Principles of Newswriting

Newswriting has some things in common with regular English, but in other ways it’s a foreign language. It has a lot of rules, some of them seemingly arbitrary. Below are a few of the basic principles. Many of them (a prominent exception being the first) can or should be broken now and again. And by the way, many of them are broken in this document, which is not a news article.

I. The Basics

• The number-one requirement is accuracy.

• Second to that, strive to be concise, precise, specific and clear.

• No opinions, just facts.

• For capitalization, abbreviation, etc., follow AP and Review style.

• Use proper grammar, punctuation and spelling. And complete sentences.

• If you have any doubt as the spelling or meaning of a word, consult a dictionary. Never rely on spellcheck. Eye have red sew many spelling miss steaks that halve gotten passed spellcheck, its knot fun knee.

• Always write in the past tense (assuming the events you are describing occurred in the past).

• Use short (mostly one- and two-syllable) and plain words instead of fancy synonyms. For example: often instead of frequently, get instead of acquire or obtain, about instead of regarding, lives instead of resides, funny instead of humorous, try instead of attempt, about instead of approximately, and also instead of additionally.

• On the other hand, avoid using slang or overly casual words: mother, not mom; friend, not buddy; drunk, not wasted; criminal, not crook; fraternity member, not brother.

• Don’t use contractions.

• Avoid euphemisms, clichés and catchphrases like the plague.

• No semicolons, exclamation points, dashes or parentheses. Question marks only in quotes that contain questions. (That is, no rhetorical questions.) No italics for emphasis, only to follow AP style.

• Quotation marks only around quoted material, or to follow AP style. That is, no “air quotes” or “scare quotes.” Use single quotes (‘like this’) only for quotes within a quote. Periods and commas ALWAYS go inside quotation marks, “like this,” not “like this”.

• Except in quotes, do not use the words I, me, my, we, us, our, you or your.

• In news (as opposed to feature stories), put the most important material at the beginning of the story, at the beginning of paragraphs, and at the beginning of sentences.

• Write mainly short declarative sentences.

• For the subject of a sentence, choose the main actor, which will usually be a person, a group of people or an organization, rather than a concept or idea. Starting with “It is,” “What” or “There are/there is” rarely leads to a good sentence.

• Here is a poor news sentence: “Drinking was the main thing that took place at the party.” Instead, figure out who took action and make them the subject, for example: “By the end of the night, the partygoers had consumed seven one-gallon bottles of Smirnoff vodka.” Note that the second sentence is factual and specific and has a strong verb (which is good), while the first is general and vague and has the weak verb “to be” (which is bad). Also, to write the second sentence, the reporter had to report—in other words, take the effort to find out relevant facts. Good reporting makes for good writing; poor reporting makes for poor writing. That follows from one of most important principles in news writing, and in writing generally: “Show, don’t tell.”

• When possible, find a stronger verb than to be. Instead of “He is the owner of the shoe-repair store,” write, “He owns the shoe-repair store.” Generally avoid the passive voice, not only because it has the weak verb to be but because it tends to leave out significant information. For example, “The president was criticized for his speech” is a poor sentence because it neglects to say who criticized him.

• Do not a include detail about a woman (marital status, number of children, hair color, wardrobe) that you would not about a man. Do not mention a person’s race or ethnicity unless it’s newsworthy or relevant. This answer often is not obvious and should be discussed with an editor.

• Use a mix of one-, two- and three-sentence paragraphs. One-sentence grafs (journalism lingo for “paragraph”) are good for emphasis and for setting up quotes. Do not use more than two of them in a row.

II. Ledes

• The first sentence of a news story is called the “lede”—rhymes with “reed.” It is also the first paragraph of the story.

• The most important stories (9/11, hurricanes, major crimes, presidential elections) and the least important stories (brief articles about relatively minor events) get news ledes. Everything in between usually gets a feature lede, which follows a different form. (See “Do’s and Don’ts of Feature Writing.”)

• A news lede is in the past tense (assuming the events it describes took place in the past). Headlines are in the present tense. (MAN BITES DOG) Editors, not reporters, write the headlines, so don’t include them in your stories.

• A news lede summarizes what is most important about the story. It usually takes this form and this order: Who-What-When-(Where)-(Context/Additional Relevant Information)-(Attribution). The elements in parenthesis are sometimes used and sometimes not, depending on the nature of the lede.

• “Who” corresponds to the subject or main noun of the sentence, and “What” to the predicate or main verb and, sometimes, a direct object.

