Chapter 5: Writing the intro, the golden rules

In Chapter 4: Writing the Intro in simple steps you learned what qualities made a good intro, the importance of newsworthiness and of answering the questions Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? (WWWWW & H) - but not all in the intro!. You also took the first steps in actually writing an intro from raw information to the finished short, crisp sentence based on the news angle.

In this chapter, the second part of intro writing, we discuss some golden rules to help you write the best intro possible.

KISS

As we have mentioned in Chapter 4, all news stories must answer the questions Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?  Each of these questions may have several parts, depending upon the nature and complexity of the story.

Do not try to answer them all in the intro. You will only confuse your reader or listener. Stick to one or two key points per sentence, especially in the intro.

Remember the golden rule is KISS - Keep It Short and Simple.

You will overload your sentence and make instant understanding difficult if you include unnecessary details which can be explained more fully later in the story.

Your intro is like a canoe being paddled against a fast flowing current. Every word in the sentence should be like a rower with a paddle, helping to push the sentence forward. There is no room for lazy words sitting back without paddles in their hands. They just make work harder for the rest of the words. So look closely at every word and ask yourself: "Does it have a paddle in its hand?" If it doesn't, throw it overboard!

Some of the fattest and laziest words to be found in the intro canoes are titles. Inexperienced journalists often think that they have to put full titles in the intro when, in fact, they belong later in the story. Try to shorten titles for your intros wherever possible.two canoesIn the following example, you will see that a general description of the person in the intro, followed by the full name and title in the second paragraph, works much better:

RIGHT:
A Port Moresby union leader yesterday condemned politicians who try to interfere in labour disputes.

Mr Mug Wump, president of the Port Moresby Waterside Workers' Union, said...

WRONG:
Mr Mug Wump, president of the Port Moresby Waterside Workers' Union, yesterday condemned politicians who try to interfere in labour disputes.

 


Active voice

Use the active voice wherever possible. An active voice sentence uses the simple grammatical structure of subject-verb-object.

The sentence "the man hit the table" is in the active voice, where the table is the object of the verb "hit". The sentence "the table was hit by the man" is in the passive voice. As you can see, the first sentence is not only shorter, but it is far simpler and easier to understand. This is especially important when your reader or listener speaks English as a second or third language.

The following examples will demonstrate this rule:

RIGHT:
Copra growers have demanded a new subsidy scheme.

RIGHT:
Angry villagers attacked three Japanese tourists in Western Province yesterday.

WRONG:
A new copra subsidy scheme has been demanded by growers.

WRONG:
Three Japanese tourists were attacked by angry villagers in Western Province yesterday.


The main exception to this rule is when the object of the sentence is much more newsworthy than the subject. For example:
RIGHT:
The Prime Minister was attacked by angry villagers in Western Province yesterday.
WRONG:
Angry villagers attacked the Prime Minister in Western Province yesterday.
Note that we used the passive voice in the final intro version of our cyclone story. This was because the victims - the six dead and more than 100 homeless - were more important than the cyclone itself. Remember, news is about people. We could have written it in the active voice, putting the cyclone as the subject of the sentence:

Cyclone Victor left six people dead and more than 100 homeless when it hit the Solomon Islands yesterday.

However, this delays the big news until the middle of the intro, instead of putting it at the very beginning.

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Facts First

Don't think that, because an important person says something important, his name should come first. Let the facts come first in the intro.

Remember to ask yourself: "How does this affect my readers' or listeners' lives?" The answer to that question is the heart of the news story, not the name or title of the person who made the announcement.

You will see in the following example how the full name and titles in the wrong version of the intro makes it overloaded with detail, and hard to understand:

RIGHT:
Two overseas companies will negotiate with the Government to develop the important Vanimo timber area.  

The Forests Minister, Mr Jacob Diwai, said yesterday that various submissions by different companies had been considered by the National Executive Council.     

