Journalistic Writing MCM310
NEWS WRITING II
"I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen
or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement."
- John Updike
Reporting boils down to three things:
As a reporter, you have a lot of power. What you write can influence decisions, help form public opinions of
With that power come responsibilities that can't be taken lightly. Get a fact wrong, misspell a name or omit a
vital piece of information and you not only can distort the truth and misinform the public, but you also damage
the credibility of your newspaper. Guard it carefully.
Newspaper writing is not academic writing. We don't use big words and long sentences to show our readers
how smart we are. Newspaper readers are pressed for time. You have to give them the news quickly, concisely
and without a lot of extra words or information they don't need. Every story competes for a reader's attention
... against other stories, against the TV in the background, against every distraction you can think of.
With every story you write, ask yourself: What is the news here? Why should my readers care? What does
this mean to them? Your lead, and then the rest of your story, should spring from those questions.
Then, ask yourself (and the people around you), "What questions will the reader have that I need to answer?"
Write short: short sentences, short paragraphs, short stories. Use simple language. Think hard about every
word you use. Is it necessary? Is there a clearer, concise way to say this?
Read your story aloud. It sounds dumb, but you'll spot places that don't sound right and might trip up the
Good writers are artists. Good news writers are, too. They can entertain, inspire, anger and educate. News
stories don't have to follow the old, worn-out, inverted pyramid format. Sure, you'll still use it sometimes,
particularly for important, breaking news on deadline. But look for opportunities to veer from that format into
something more interesting. Never forget, though, that your No. 1 objective is to tell people what they need to
know -- not to show them how much of a literary artist you are.
First five paragraphs
All the work of producing a news story is futile if the story does not engage the reader immediately. Writing
coaches have identified four key elements that should be present in the first five paragraphs of any news story
(not necessarily in any particular order). They are:
The newest information: the basic facts of who, what, when, where, why and how ... the most relevant
what a situation means and who is affected. Tells readers what the news changes about their lives and, maybe,
Journalistic Writing MCM310
what they should do.
The general perspective, which frames the background of the news, addresses the relationship of things around
the news. Context helps readers understand whether something is normal or surprising.
The human dimension takes a story from abstract to reality. It offers personal elements that help readers
understand the story. This is not necessarily a quote, but it could be.
(Hopp is the former writing coach at the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake)
1. Effective lead. Focused, short, memorable
2. A second paragraph that amplifies the lead.
3. A third paragraph that continues to build detail.
4. Nut graph. Provides context or tells reader why this is important.
5. Power quote: An interesting quote that propels meaning. Not just a fluffy quote that gets in the way.
Before you write, know your point: What is this story about and why is it important?
Common problems in leads
· Cluttered. More than one idea.
Flabby. It says, "I don't know what this story is about."
Dull. Ho-hum. No tension. No energy that drives the writing forward.
Mechanical. No human voice, no "music." Just another burger and fries.
Closed. A private conversation between those who speak the same jargon. It says, "Stay away. You
don't know enough to read this."
Predictable. Written in journalese or bureaucratese. Clichés. No surprises, no unexpected words of
phrases that are unexpected and that delight us as they capture and clarify a news event. No "chuckle
Qualities of Effective Leads
· Focus. Make a specific promise to the reader, and then deliver.
Context. Involve the reader. Show clear, immediate significance. Answer the question, "Why should I
read this story?"
Form. Implies a design, a plan, a structure, a pattern that will help the reader understand the meaning.
Information. Whets the readers' appetite, promises delivery.
Voice. A human voice talking to the reader. Provides the "music" to support the meaning of what is
Surprise. The promise of something new.
What's that mean? Subject-verb-object sentences of generally less than 24 words.
Journalistic Writing MCM310
Good writing starts with good sentence structure, and that means simple construction: subject-verb-object. Not
blah, blah, blah, S-V-O. All that does is delay meaning.
This also is called the right-branching sentence: Think of S-V-O as the engine of a train. A short train
Problem writers use a lot of commas and other punctuation. A good remedial exercise is to try writing a story
with no commas. That, of course, means sentences should be short. Research shows that 20-word sentences
are fairly clear to most readers. Thirty-word sentences are not.