• The Context/Additional Relevant Information usually comes after a comma, as does the Attribution.

• Sometimes, to avoid awkwardness or confusion, the “When” will come before the “What.” For example: “President Obama yesterday overruled the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs and sent two battalions of Marines into Libya yesterday.”

• Similarly, the “Where” can sometimes come before the “When.”

• Do not lede with “When” unless it is the most important element in the story. For example: “On Thursday, President Harker announced his resignation on Thursday.”

• Do not include dateline (e.g., WILMINGTON, N.C.) in your lede: it will be supplied by a copyeditor if appropriate.

• If the “Who” in your lede is a person or organization, you will sometimes name him, her or it in the lede. But sometimes you will give a brief description in the lede and the name in the second graf. The choice is based on fame. If President Obama or the mayor of the town you’re covering signed a bill or IBM declared bankruptcy, you use the name in the lede. But if an East Harlem bodega blew up or a Westchester County dentist killed himself and his wife in a murder-suicide pact, your “Who” in the lede is “An East Harlem bodega” or “A Westchester County dentist.” Give the name in the second graf. This is called a “delayed-identification” lede.

III. Sample news ledes (all taken from 8/27/11 “New York Times”)

1. “WILMINGTON, NC.—The first punch of Hurricane Irene (WHO) landed (WHAT) here (WHERE) on Friday (WHEN), foreshadowing what is to come as this vast storm, its most forceful winds stretching outwards for 90 miles, churned north towards New York City (CONTEXT/ADDITIONAL INFORMATION).”

2. “New York City officials (WHO) issued what they called an unprecedented order (WHAT) on Friday (WHEN) for the evacuation of about 250,000 residents of the low-lying areas of the city’s edges (ADDITIONAL INFORMATION).”

3. “The Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke (WHO), said Friday (WHEN) that the political battle this summer over the federal government’s borrowing and spending had disrupted financial markets ‘and probably the economy as well.’” (WHAT. Note that, to avoid awkwardness, the WHEN comes between the first word of the WHAT—“said”—and the rest of it.)

4. “The State Department (WHO) gave a crucial green light (WHAT) on Friday (WHEN) to a proposed 1,711-mile pipeline that would carry heavy oil from oil sands in Canada across the Great Plains to terminals in Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast (ADDITIONAL INFORMATION).”

5. “ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Gunmen (WHO) abducted the son of a slain former governor from the eastern city of Lahore (WHAT) on Friday (WHEN), relatives and police officials said (ATTRIBUTION).”

6. “ABUJA, Nigeria—A suicide bomber (WHO) detonated a vehicle packed with explosives (WHAT) outside the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja (WHERE) on Friday (WHEN), destroying several floors in a thunderous blast that left at least 18 people dead (ADDITIONAL INFORMATION), witnesses and officials said (ATTRIBUTION).

7. “DOVER, Del.–A former pediatrician (WHO) will spend the rest of his life in prison for raping scores of young patients over more than a decade (WHAT), a judge here (WHERE) ruled (ATTRIBUTION) on Friday (WHEN).” (Note: this is a delayed-identification lede.)

8. The nation’s economy (WHO) grew at annual rate of 1 percent this spring (WHAT), slower than previously estimated (ADDITIONAL INFORMATION), the Commerce Department said (ATTRIBUTION) Friday (WHEN).”

9. “Ignacio Garrido (WHO) shot a three-under 69 to take a one-stroke lead after the second round of the Johnnie Walker Championship (WHAT) in Gleneagles, Scotland (WHERE).

IV. Editorializing

• Probably the most important difference between news writing and other kinds of writing is that in news writing, editorializing isn’t allowed. “Editorializing” means expressing an opinion, which is appropriate only on the editorial page and in reviews (of restaurants and movies, for examples). To some extent, it’s acceptable in columns and articles that are clearly marked as “analysis” or something similar.

• It is impossible to banish opinion from any sentence, much less an entire story. You are expressing your opinion merely by what information you decide is or isn’t important enough to include. However, you cannot be blatant about it.

• Opinion comes in many forms: not only in obvious words like good or bad and similar expressions of approval or disapproval, but in characterizations (usually adjectives or adverbs) like many, few, usually, important, effective, influential, overweight, pretty, controversial, fortunately, or even very. A word should be avoided if some people might disagree with it or have a different opinion of what it means. For example, “many students” might mean something very different to you than to me. Instead of writing “A great many students attended the speech,” write: “Every seat in the 610-capacity auditorium was filled, and more than 100 more people watched on a video monitor in the lobby.” Instead of writing that a car was driving “fast,” tell us how fast. As noted, finding out the specifics takes effort and ingenuity. That is why you’re paid the big bucks.

