Chapter 7: Writing the news story - clear writing

In this chapter we build on the lessons learned when writing the intro and in Chapter 6: Writing the news story in simple steps. We examine how to use language to guide your reader or listener through the information in a clear and entertaining way.

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Choosing what to include in your story is only one part of writing the news story. If you wish to do the job well, you must also think about the way in which you write it.
There are a number of things which you need to keep in mind if you are going to write clearly.

Simplicity

Keep the language and grammar clear and simple. This is not just a rule for intro writing - it applies throughout the whole news story.

A lot of young journalists write bright, snappy intros with simple grammar and short words, then spoil the story by overloading the rest with long and obscure words and complicated grammatical constructions.

We will discuss this in greater detail in the chapters on Language and Style. For now, remember that the same factors which make a good intro also apply to the whole of the story

Another way in which we help to keep things simple for our readers or listeners is by writing paragraphs of one or two sentences. You may have been told in writing essays that you only start a new paragraph for a new idea. This does not apply in journalism, where we try to get lots of ideas into a short space in a newspaper or short bulletin on radio or television.

It is standard practice in news journalism to start a new paragraph with each sentence. We call each of these short paragraphs a par. You should get used to this term.

The great advantage of having short pars in radio scripts is that the newsreaders have no trouble keeping track of where they are on the page. When they finish one sentence, their eyes automatically move to the beginning of the next par. In newspapers, short paragraphs introduce white space on to the page, at the beginning and end of each par, which makes the story more readable. It also makes the story easier to cut, if it is too long to fit on the page.

Accuracy

We have already mentioned that accuracy is one of the principal requirements of journalism. You may have to generalise in your intro to keep it short and simple. However, you must be accurate and precise when giving the full details later in the story.

In our cyclone story in Chapter 6, we said in the intro that Cyclone Victor hit the Solomon Islands, causing death and damage. In the body of the news story we explained that this happened mainly in Honiara, how strong the winds had been and at what time the cyclone struck. All of these precise details help our audience to understand and add authority to our report.

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Sequence and continuity

By identifying key points and ranking them in importance you have placed the facts in some kind of order. Certainly this is the best method to use for the intro and the first few paragraphs. However, with a long and involved story you will find that jumping from key point to key point may confuse your reader or listener. You will have to put your facts in a logical sequence and provide continuity between different segments of the story.

Telling the story in chronological order will do this for some kinds of events, such as thecyclone or a rescue, but it will not work for all stories - for example an election campaign or a debate over where to build a new school. These need a slightly different approach once you have written your intro and principal key points.

If you were showing someone around your village, you would not begin by pointing out the church, then take them inside the copra drying hut, then point out your home, and then take them inside the church. You would be more likely to start your tour by pointing out the main places of interest in general (that is like your intro and first few paragraphs), and then you would go on to visit each of the places, such as the church, the copra drying hut and your home, showing each in greater detail.

That is how it should be with your story. Once you have written your intro and the paragraphs telling the principal key points, take each aspect of the story in turn and give details of it before moving on to the next aspect. Do not ramble from key point to key point. Take your readers or listeners by the hand and lead them through the story.

When you change from one aspect to another, you may occasionally have to provide linking words to guide your audience:

However, a spokesman for the men said they had a number of other complaints.

Meanwhile, the Western Highlands government was preparing its own plans to fight the coffee rust.

The "however" in our first example says that we are about to hear an opposing view to the one previously expressed. The "meanwhile" in our second example tells us that something else is going on at the same time.

There are a number of other linking words which can give your story continuity. Be careful. Each has a specific meaning, so get it right. Also, remember that if you repeat "meanwhile" ten times in a story you will simply leave your readers or listeners confused, not knowing where in the story they are.

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Facts first

Some stories involve both the announcement of facts (such as an increase in income tax) and comments on the facts themselves (from the Finance Minister, opposition leader and others). You must always give enough explanation of the facts first to put the comments in context, otherwise you will confuse your reader or listener:

RIGHT:
Income tax is to rise by two percent next month.

The Finance Minister, Mr Barney Kina, said today the rise was needed to help to pay for increased spending on education.

WRONG:
The Finance Minister said today that an increase in income tax was needed to help to pay for increased spending on education.

Mr Barney Kina announced that income tax will therefore rise by two percent from next month.

You must also make sure that any facts or comments which are given in a brief form in the intro are explained in full later in the story. You must never leave any important Who? What? Where? When? Why? or How? questions unanswered. In our cyclone example, we said in the intro that six people had died. We explained how they died later in the story.

The same rule applies to comments. If you say that someone attacked a policy or a proposal, later in the story you must quote the exact words he or she used, to support your intro. Readers or listeners will not take everything you say on trust - they too want evidence, and you must provide it.

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Quotes and attribution

We will discuss quotes and attribution fully in the next two chapters. For the moment there are two general observations to make.

The first is that quotes bring any story to life by bringing together the news-maker and the reader or listener. On radio and television we do this by using a taped interview so that the person can be heard (and seen on television) actually saying the words. In newspapers, we use the person's actual words, in quote marks (").

In both cases, the readers or listeners are given direct access to the source of the news. When journalists do not use quotes, they seem to be getting in between the news-maker and the reader or listener. They seem to get in the way.

The second observation is that you should, wherever possible, attribute the statement of facts to someone your reader or listener can identify in the story. This gives your audience some idea of how reliable the information is. In our cyclone story, we are not sure what damage has been done outside Honiara, so we attribute the belief that Honiara has been the worst affected to the emergency services:

The emergency services ... believe that Honiara has been the worst affected.

We discuss quotes and attribution in much greater detail in the next two chapters.

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Background

Very often, you will write a news story updating something which has been reported by your newspaper, radio or television station before. We call stories which continue to produce new developments running stories, and we call stories which build upon previous news items follow-ups.  (See Chapter 24 for full details.)

You cannot assume when writing a follow-up that your readers or listeners will know the original facts of the story. You have to summarise the issue briefly to bring them up to date. We call this information background. One or two paragraphs of well-written background details must be included in the body of your news story, so that it makes complete sense.

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TO SUMMARISE:

Remember to read your story through thoroughly before handing it in. If you find any errors, correct them - then read it through again!
Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you presented the facts in an orderly manner and provided links between different segments?
  • Where you have facts and comments, are the facts first?
  • If your story is a follow-up or part of a running story, have you provided sufficient background information?
  • Is everything you have written accurate?
  • Can you simplify any of the words or grammar to make the story easier to understand?
  • Have you used quotes to enliven the story? Have you attributed the facts and opinions to the right people?
  • Have you read it through again?

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NOTE: Now you should practise writing as many news stories as often as you can. To get you started, try this exercise on Writing the News Story.

>>go to next chapter

 

 
Index of Chapter 7
  1. Simplicity
  2. Accuracy
  3. Sequence and continuity
  4. Facts first
  5. Quotes and attribution
  6. Background
  7. To summarise
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