to Write a
Great News Story
with Lawrence Surtees
The News Story
Nature of News
Body of the Story
Types of News Stories
Qualities of Good Stories
Organization of A News Story
A Writer's Voice
Starting to Write: The Lead
a News Story ?
News writers produce
They are called
"news stories" because they tell stories about ACTUAL PEOPLE, PLACES, EVENTS
Yet a news story
is different than traditional stories, such as legends, fairy
tales and other works of fiction. Those stories are usually much
longer and are organized very differently. The job of a fictional
story is to entertain and those stories can afford to deliver
their main point at the end of the story, which is often why
they begin with the phrase, "Once upon a time. . ."
A news story is
almost the opposite. It is immediate and often delivers perishable
information that may change moments later. It must compete with
many other stories for a reader's or listener's attention, so
it contains it's punch line in the very first sentence. But a
news story is different than other types of non-fiction writing
because of "news".
If you read something
and say to yourself, "I know that", then what you're
reading probably is not news and can be considered a historical
Impact and immediacy
are central to any definition of news.
The Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary
defines news as:
"1. Information of
a recent event, development, etc., especially as reported in
a newspaper, on the radio, etc. 2. Any new or unfamiliar information."
Yet news is often an elusive thing
to define -- almost as hard as trying to pin Jell-O to a wall.
That is because something that is considered newsworthy to one
person or audience may not be considered news by another. For
example, a story that may be the top story on the front page
of The New York Times may not appear in The Globe and Mail at
all. Or a story in The St. John's Evening Telegram may not appear
in any other paper in Canada.
Relevance is a key factor to determining
what is news. But news reporters and editors have to decide what
is relevant on behalf of their readers and listeners. That is
why it is also part of the job of reporters and editors to think
about the needs of their audience. Thinking about who their audience
or readers are will help determine what a student will consider
newsworthy -- and what they will write stories about.
News writers, like other writers, develop their
stories from ideas. But there is still something extra that makes
a news story different from other forms of writing.
That is because news writers must go
out into the world and report the news. A news writer must first
be a reporter -- a person who finds and gathers the news.
Much of the news comes from covering
things that either have just happened or are still happening,
like an election, a fire or disaster, an important speech, a
research discovery or a rocket launch -- to name just several
examples. Those events are called "breaking" news and
stories about them are trmed "hard" news.
But ideas for news stories can come
from many other sources:
Listening -- Many stories come from hearing what people
Some of the best stories come from noticing something new, unusual
or something taken for granted by everyone else
A tip --
A suggestion or story idea from a person who knows about something
that may be a potential story
story -- Termed a "follow up," that answers
questions the previous story did not goes in a new direction
or examines a local element to a story originating elsewhere;
curiosity and imagination. -- Once
you have an idea about something you think is news, a reporter
then tries to find out as much as possible about the story.
Reporting often involves
research -- going to libraries,
reading about an idea, thinking about where to get more information
and who to talk to (all things that Internet can help with).
Most of all, reporting involves meeting and interviewing people
who either know about the story or who are part of it. Those
people are called sources.
Reporting is at the
heart of a news story. Interviewing
real people provides the meat of a good story -- quotes of what
they said. Talking to people often leads to unexpected information
that can take a story in a whole different direction. And people
often tell wonderful stories, called anecdotes, to illustrate
what they are talking about.
It is reporting that makes a news story
so different from other forms of writing. And it is meeting people
and learning surprising, unexpected -- and sometimes amazing
-- things that makes reporting so rewarding. And any of those
ingredients will make your news story interesting.
note on reporters and their
sources is in order first. Reporters must always identify who
they are and the fact that you are a reporter before beginning
an interview. And if you want to interview someone or use what
they have said in a story, you must ask permission and inform
the source that you would like to publish that information or
quotes. This is more than just courtesy and good ethical practice.
If a reporter does not reveal who they are and ask permission,
then they may be invading people's privacy -- and undermining
society's confidence and trust in journalists. So ask first and
avoid problems later.
Of News Stories
There are many kinds of
news stories. Some are urgent and short, while others may be
less immediate and very long. The major types of stories found
in newspapers and magazines include:
-- Immediate, or "breaking,"
story that can't wait for publication.
Soft news -- A story that can wait for publication
and is usually about a trend, an on-going event or about an interesting
Feature -- An in-depth, magazine-length
story; a journalist's equivalent of an essay.
profile -- Also called
a "newsmaker" that explores a person in the news. Can
also be about an interesting, but unknown person, and is called
a "human interest" story.
Backgrounder -- A story providing additional
information on a news event. It may accompany a longer news story
and is called a "sidebar."
Of A News Story
Borrow a recent daily newspaper
from a parent, friend, school library or teacher and look at
the front page. Scan several stories briefly. No matter how different
the news is and the stories they tell, it doesn't take long to
realize they all seem similar.
News stories are organized
in much the same way. And once you learn how they are organized,
they will be much easier to write.