• In general, avoid adverbs and adjectives except for “objective” ones, such as “green,” “empty” and “only.”

• Even verbs like “refuses,” “claims” or “admits” are editorializing and should be avoided.

• As noted, you are not banishing opinion from your story, but rather words that obviously express opinion. That’s a neat trick. For example, you may have determined from your reporting that a city councilperson is powerful and the point of your article is that she is powerful. That is legitimate, but what’s not legitimate is to use the word “powerful.” So how do you get the point across? By quoting people who are qualified to speak on the point and, more important, finding out and reporting facts that back this up: how many bills she has sponsored and passed, how much money local companies have given to her campaign, how many people decline to be interviewed about her (and the reasons they gave), the primo location of her private parking space, the size of her entourage (though you need to be careful about a word like “entourage”), etc.

• If you have concluded based on exhaustive reporting that the official abuses her power, you have to be that much more careful about establishing this through facts, and not using negative or judgmental terms. You must also give the official ample opportunity to give her side, and give her statements adequate space in the story. Also make sure the story is lawyered. (See “Vocabulary,” below.)

• It’s not that you can never use a word like “powerful.” Note that in the nine ledes above, three words express a subjective characterization, as opposed to relating a fact or reporting a source’s opinion or characterization. They are vast in number 1, crucial in number 4 and thunderous in number 6. The rule of thumb is that if you are so sure of such a characterization that you’re willing to stake your reputation and career on it, then go ahead and use it.

• Avoid the words seem and seems. Your job is to tell us what is.

• In categorizing amounts, avoid words like “many” and “few.” Instead, either give the exact amount or number or use objective words, like “all,” “none” or “most.” (Of course, you have to be able to back these up.) A trick is to use the word “some,” which is not editorializing and is hard to disprove. Similarly, with frequency, “often” and “rarely” (and synonyms) are no good, “always,” “never” and “usually” are okay if you can back them up, and “sometimes” is a sometimes useful hedge.

• Never predict the future, state the cause of something, or characterize the content of someone’s mind (thoughts, hopes, ambitions, fears, etc., etc.) without attribution. See below.

V. Attribution

• Attribution refers to naming the source of information just given. The information being attributed can be in the form of a direct quote or a paraphrase or summary of that someone said or the contents of a text. For direct quotes, see “Yagoda’s Rules for Quotes.”

• In ledes, attribution is used when the lede is about a speech, a ruling or a statement, as in examples 7 and 8, above.

• Attribution—usually to the police or similar authorities—is also normally used in stories about crimes, criminal allegations, or the loss of life, as in examples 5 or 6.

• Sometimes, the attribution comes before the information, as in example 3. That usually happens when the writer decides that the source of the information is the most important element in the story.

• But normally—in the body of the story as well as the lede—the form is INFORMATION, ATTRIBUTION. For example: “The Census Bureau announced Thursday that the The average size of American families is 2.8 people, the Census Bureau announced Thursday.”

• Other than ledes, when should attribution be used? Certainly, when you are using a direct quote or paraphrase. Beyond that, use attribution when you are stating a piece of information on which you are not willing to stake your job. Thus, you do not need attribution if you are stating something you witnessed yourself or that, based on your reporting, you are 100 percent sure about. Certainly, attribute anything that has any resemblance to a prediction or an opinion. (See Editorializing, above.) When in doubt, attribute.

• What constitutes a usable source? Most prominently, a person who is an authority or expert on the subject at hand. If it is not obvious that the person is an expert, help the reader understand why he or she is an expert. Any quotes or paraphrases you use should come from your own interview with the person, preferably in person or by phone, but via e-mail if unavoidable, and if you inform the reader. Government documents and information from .gov websites are often acceptable as well. Otherwise, documents and websites are not acceptable sources, unless the immediate subject at hand is that document or website. For example, if you are writing about the Relay for Life student group, which raises money for cancer, and want to note something relevant about its extensive website, that’s fine. But it’s not acceptable to get or attribute information about cancer from the site.

• In a lede, it is acceptable to attribute information to an organization or a collective body. For example, the attribution in example 8 is “The Commerce Department.” Or: “Two Newark residents died yesterday in a bank robbery turned bad, police said.” However, in the body of a story, attribution should be to a named individual (not more than one person, unless they are speaking in unison).

