention. The rate of turnover
is worrying as many young and promising reporters and editors easily
leave newsrooms.
Once people are in the newsroom, regardless of how they came
in, its really important to identify the good people and try
to keep them, try to encourage, try to mentor them, nurture
them. If I am a good person and Im lost in the newsroom;
I dont have any help; Im just there, I will move. Making
workers stay is not [automatic]; even if you are paying them
well, there has to be something a little more. People must feel
they belong, people must feel valued.

Mentorship, Briefing, and Debriefing

Ntulume believes she rose because she had great and systematic one-
on-one guidance by newsroom leaders. Some news departments today
do not insist on this: the reporter writes the story the way they deem
fit and hand it over to the editors to edit and publish. While that may
work, Ntulumes experience suggests things can be better with a little
more effort.
I was privileged to work as an intern at the Crusader
newspaper that was owned by my lecturers. The way those
people worked I remember going to Parliament, for example:
Peter Mwesige was at the political desk and he would say:
You are going to cover Parliament today. What is your
focus going to be? I would go to Parliament, get back and
brief him and we discuss the angle. After writing the story, I
would go and show him, and again we would work on the

Write Right, Tight

story together. Thats how I learnt to write; we would work

on the story together.
Then I moved into The Monitor and I was placed on the
upcountry desk with Sarah Namulondo under the supervision
of the late Kevin Aliro. Its unfortunate that both of them are
gone but I really owe a lot to them. Imagine I was a sub-editor,
I would get the stories and sub them and pass them to Kevin.
He would then call me to his office and we go through them
together, can you imagine? It would take only 15 minutes
and then he would re-sub the stories I had subbed with me
present. We went through that over three to four days and
within no time I was one of the best subs. But other people
didnt get that opportunity.
It is a view shared by The EastAfricans Julie Nabwire, who believes in
coaching tirelessly and guiding, even where it includes the terrible
habit of sometimes telling off people.
I did benefit from coaching and mentorship. I joined New
Vision straight out of the classroom as a sub on the news desk.
New Vision then believed in coaching and mentoring people.
I was coached by people like Ben Opolot and the late Irene
Nambi Sseppuuya. I was [then] transferred to the features
desk where I really, really benefitted from Barbara [Kaija]s
coaching and mentorship. Barbara encouraged us to go out
and write. Barbara helped us on how to edit stories. And then
New Vision also had Ben Bella Ilakut for in-house training
of subs, retraining.
Of course and this takes us back to attitude one has to have the
humility to want to be mentored. As New Vision deputy news editor
Francis Kagolo says, some people do not want to be shown the way. If
you are already too good, that is no problem. But no one is so good that
they have nothing to learn from their editor; no story is so good that it
cant be improved. In journalism much like other professions, learning
is an endless engagement.

Training Opportunities
Almost all editors interviewed spoke about the importance of training.
New Visions Robert Mudhasi says one of the features of his two decades

Tapping, Shaping, and Keeping Talent

in the newsroom has been refresher training provided by the company.

This has gone beyond just journalistic work to include things such as
management skills and personal finance.
Media houses need to have a deliberate policy to encourage journalists
to get training, as this will most likely improve their work. Says Bernard
A newsroom should encourage its people to go for further
training; get opportunities for them, short-term and long-
term, and those sorts of things. Theres no magic; media houses
just have to do what other businesses have done or what other
business are doing to keep their people. People have to see that
there is a path to growth; and also, that growth should not
mean that if you are a reporter and your passion is reporting
that then you have to become a sub-editor to earn a little
more pay.
Yet, as Francis Kagolo points out, even if the company provided the
training, it would be up to the reporter to take it seriously and resolve
to put theory into practice. Without that resolve, training would be
just another breather for overworked staff. Still, it is better to train and
hope for the best.


From Katanga Slum to

Deputy News Editor
One Scribes Route

New Visions FRANCIS KAGOLO was one of Ugandas most efficient

and flawless reporters when, in April 2015, he was promoted to deputy
news editor. For those who know him, this was not a surprise. A year
earlier, I had brought his name up during a conversation with The
Observer managing director James Tumusiime about the scarcity of
accomplished young people. Tumusiime replied curtly: He is very highly
regarded there! And the message was clear: dont dream about that one.
When I interviewed Kagolo, I wanted to know what he has done to rise
so fast in the countrys largest newspaper. His story should inspire many
young journalists keen to get to the top.

Lets start at the beginning: how did you end up in the

I started journalism as an intern in Bukedde [newspaper]; I was at
Makerere University doing Mass Communication. That time [2006]
New Vision was taking only two interns a year. When New Vision took
two of our colleagues, I never wanted to work in any other media house.
So, I said since theres Bukedde and I know how to write Luganda I
studied Luganda up to A-level and I also taught it after my A-level I
decided to go to Bukedde.
Now, Bukedde is different from other newspapers. Their beats are [mostly]
peripheral: you cover Kalerwe, Katanga, Kibe zone [slummy areas].

