Whether you're studying journalism or just have a news story to write, the prospect of writing in a newspaper can be daunting. Don't despair! We've collected all the tips, tricks and fundamentals you need to write a clear, easy-to-read, informative story.
There are four core elements that must appear in every news story. They are neatly summed up by the acronym NICE:
- News: Be sure to include strictly relevant and definitive data. This consists of the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the story.
- Impact: Clearly indicate the meaning of the news and who may be affected by it. Why should readers care about this story?
- Context: Provide relevant background and related information pertaining to the news and impact. How does this story fit into the bigger picture?
- Emotion: Relay the emotional elements that show the human side of the story. This further solidifies the impact and context of the story, helping readers to understand and relate to it.
Keeping your story NICE means keeping it focused. Including those four elements is vital in the creation of a tight, meaningful story that will engage a reader's attention and leave them with a thorough understanding of the story's subject.
If you're studying journalism, you've probably heard about "hard news" and "soft news." We're here to correct some common misconceptions about those terms.
"Hard news" focuses on hard facts, emphasizing the "News" and "Impact" aspects of the story and generally downplaying "Context" and "Emotion." A good hard news story deals in provable facts and direct quotes. If it draws any conclusions, those conclusions must be deductive, provable from the facts provided in the story.
In a student newspaper, a hard news story might relay details regarding an upcoming fundraiser for band camp.
"Soft news" isn't less important or less rigorous than "hard news." It just focuses more on the "Context" and "Emotion" aspects of the story, deemphasizing "News" and "Impact." Obviously, to be a news story at all, even the "softest" story must have some facts. Good soft news allows for more induction and reflection on the part of the writer, and prioritizes presenting a story that connects with the reader.
Using a similar context as the hard news example above, a soft news story may discuss why band camp is so important to one student in particular.
A lead, sometimes spelled lede, is simply the first part of a news story. Generally, it's limited to the first sentence (or the first few sentences). In news writing, everything depends on the lead. Readers may be patient when they sit down to read a book, but when they open newspapers or click on their favorite blogs, they expect to be informed, fast.
This article from NPR delves into the many ways to approach the lead. Every good lead has something in common: it tells the reader what the story is, why it's interesting, and why it's important.
Here are some basic tips for writing news leads:
- Focus on one main idea: You've got the whole story to talk about your subject in detail. Keep your first sentence tight.
- Be clear what the story is about: Suspense has no place in news writing. Think of your lead as the article's thesis statement: here's what happened, and here's why it matters.
- Grab their attention: Incorporate an intellectual or emotional hook to get the reader invested early.
- Keep the language clear and jargon-free: If a reader starts your story and can't even understand the first sentence, you've already lost them.
- Surprise them: Leads should not be lifeless. They should have a conversational aspect, as if the journalist were speaking directly with the reader.
A good lead can be the salvation of a middling story. And a bad one can kill a good story outright.
As a rule, good news writing is good school newspaper writing. Keep it NICE, craft a good lead, and you should be good to go. However, some tips definitely apply to school newspaper writing in particular:
- People love to read about themselves; it's a journalistic axiom. Interview your friends about their favorite subjects. Challenge teachers to answer questions about one another's disciplines. If it gets people's names in the paper, it's guaranteed to bring in more readers.
- The best news comes from good reporting. Be on the scene for sporting events, concerts, plays and other big events at your school. Report on exciting details the audience may have missed.
- Think! It may seem simplistic. It's not. Too many people think a journalist's job is to write down objective facts. That's a scientist's job. A journalist's job is to take note of the facts, then write down their context, meaning and greater significance. Every news outlet needs a good opinion section that takes on current events. Your school deserves one too.
Written news is its own prose style. News stories shouldn't be novels or academic reports. They should be concise, engaging statements of fact and opinion. When writing your story, keep these tips in mind.
- Numbers: Don't include more than three numbers in a sentence.
- Phrases: Don't put more than three prepositional phrases in one sentence.
- Sentences: These should be under 25 words and contain one idea. Don't use too many commas; follow the basic subject-verb-object structure. Lean toward shorter sentences and paragraphs that get straight to the point.
- Voice: Use an active voice. This helps to strengthen the writing and make it easier to understand.
- Words: Don't use complicated words. Reduce them to something simpler. Also, use precise words to keep your story short and clear.
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.
Treat John Updike's words above as a mission statement. Engage your readers with the lead, inform them by following NICE, and conclude with a meaningful summary of what your writing communicated.