News stories are made up of facts, observations and quotes. Reporters use their news judgment to decide what is most important to include in a story and in what order to put information.
They focus on these things:
• What is the news?
• What is the story?
• What is the image?
• How can I tell the story?
Telling the Story is the third in a series on media development.
Reporters decide on a focus for the story before sitting down to write. Then they organize the story, listing the facts and deciding what should be at the top, end and middle of the story. They select the best quotes or sound bites from an interview and decide where they should go.
Good news writing is concise, clear and accurate. Generally, news stories have shorter sentences and paragraphs than other types of writing. Each paragraph contains one main idea. A new paragraph begins when a new idea, character or setting is introduced.
Journalists use simple, direct language that is easy to understand, with more nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs.
Because they write stories for a general audience, journalists try to avoid jargon or terms unfamiliar to most people.
A principle of news writing is to show the audience what happened rather than telling them about it.
Accuracy is critically important: grammar, spelling, punctuation, dates, addresses, numbers and other details that go into a news story.
Quotes and Sound Bites
News stories are told primarily in the reporter’s words. They include the words of other people in quotations or sound bites. Quotes make stories stronger by sharing the direct experience of someone involved. A quote high in a story can make it more interesting. Quotes are at least one sentence long.
The best quotes add insight and perspective to stories. They use colorful language and reflect on personal experience or expert knowledge.
Once you’ve chosen the best quotes, build your story around them.
Attribution identifies the source of the information reported. One reason to attribute information is to allow readers and listeners the opportunity to decide whether to believe it. Another reason is to place responsibility for a controversial statement where it belongs, with the person who said it.
A story has a structure in the same way that people have a spine. But not all stories should be structured in the same way.
In the inverted pyramid, information following the lead develops the point made in the lead.
A modified inverted pyramid is the “hourglass.” It begins with the most important information. After a few paragraphs it becomes a narrative, usually told in chronological order.
Another form is the “diamond.” It begins with an anecdote, introducing a character whose experience illustrates what the story is about. The story then broadens to show its wider significance. Toward the end, the reporter returns to the character’s story to conclude the narrative.
The lead begins the news story. It is meant to capture attention. A hard lead summarizes the essential facts of the story. A soft lead may set the scene or introduce a character. It may be anecdotal, illustrating or foreshadowing the larger story.
Have an ending in mind when you begin writing. Endings often echo beginnings — they return to an important place or a person. A story may end with a sound bite or strong quote when it is so powerful that anything more would be a letdown.
(Adapted from an article by Deborah Potter published in the Handbook of Independent Journalism. Potter is executive director of NewsLab, an online resource for journalists in Washington. Download the complete Handbook of Independent Journalism [PDF 834kB].)