From Katanga Slum to Deputy News Editor, One Scribes Route

When I went to Bukedde, they told me: okay, since you are at Makerere
University for us, you cover Katanga. Now imagine you are at the best
university in Uganda; you performed well in A-level; you know you are
one of the best. Now you come and someone tells you to go to Katanga!
They had given me an internship slot at CBS [radio] but I I wanted to
work with Vision. So, I had to go to Katanga. Unfortunately there was
another reporter assigned to cover Katanga slum! So, there was some
competition; that reporter is called Godfrey Lukanga. Later I learnt
that Lukanga lives far and usually comes to Katanga late. So, I devised
a trick. I would wake up very early in the morning; by 7.30a.m., I am
in Katanga, and I go to LC1 chairpersons, police post and speak to a
few people, [asking] what has happened here?
I remember finding a woman called Nakijoba; she was looking after kids.
I wrote a feature about her. I was so happy [when it ran in] Bukedde.
Eventually I discovered that from Katanga, on my way to office, I could
go to Wandegeya police station and get some stories. I went there for a few
weeks and stopped because some policemen were asking me for money.
I remember earning my first pay from Bukedde; [it] was Shs 62,000. I
was very happy. I stopped going to the [Nsibirwa hall] mess and I would
sometimes buy chips. Eventually journalism became [very interesting]
because of that earning and I was still at Makerere. I went from Katanga
to Kibe zone. I discovered that the person who was covering Kibe was
also covering Kawempe and Bwaise; so, it was a big area for her. She is
called Sarah Zawedde. So, I went to Kibe, Kalerwe and covered some
big stories.
After I had completed campus, I started sending stories to New Vision.
I remember my first story in New Vision was Prof. [Apolo] Nsibambis
retirement as Makerere University chancellor. It was a half page in late
2007. I was excited. After graduation in 2008, I crossed to Vision but
still filed some stories for Bukedde.
I free-lanced for one and a half years in New Vision. In 2009, I was made
a junior reporter and after some years, reporter, and then senior reporter,
and eventually deputy news editor handling general news. Thats what
Im currently doing since April 2015.

Write Right, Tight

What would you say has helped you to achieve the

kind of quality that has seen you rise that fast?
I think good writers rarely know they write well. Some do; for me it
took me a long time until sub-editors started telling me. I started hearing
I want to edit Kagolos stories and things like that. But back to your
question, in the university we used to say journalism is a baptism of
fire. There is another saying that a good journalist is born, but not made.
When you combine these two, for me it means that journalism has so
much to do with life skills. Skills we learn at home than what we learn
in universities. You may be a good writer, yes; be fluent in English, yes;
but fail in journalism because of so many issues.
For me I think journalism has to do a lot with hard work. I remember
when I was freelancing, I would come here at 5a.m., do a feature story.
We used to have brainstorming meetings every morning at 8:30a.m.;
by around 8a.m., I am half-way through my feature story; I go for the
news meeting [and] get an assignment. Before I go to the field, I would
fight to finish my feature story.
I would write features and news stories. That helped me. I remember
even when I was appointed junior reporter, Cathy Mwesigwa, then
features editor, was on leave: she came back and said: Francis, they
have put you on news? I wanted you to go to features because I was
juggling both desks.
You have to understand the nature of your work. If a news editor leaves at
10p.m., why do you leave at 5p.m.? Why do you leave at 4p.m.? I would
leave at around 9:30p.m., sometimes even beyond. And whenever the
news editor called me back to office, I would still come back. One time
I had reached home and relaxed and John Kakande, then news editor,
called me. I had to jump on a boda boda and come back; I remember
I even came in shorts. So, that is the commitment and hard work; for
me that is the number one priority if someone wants to succeed in
With that comes humility and the willingness to learn, and teamwork.
These are life skills we learn from home when we are still young.
You cannot go to interview someone sometimes journalists are
knowledgeable and informed, but I read that for you to succeed as an
interviewer, you must appear as if you are stupid. Now thats the humility,

From Katanga Slum to Deputy News Editor, One Scribes Route

understanding that I know this issue but I want some information from
this man. Those are the life skills I would start with.
Im a person who always yearns for knowledge. I continuously skill
myself. I will tell you that I was not a good writer but I remember John
Kakande one time abused me. He said: a university graduate, how can
you write like this? I feltI felt I cant even explain how I felt. I felt
bad, but the humility I talked about, I didnt respond to him. Then I
understood that I have this weakness, I need to improve. I see some
reporters when they are told like that, they quarrel; one of them even
tried to beat an editor.
I remember talking to a friend and I asked him that how can I improve
myself? I wanted to go back and do some training in English language
so that I could become a good writer. He told me: No; you may not
need to do that; you just need to read. That brings me to another point:
that you cannot be a good writer if you are not a good reader. You need
to read because that way, you become informed, you get to know current
affairs, but also you come to appreciate the different writing styles.