It had been decided that two of them would be invited individually to negotiate terms for an agreement to develop the resource, he said.
WRONG:
The Minister for Forests, Mr Jacob Diwai, announced that a special meeting of the National Executive Council held yesterday to consider various submissions by different companies for the development of the Vanimo timber area, had decided that two overseas companies would be invited individually to negotiate terms for an agreement to develop the resource.
Always begin your intro with your most newsworthy key point, even though you may include another key point in the intro, in what is called a subordinate clause. You will recognise subordinate clauses as they usually begin with words like "while...", "as...", "although..." and "despite...".
RIGHT:
Thieves broke into the Prime Minister's official residence last night, while he was attending a concert.
WRONG:
While the Prime Minister was attending a concert last night, thieves broke into his official residence.

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Up-to-date

Keep the story fresh. Remember that one of our four criteria for news is "Is it new?" One way in which the reader judges the newness or otherwise of a sentence is in the verb tense. Wherever possible use the present or future tense in your intro.

In the following example, we focus on the real news, which is in the future - the visit of Prince Charles - rather than on the announcement, which happened last night:

RIGHT:
Prince Charles will visit Tuvalu in August. 
WRONG:
It was announced in Funafuti last night that Prince Charles would visit Tuvalu in August

This also allows us to use the simple future tense "will" instead of the rather complicated "would".

In the next example, we use the present tense "is" rather than the past tense "was". Although the announcement was made last night, what was said is still true today - such things do not change overnight:

RIGHT:
The Solomon Islands is on the verge of bankruptcy, the Finance Minister said last night.
WRONG:
The Solomon Islands was on the verge of bankruptcy, the Finance Minister said last night.

No quotes

Do not begin a news story with quotes. The value of the quote is dependent entirely on the speaker. For that reason, it is important to know who is speaking before we know what is said.

It really comes down to this: If someone is expressing an opinion (and most quotes are expressions of opinion), then the name of the opinion-expresser should come first, so that readers and listeners can make their own assessment of the opinion. If, on the other hand, the speaker is dealing in facts or revealing something so far unrevealed, let the facts speak first.

In the following example, we can take it as a fact that income tax will rise. The Finance Minister says so, and he is the one who decides such things. (Of course, politicians do not always deliver everything they promise; but if they promise something unpleasant, you may be sure that they are not doing it to win votes, so we can believe that it is true.

RIGHT:
Income tax is to rise by seven percent in January.
WRONG:
"Income tax will rise by seven percent when I present my budget in January," said the Finance Minister, Ms Bernadette Kina, at a meeting in Lae yesterday.

In the next example, we take the content of what has been said, and present that as fact. The full quote is rather long, but we should be able to use it later in the story.

The fact that this will be the first school swimming pool on the island is not included in the quote - this is a case where journalists must set the news in context by applying their own background knowledge.

RIGHT:
Work on Espiritu Santo's first school swimming pool will start next year if government grants can be obtained.
WRONG:
"If the primary school gets suitable financial help from the Government, I confidently expect that next year will see the start of work on a new swimming pool here," the chairman of Luganville Primary School said yesterday.

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Check-list

Once you have written your intro, you should read it again carefully, asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Is it the most newsworthy key point in the story?
  2. Is it short and simple? If it is more than 20 words, try to cut it down. Cut out repetition and other unnecessary words. Remember the lazy passengers in that canoe.
  3. Is it written in the active voice? If not, should you rewrite it in the active voice?
  4. Have you put the facts first in the sentence?
  5. Is it up-to-date? Are your verbs in the correct tense?
  6. Have you avoided quotes? If you have started with a quote, can you rewrite it in reported speech?

It is very rare for a journalist to get exactly the right intro on the first attempt, even after years of experience. Some intros have to be rewritten several times before they achieve the correct length, balance and clarity.

Never be satisfied with your first attempt, however good. Always ask: "Can it be better?"

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TO SUMMARISE:

The intro should be

  1. newsworthy
  2. 20 words or less
  3. attractive to the reader
  4. appropriate in style

When writing your intro:

  • List the key points and put them in order of importance.

  • KISS: Keep It Short and Simple.

  • Use the active voice.

  • Put the facts first.

  • Don't use quotes in the intro.

^^back to the top

NOTE: Now you should practise writing as many intros as often as you can. To get you started, try this exercise on Writing the Intro.

>>go to next chapter

 

 
Index of Chapter 5
  1. KISS
  2. Active voice
  3. Facts first
  4. Up-to-date
  5. No quotes
  6. Checklist
  7. To summarise
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