• When the same source is used for a lot of attribution-worthy information in a story, you don’t need to attribute in every sentence. The important thing is for the source of your information to be clear to the reader. So it may be sufficient to attribute in the first sentence, and then every three or four sentences after that. Use common sense.

• Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, indicate attribution with the verb “said” or the phrase “according to.”

VI. Structure

• News stories follow the form: LEDE-BACKUP-INVERTED PYRAMID

• The Backup is one or sometimes two grafs that give key facts that there was no room for in the lede, including giving names and other essential details.

• Inverted Pyramid refers to a structure in which elements of the story are given in order of importance: most important, then next most important, on down to the least important (but still newsworthy) elements.

• Inverted Pyramid structure is very different from structures that are intuitive and indeed appropriate in other kinds of writing. For example, you would write a memoir or a short story in chronological order. But even in covering an event, such as a meeting, resist the temptation to begin with the opening of the meeting and close with the ending. Such articles are sometimes derisively referred to as “once upon a time.”

• An essay follows a different structure as well. It opens with a thesis statement, follows a logical progression, and closes with a conclusion. This isn’t appropriate for a news story. And you especially want to avoid an obvious “conclusion.”

• The individual building blocks of an Inverted Pyramid can be one or more paragraphs. For example, if you’re writing about a bank robbery in which someone was badly wounded, the first section (after the lede and backup) might go into detail about the nature of the injuries sustained by the person, and the second might give a description of the robber. The next section might be a three-or-four paragraph chronology of the robbery, all attributed to a police representative. That might be followed by a quote or two from customers on the scene at the time, then statement from police about their investigation, then something about the history of bank robberies in the town.

• Part of the reason for Inverted Pyramid structure is for ease of cutting in case a story, for some reason, has to made shorter. So theoretically, you should write your story so that if it abruptly ends anywhere in the second half, no crucial information will be left out. So no surprise or O. Henry endings. That said, it is not terrible if a long news story ends with more of a bang than a whimper: a strong quote or visual image, for example. A strong ending on any story is known as a “kicker.”

• For the most part, stay away from transitions: words and phrases such as “However,” “Even so,” “Meanwhile,” “As for…,” etc. As long as you have a clear structure in your head, you do not need to lead the reader by the hand. Transitions also can border on editorializing.

VII. Glossary
• Story: a particular article (also sometimes called “piece”), or a continuing topic of coverage, as in “the Watergate story.”

• Source: someone you interview for a story.

• Lead (rhymes with “lede”): tip or suggestion for a story:

• Front page, or front: the front page of a newspaper (not referred to as “cover”).

• Hed: headline.

• Byline: the part of the story, under the hed and before the lede, where it says “By [reporter’s name].” Also used by reporters to refer more generally to their stories, as in “I had eight bylines last week.” A double byline is a story written by and credited to two reporters.

• Top: beginning of a story.

• Bottom: end of a story.

• Quote: quotation.

• Enterprise story: substantial article or series where the reporter unearths significant information that was not widely known or easily found. An “investigative” article is a subcategory of enterprise stories in which, generally, a person, group of people or organization is shown as having committed negligent, inappropriate, illegal or harmful acts.

• Lawyered: an attorney’s reading of an article to check for potential libel or other legal problems. For example, “Does this piece need to be lawyered?”

• Roundup: story including a number of related events, as in the coverage of various aspects and effects of a hurricane.

• Takeout: long article.

• Thumbsucker: derogatory term for an article that consists of the author’s opinions, generally not well backed up.

• Clip job: derogatory term for an article consisting mainly or entirely of information that was reported elsewhere.

• Puff piece: derogatory term for a gratuitously positive story about a person or organization.

• Hatchet job: derogatory term for gratuitously negative story about a person or organization.

• Sidebar: secondary story that’s run alongside a longer story on the same general subject. Also called a “box.”

• Crowdsourcing: gathering information for an article from a lot of people, usually via Twitter or Facebook.

• Slug: word or short phrase that identifies a particular story within the newsroom.

• Beat: a reporter’s assigned area of responsibility, e.g., city council, police, education. Reporters without a specific beat are “general assignment.”

• Desk: editorial department, as in news desk, feature desk, sports desk.

• Wire story: article picked up from the Associated Press (AP) or other syndicated service.

• Stringer: someone who regularly writes for a news service on a freelance basis.

• Follow or folo: story supplying additional information about a previous, major story. A “second-day” story or folo is published on the day after a major story.

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