The first paragraph
is called the LEAD (pronounced as in "to lead")
The rest of the story is
BODY, which generally
backs up the LEAD.
And, finally, as with any
good story, there should be a pithy ENDING.
The structure of a news
story is often referred to as the "inverted pyramid."
That is because the main, and most important, point is contained
in the first sentence. The rest of the story contains elements
of less importance as the reader nears the bottom.
The inverted pyramid arose
during the era of movable lead type. It allowed editors and composers,
who laid out columns of type set stories, to trim a story quickly
at the last minute from the bottom up. The replacement of hot
type with computers has made it easier to edit a story to fit
its allotted space on a newspaper p age -- and eased the strictures
about news story writing.
To Write: The Lead
The lead, or opening paragraph, is the most important part of
a news story.
In a single paragraph, a
lead must summarize the basic facts of a story and convey to
a reader what you found out in your reporting. But it must be
more than just an opening to your story. The lead must also catch
a reader's or listener's attention and make them want to read
the rest of your story.
And that makes the lead
the hardest part of a news story to write. Unfortunately, there
is no magic formula to tell you how to write a perfect lead.
If it's any consolation, you are in good company because any
experienced writer will admit it never gets any easier to write
a great lead.
Journalists are taught a
simple rule about basic news leads, called the "5-W's."
They are: Who? What? Where? When? Why? A sentence or paragraph
that gives a reader the answer to all the five W's will automatically
summarize any story.
There are many other kinds
of news leads, but they all fall into two categories: "hard"
leads and"soft" leads. The choice depends on the nature
of the story and determines the form of the rest of the story.
A hard lead is suited for an urgent, breaking event, while a
soft lead is more indirect and
suited to feature writing.
If Canada and
France don't reach an agreement on fish quotas by Sept. 30 Ottawa
will unilaterally impose one, Fisheries Minister John Crosbie
says. -- St. John's Evening Telegram, Sept. 16, 1992.
Bryan Adams spoke
and the fans listened. "Be good to Osoyoos," Adams
told the crowds of 30,000 who gathered in the Okanagan town Sunday
for the only B.C. stop in his Waking Up the Nation tour. "Osoyoos
has been good to you tonight. So have a good time and don't wreck
the place." Then the clean cut kid from North Vancouver
gave the fans what they had come for. -- Vancouver Sun, Sept.
Any lead must also impart
the central idea, or theme, of your story. A good lead, and a
good story, needs a newsworthy idea.
main idea of a news story and lead is called the "angle."
It is also referred to in newsrooms as the "hook"
because the angle is used to grab, or hook, the reader's attention
to make them want to read the rest of the student's story.
Simply, it is the main point a student learned from their
reporting and that the rest of their story will try to support.
Finding the angle of a news story forces a newswriter to be
critical of a story idea and the reporting. A news writer will
discover if there's no angle in an idea or the facts that have
been gathered before an editor, teacher or reader will.
Writing the lead and angle involves making some difficult
decisions. A news writer must sort through the facts that were
gathered from the reporting and decide what the theme is. There
may be several different themes, but the writer must decide what
the central theme of the story will be in the lead.
Then students must consider what form their story will take.
In sorting through a mass of material, Carman Cumming and
Catherine McKercher of Carleton University tell reporters to
think about "S-I-N" -- which
stands for Significant, Interesting and New. Students
should look for either of those three things from their research
and interviews and they will be able to find a compelling angle
for their lead.
The late Walter Steigleman,
a journalism teacher in Iowa, told his students to look for the
WHAMMY. He explained that the whammy is the single fact that
makes your story unique.
Consider the following example, based on a radio interview
with Vern Walters of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia with CBC's As It
Happens in early March 1996:
Vern Walters, a third-generation blacksmith from Lunenburg,
has decided to retire and has put his shop up for sale, closing
a 120-year-old family-owned business.
That lead has all the required elements. But a "whammy"
is provided when it is learned that Mr. Walters is probably Canada's
only working maritime blacksmith -- a blacksmith trained to do
special blacksmithing to build and repair boats:
Vern Walters, one of Canada's last remaining maritime blacksmiths,
has put his shop in Lunenburg up for sale, closing a family-
owned business begun 120 years ago by his grandfather.
That story also illustrates the human interest story, which
focuses on an interesting or unique person.
The only way to really understand leads and angles is to try
writing one. News writing is like learning to play a musical
instrument -- the more you practice, the easier it gets and the
better you become.
Here is a suggested
Pick a provincial or federal government site on the World
Wide Web and find a recent speech or news release about a topic
that received wide coverage in the media. Make a copy and identify
what you think the single-most important point is -- find the
angle -- and then write a one-sentence lead.
Then compare your lead with a published story about the topic
from a local or out-of-town newspaper from the following day.
Two good sites on the web with easy access to lots of current
news are: the Government of Canada's primary web site http://canada.gc.ca/main_e.html)
and click on "What's New"; and the White House electronic
briefing room, which contains presidential news and speeches
of a Story
The rest of a news story is called the body.