When he said you just have to read, how did you do

I read more of novels, but also I used to spend some good time in the
library, reading newspapers. These days I dont read novels; I like reading
academic stuff. When I see a well-written academic article, I enjoy it.
I remember Heritage Oil took me to cover a function in the Albertine
region and we went by plane. We spent only one day but I said I need
to come back with some good feature stories. I went well prepared; I
went reading my novels [and thinking]: if I find a story about education,
how do I approach it? So, thats how I improved myself hard work!
Then, I talked about continuous skilling: in those few years [almost seven]
I reported, I never took leave to rest, never. Actually I started taking leave
when I became editor. I took leave when I had training to attend [or]
when I had exams to do. In those seven years I think I attended more
than 20 journalism trainings. Some of these may look the usual things
you do in the newsroom but when you attend that training, it brings
some reflection. I remember attending many trainings at ACME [African
Centre for Media Excellence]; I never took any training for granted.

Write Right, Tight

But I guess training also depends if you take it

Thats the problem! Some reporters go for transport refund, relaxing,
meeting colleagues, eating food and coming back. But if you take
trainings seriously, definitely you will improve yourself. The people
who come [to deliver these] trainings are veteran journalists like Peter
Mwesige. You learn a lot of things from them.
When I was a reporter, I got to a point and thought, maybe we need
to emphasise specialisation, like we have someone specifically for the
education beat, environment and someone to handle health and another
person maybe on road infrastructure. But I didnt have that opportunity
to concentrate on one particular beat. Im a kind of person who, after
covering a beat I would feel I need to learn some more, some new stuff
somewhere. So, in New Vision I started with education, I covered crime,
health, environment, and agriculture. Now, I come to understand when
I was appointed editor that a good reporter, a good journalist, needs
to know something about everything. And they end up being the best
writers in the newsroom.
The other issue is open-mindedness! A journalist doesnt have to be close-
minded. Its common among political writers. Yes, you may know the
truth but give the other person an opportunity to speak and when he
speaks leave his comment there. When you write, dont try to draw stories
to your side as if you are writing an opinion. You have to be open-minded
and know that a journalist is not an activist. Activism has killed a lot of
good reporters. Despite being informed and knowledgeable, you dont
have to rule out someones comments just because you know he is lying.
Let him say what he wants to say. You can give what you have discovered
in your investigations and let the other person comment; thats good
journalism to me. You can bring in context and background and your
findings, but let the person speak. Im very critical but open-minded.

Someone said the purpose of education is to replace

an empty mind with an open mind
I think journalists also need to go for further training. Experience,
experience is not enough. We report about issues that we are not
experts in. What can help you is further training. I did a post-graduate

From Katanga Slum to Deputy News Editor, One Scribes Route

diploma in investigative journalism and immediately after, I went back

for a masters in sustainable development. That improves your analytical
skills and critical thinking. You find someone has reported for 10 years;
he came in with a bachelors; he is still with that bachelors; he hasnt
even attended any short course or training; how will he improve? We
need to encourage journalists to [go back to school].

Any other suggestions or strategies for raising the

standards in our newsrooms?
I dont believe in job interviews for reporters. I dont think interviews
can give you a good reporter. Given the opportunity, I wouldnt use that
strategy. The other thing I can say is have a pool of freelancers and have
a way of motivating them.
I have talked to a number of freelancers; freelancing for a long time also
frustrates them. But if you have 10 freelancers, you identify one or two
who have excelled [and] you pick from that pool. Even when someone
graduates from university, they can freelance. When you see that they
are committed and they have improved and excelled, then you hire
them full-time.

What about newsroom training?

In the newsrooms, you need constant trainings, and one-on-one sessions
between editor and reporter can help. You can identify ones strengths
and weaknesses. You know a reporter has an eye for news but their
writing is not good.
Journalism is tricky; its hard to get someone who is blessed in all aspects.
Someone may be good at sourcing news but when it comes to writing,
they are terrible. What you can do is keep in constant touch with them;
you can even keep a number of published stories and review them
together. Its not easy because of how much work we have but once in
a while I do it.

Do you get positive results?

I think I read a quote that was put up by Paul Busharizi on the internet
- that more educated people are usually humble and willing to learn.
Sometimes you are trying to help someone and you realise that he is

Write Right, Tight

not forthcoming. What I do is I retreat and try to talk to you better. Its
a process; its not easy because its a management skill I need to learn.

