The White Rabbit put on his spectacles.
‘Where shall I begin, please, Your Majesty?’ he asked.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end; then stop.’
Narrators and report writers may find this advice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland very useful. Effective news writers ignore it.
What happens when friends come to you with some interesting news or gossip? They don’t start with the history or background behind the story – they engage your attention with the most interesting piece of information and fill in the detail as the conversation flows, and as time allows.
A news story should be written in much the same way, with an opening designed to arrest attention, and the key facts presented in the first few lines. Details and less important facts are presented later. This style of writing is sometimes referred to as an inverted pyramid.
▼News is written like this for two main reasons:
• Reading newspapers and newsletters is generally regarded as a casual rather than dedicated reading activity. Most of us browse and will only read items that attract our attention quickly. Often we will only take in the opening paragraph of a story, before switching our attention to something else.
• Editors are constantly forced to cut stories to fit the spaces in the paper. The easiest way to do this is to cut from the end upwards. Placing the key facts early in the story protects them from being lost in the editorial process.
Engaging the reader is key to success. News writers typically spend far more time and attention on openings than on the rest of the article. The reader’s attention is caught by headlines (dealt with below) and leads, the first few lines of the story. A good lead not only summarises the key facts but also sets the structure, leading both writer and reader into the way the rest of the story will unfold. Take a look at this example:
Over 1,000 readers have taken part in a major listening event held by Pooltown Library Improvement Partnership. Their message to the organizers? ‘Bring back the books.’
• A good lead answers one or more of the key questions, Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.
• A good lead focuses on people and on the interests of the target reader.
• A good lead includes at least one arresting key fact (‘over 1,000 readers’) and emphasises the importance of the story (‘major listening event’).
• A good lead points to how the story will develop – in this case, what the event revealed and how the findings may be used to improve the service.
• A good lead sets the pace and rhythm of the story.
Here’s a example of a bad lead:
An important reminder to all of our members and to those wishing to join us! Your database details are the most important item of information we have about you, so please ensure that all of your details are correct and updated regularly. Remember, your database records are your passport to participation!
• This is not news, despite the writer’s attempt to add urgency by using the word ‘important’ twice and by the amateurish use of exclamation marks. There are no key facts or reported actions.
• The fragmented opening non-sentence sets the tone of the piece, which reads more like a warning notice than a news item.
• The lead aims to focus on the target reader, but the focus is lost by addressing both the existing member and the potential member at the same time. The hectoring tone is likely to put off both sets of reader.
• In general it is best to avoid ‘we’ and ‘our’ in news writing as it looks unprofessional and reduces the objective credibility of the piece.
• There are several redundant words and irritating repetitions. The same message could be carried using half the number of words with no loss of meaning.
• Where is the ‘story’ going from here? The lead does not set the structure for writer or reader to follow through.
The job of the headline is to draw the attention of the reader to the story. Few of us have the time to read all the stories. We rely on the headline to provide a summary to help us decide whether the article is worth reading. The effective headline is both informative and creative. It distils the essence of the story and stirs the reader’s curiosity.
A headline should be short – usually not more than seven words long – though it may carry a sub-headline or deck underneath to add more information. Good headline writers only use a deck if it adds to the impact of the headline and doesn’t steal the key point in the lead paragraph.
Except in editorial pieces the headline shouldn’t carry an author’s viewpoint, but subtle use (or misuse) of language will ensure that the headline helps to establish the tone of the story. One word change can alter the tone entirely:
MOUNTED POLICE CHARGE CROWD
MOUNTED POLICE CLEAR CROWD
Headlines can be difficult to write; it’s a challenge to summarise a story in a few words, especially as it’s important to write something sufficiently different from the words used in the lead paragraph.
Suppose you need to write a headline; try these tips:
Re-read the story asking the question, ‘What is new here?’ The news element should form the basis of your headline.
Remember news is people. The human interest always catches the eye and stirs the emotions.
Think of some key words in the story and try some word association to develop an angle. Word plays and puns can be effective, but be careful – poor punning or over-use of alliteration is the mark of an amateur.
What picture comes to mind as you read the story? Can you transform your mental image into a word picture for your headline?
An imaginative verb can make a headline stand out, an active one enlivens.
Write the headline from a different perspective to the main one used in the story. If the story is about a new project, try writing the headline from the standpoint of the people it will affect.
Is there a quote that usefully sums up the story? Don’t overuse this technique, but it sometimes offers possibilities.
Key facts – such as a large number or a surprising statistic – can form the basis of a good headline.
Whatever headline you write, always be aware that the editor may choose a different one. This does not necessarily mean that yours was no good. It may be that for reasons of space or layout a different type or length of headline was more appropriate. Always add a headline to your article – it helps you sell your story to the editor before it reaches the reader.
This acronym for good journalism or copywriting stands for:
Again, let’s imagine you are the news writer. How can you make good use of your CRAFT?
Newspapers are read rapidly, so they need to be understood quickly and easily. Avoid difficult words, complex sentences, jargon, technical language, unexplained abbreviations and elaborate expression.
A news story should have good pace, with a certain urgency. Feature stories may be more reflective but never laboured. Use the lead to establish the rhythm, structure and pace of the piece. Use the ‘active’ voice with strong, direct verbs. End the story with a powerful sign-off or a call to action.
Check your facts carefully. If something in your article is inaccurate or untrue it can damage the credibility of the publication and the organisation. In extreme cases it could even lead to legal action. Do your research diligently. Avoid the temptation to ‘boost’ your argument by over-stating a case. Earn credibility by treating your reader with respect.
Originality is precious in all writing. In news writing, which is often done under the pressure of a deadline, it’s easy to slip into cliché or lean too heavily on words and phrases that have been used before on the subject. A good test is whether what you have written interests you when you read it. If it doesn’t, you can be sure it won’t engage your reader either.
Writing is a powerful tool and it’s surprisingly easy to cause offence. Always reread your work with the sensibilities of your readers and other groups involved clearly in mind. Consider your words and the assumptions that lie behind your words from a variety of cultural standpoints.
Direct quotation can be useful in a number of ways:
• It emphasises the ‘people’ elements of your story.
• It can keep the article fresh and lively by introducing a new ‘voice’.
• It can help to answer the questions, Why, Who, What or How.
• Using a quote from an authorative source can reinforce credibility.
• Using voices from inside your organisation can help make it more human for your readers.
• Using voices from your reader community creates empathy with your reader.
You should, however, avoid corporate platitudes and tokenism in your articles. Direct quotation should only be used if it adds value, colour, genuine information or an interesting viewpoint.
Proofreading and Editing
These should be tackled in three stages:
Read for errors
Check for obvious errors first, or they will distract you when you start to read for meaning. Use the spell-check to help but be aware of its limitations and never use the ‘Replace All’ button.
Read for meaning
Read the entire story, concentrating on the big picture. Does the story make sense? Is it newsworthy? Is it accurate and fair? Is it clear and concise? Is the lead interesting and engaging? Are you happy with the tone, rhythm and structure? Does it end well? How will the reader respond?
Read for detail
Read the story once again, with a microscopic eye for detail. Check spelling, grammar, names, dates and facts. Check any information you are unsure about. Tighten up any slack writing and remove redundant words and phrases, or any other padding.
Submit the story for publication only when you are happy that it meets the standards you set for yourself and the standards expected by the publisher and the reader. You may not win the Pulitzer Prize, but you will certainly have improved your chance of seeing your words in newsprint.
‘Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.’
Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism (1863-1952)