In a hard news story, the body supports the lead and in the classic
inverted pyramid style is organized so that the facts and quotes
are written in declining importance.
After the lead, a story may have a theme paragraph that spells
out the theme or sub-themes in greater detail. The story then
proceeds with sections that explore the theme and sub-theme in
more detail, and in order.
In addition to the writer's narrative, each sub-theme is backed
up with background facts and relevant quotations that you have
selected. Remember that readers want to know who said something
that appears in quotation marks, so identify the speaker. And
that means asking permission and making sure you know how to
spell a source's name correctly.
The body of a story can be written in other ways that depart
from the inverted pyramid. One form is called the hourglass,
which tries to retain the suspense of traditional fictional storytelling.
But a story should proceed in a natural and
CHRONOLOGICAL order. Sticking to a logical order will
make it easier to write the story, as well as to allow you to
keep track of your ideas and material. Don't jump back and forth
and keep paragraphs short and simple -- one idea at a time.
After you write down a lead, begin the body of the story with
a brief point-form outline. An outline is real simple, especially
on a personal computer, quick to start, helps organize your thoughts
-- and allows you to remember all the great stuff you want to
put in your story.
Newswriters also refer to a story's "flow."
Writers don't just plop down a string of ideas and sub-themes,
one after another. You have to string them together, which you
do by writing "transitions."
Those come at the end of one idea and relate that thought or
statement to the next idea.
pyramids stories don't need a strong ending since those hard
news stories simply end when there is nothing more to say.
But other kinds of news
stories often need a good ending. And as with any other kind
of writing, the ending can be as difficult as the beginning.
One way to end is with a
"kicker," which is often a catchy
quote. Another effective ending is to conclude with a quote or
anecdote that relates the story back to the main theme and leaves
the reader thinking about the essence of the story.
But avoid preaching or lecturing
at the end of the story. It is often hard to resist, but if the
story is told well, the quotes and facts that a newswriter chooses
will allow the reader to come to the same conclusion on their
Of Good Stories
the form, a good news story has at least seven elements, says
Donald Murray, writing coach of The Boston Globe, in his guide
Substance is the raw ingredient of a story. A writer
must have specific, accurate and revealing details to work with
to be able to write well.
Good stories affect people, impart information they
need to know and tell what is happening and may happen.
Memorable stories are limited and precisely focused.
They say one thing. Says Murray: "They tell not of a
battle, but of a soldier; they talk not about governance, but
about a deal; they discuss not a socioeconomic group, but a person
and a life."
An effective story offers perspective to a reader
so they know the context of where a story came from, where it
is going and how widespread or typical it is. And a skillful
writer weaves context throughout the story, rather than delivering
it in one huge paragraph.
A writer must give a story a natural and logical
shape. A narrative will work if it contains all the information
a reader needs and if the story can be arranged in a chronological
order. The form of a story must also give a reader a satisfying
sense of completion and that the information presented is heading
toward an inevitable conclusion.
People like to read
about people. Journalism presents ideas by introducing readers
to the people who create ideas or are affected by them. And news
stories work best when the writer gets out of the way and lets
the people in a story tell the story to the reader.
Even in the electronic
age of instantaneous, mass communication, a writer speaks to
one reader. How a student chooses their words, particularly in
their narrative, to speak to their audience determines their
"Voice?" Those of you who have read
this far are probably thinking this is getting really wierd.
But it's not strange at
all. A memorable news story creates the illusion of an individual
writer speaking aloud to an individual listener, Don Murray writes
in his guide.
A newspaper is filled with
fascinating conversations. Your job as a newswriter is to find
your voice and keep it consistent throughout your story. Try
reading a paragraph from a book or newspaper to yourself right
now -- and listen to the voice that says the words silently to
you. The voice comes from the written words an d is the voice
of the writer.
The voice of a story begins
with your point of view and how you view the subject that you
are writing about. Your own background, experiences, knowledge
and attitude affect your voice.
A writer's voice is then
tuned by language and selecting the right words, then the right
phrase, the right sentence and right paragraph. Once you start
writing, it is just important to read your own words -- and to
rewrite and reread.
What's the right word? Mark
Twain wrote, "The difference between the right word and
the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and
a lightning bug."
Every writing guide and coach has
their own list of tips. Here are some points to remember as you
report and write:
colour -- Keep your
eyes and ears tuned for the catchy or unusual fact, observation
Focus -- Look for the angle and stick
to the theme throughout the story.
-- Be curious; ask the
obvious as well as the unusual question; then explore different
ideas and different ways of writing them as you write.
-- Don't be wedded to
your initial idea or to your prose; follow the story.
-- The simplest and
clearest way of saying something is often the shortest and most
Reveal -- Don't just describe something,
reveal a piece of the world to yourself and to your readers.
That makes reporting fun -- and the greatest joy of news writing
is also the greatest joy of reading.