Here's an even easier test: If you can't read a sentence aloud without taking a breath, it's too long.
TEN GUIDELINES TO CLEARER WRITING
1. One idea per sentence.
No: Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., experienced the largest of recent high school murder rampages
last week, and DeKalb schools, along with police, are reacting to a rumor of violence at DeKalb High School.
Yes: School officials and police are reacting quickly to a rumored threat of violence at DeKalb High School.
The response follows last week's high school massacre in Littleton, Colo.
2. Limit sentence length to 23-25 words. If you can't read a sentence aloud without a breath, it's too long.
3. S-V-O: Subject-Verb-Object. Right-branching sentences (think of a train engine). Don't delay meaning.
Don't use a lot of commas.
No: Mauger, who worked as a bursar at DePaul University in Chicago prior to working at Beloit, said she
missed the university environment.
Yes: Mauger was a bursar at Chicago's DePaul University before her Beloit job. She missed the university
4. Use strong verbs and an active voice.
No: The poem will be read by La Tourette.
Yes: La Tourette will read the poem.
5. Reduce difficult words to their simplest terms. Don't let bureaucrats dictate your word choices.
No: The search committee will be constructed in accordance with Article 8 of the NIU constitution.
Yes: NIU's constitution dictates the search committee's makeup.
6. Don't back into a sentence.
No: The end of the academic year and the end of the legislative session were two reasons Dr Val cited.
Yes: Dr Val cited two reasons: the end of the academic year and the end of the legislative session.
7. Don't use more than three numbers in any one sentence.
No: Wednesday, the NIU baseball team's winless streak hit 22 as NIU (4-37-1) dropped a twin bill to Miami
Yes: Oxford, Ohio Ñ NIU's baseball losing streak reached 22 as the Huskies dropped a doubleheader
Wednesday to Miami, 8-2 and 10-5.
8. Use no more than three prepositional phrases per sentence.
No: Students who will be graduating from NIU will be honored at a senior luncheon from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Yes: Friday's senior luncheon will honor students about to graduate. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in
the Holmes Student Center's Regency Room.
9. Choose the precise word.
No: This will increase the number of participants from 55 students a week to 200 students a week, and in that
extra 145 students the age for attendance also will change. The present center is only equipped to handle
children ages 2-6, but the new center will have the capacity to serve infants, too. (2 sentences, 53 words total)
Yes: This will increase the center's weekly capacity, from 55 children to 200. And, while the current center takes
children ages 2-6, the new center will take infants, too. (2 sentences, 28 words total)
Journalistic Writing MCM310
10. KISS (keep it simple, stupid).
No: Biological sciences professor Karl Johnson passed away Tuesday at the age of 55, following a long,
The best quotes are short and bright. They surprise, shock or amuse. They reveal insights or secrets. They
prove points. They allow experts to give perspective, and real people to air grievances. Don't quote simple
statements of fact.
Sins to avoid when quoting people
· Stutter quotes: Saying the same thing twice.
I intend to run for a second term,"
· Partial quotes: Often, it's less awkward just to paraphrase.
Weak: Smith said the money was "spent by me" in order to buy "better-looking plants for the office."
Better: Smith said he spent the money on better-looking plants for the office.
· Parenthetical info in quotes
WEAK: "We can't get (the concrete barrier) to stay in one place because (La Tourette) keeps driving into it," Smith said.
BETTER: La Tourette's driving habits appear to be the main obstacle to keeping the concrete barrier from being moved.
"We can't get it to stay in one place because he keeps driving into it," Smith said.
· Junk quotes. Vague, bureaucratic. Quotes that say nothing.
Stacking quotes. Just stringing a bunch of them together rather than constructing a story.
Weak lead quotes. Empty, boring, vague, repetitive.
Weak end quotes. Using any old quote just to finish off the story.
Are you a planner or a plunger?
· Planners execute four or five elements in advance. Plungers start tight in and discover what they want
to say in the process. But they tend to write long and then cut back. They're slower. They may run out
of time and give editors grey hair.
Both ways can and do work. But writers need to understand which one they are and what works for
Being a plunger requires a good memory and the ability to formulate in your head. Being a planner
requires marking up notes.
Plungers are better on breaking, deadline stories. Planners are better on more-complicated, no deadline
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