So, the challenge is for one to have the right attitude,

to be humble and ready to learn...
Its good when you discover your weakness and try to improve; but
most people dont. And I think journalism, especially print journalism,
is heading into a serious crisis.


The Last Words

On Desire, Bills and Dreams

In March 1996, The Monitor newspaper published a little sports story

titled Violence erupts in Entebbe league. The author was an unknown
senior five student, with an incomprehensible by-line. Days earlier, the
writer had walked to The Monitor offices on Dewinton road and told
editors he wanted to start writing. He got encouragement but all he had,
really, was desire. That student was me.
In March 2017, I got an email with something I had been desperate
for an offer to retire me from the newsroom.
The 21 years in between have given me everything that journalism
can offer; hope and hype, frustration and fame, condemnation and
I write this with my rucksack on the back, as I prepare to leave The
Observer newsroom that has been my workplace for 12-and-a-half years.
This handbook, therefore, is a timely token of appreciation to journalism
for enriching me.
I have no doubt there are many young people with the kind of desire
I had in 1996 to become a top journalist. And some of Ugandas
accomplished editors have shared here what they have learnt about good
reporting and writing.
For me, learning has often come from looking at what the best journalists
did. Before that debut article about the schools football league, I read
five copies of The Monitor newspaper to understand how people wove
disparate words to read like God created them together. By the time I
put down the last copy, I told myself, this thing is not so difficult. The

Write Right, Tight

language of my first article was a combination of what I had read and

what I used to hear on BBC radios Sports Roundup programme. I often
remember my excitement at the fact that the editor did not change the
first sentence of my first attempt at writing.
A cynic could argue this was not my intro but one copied from the BBC.
To that charge I would plead guilty, but I would not apologise. And if
there was one thing I wish every reader of this book takes away, it is that
critically and consistently reading high-quality journalism is a must for
those who want to master the craft.
I can hardly think of anything important for the development of good
journalists that has not already been articulated by the editors in this
book. The one thing I normally ask young people who ask for mentorship
is to search their soul, look critically at the difficult, taxing, poorly paying
thing called journalism, and ask themselves if that is what they want
to spend their best years doing. My goal is not to discourage would-be
journalists but to encourage honest self-appraisal of why people want
to become journalists.
Of course we all want to earn from our work, but money and Ugandan
journalism have a historically complicated relationship. We journalists
often complain that journalism does not pay us as much as other
professions pay our classmates. Some even use this excuse to solicit bribes.
But while journalism does not pay the highest salaries anywhere in the
world, those who give it an honest shot can derive satisfaction and an
honest living from it.
In August 2000, I visited my mother in Masaka. She was happy that
finally her son had completed his first degree and intimated that she had
talked to a few friends in good places to help me find a job.
Well, mum, I am not looking for a job, I said calmly, eager to take
any pressure off her.
I know you must be anxious, she said sympathetically. But leave that
to me. We will find the job.
But I do not need to look for a job now!
Richard? Mum said gravely, putting down two glasses on the counter
of her shop. What do you mean?
Mum, I am just not looking for a job. I am fine.

The Last Words, On Desire, Bills and Dreams

What are you going to do?

I am already a freelance journalist!
Journalism? my mothers face dropped. There is no money in
journalism. I am not going to pay your rent after suffering to pay your
school fees.
Well, Mum, let me do what I love to do. If I fail to pay my bills, I will
come back and we look for a job.
The jury is still out on whether I have managed to pay my bills. It depends
on who you ask. Certainly the children would like a big car today, an
aeroplane tomorrow, and a storeyed house the next day. I guess as they
get older, they will agree that all they need is a strong, stable foundation
so that they will be able to pursue their own dreams.
This handbook is meant to support those who dream to report completely
and write with professional flair.
Good luck!

Further Reading

Hart, Jack (2007) A Writers Coach: The Complete Guide To Writing Strategies
That Work. Anchor Books, New York.
Williams, Joseph M. (1990) Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. University of
Chicago Press, Chicago.
Miller, Joan I & Taylor, Bruce J (2008) The Punctuation Handbook, WIPF &
Stock, Oregon.
Strunk, W., Jr., &White,E.B.(1999).TheElements of Style. New York:
Allyn& Bacon
Zinsser, William Knowlton. (2006)On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to
Writing Nonfiction,New York : HarperCollins,
Trends in Newsrooms 2016; Published by the World Association of
Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). Available on: http://
Ne_2895264a.pdf; accessed on 27/10/2016
National Public Radio social media guidelines: http://ethics.npr.org/tag/social-
BBC Michelle Nkamankeng interview: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/
Ordering adjectives: https://literalminded.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/ordering-