News writing is a funny old practice. On the surface it may seem the simplest of tasks to knock together 250 words on the guinea pig robbery down the road (disclaimer: not a true story), but in fact there are several rules and conventions that need to be obeyed when putting pen to paper.
It’s a way of writing that can sometimes be tricky to get your head around at first, and the best way to get the hang of it (as with the rest of journalism) is by getting out there and doing it, but in the meantime here are a few top tips to get you started.
1: Find the ‘hook’
The first (and probably most important) stage of news writing is finding the ‘hook’ into the story, the most newsworthy important fact or event that will make up your intro and grab the reader’s attention.
And while sometimes the hook can jump straight out at you, quite often it can be a little bit more difficult especially if it’s hidden away in the depths of a press release!
One way we were taught to find our hook is by imagining we were telling the story to someone on the bus in a single sentence. And yes, before you ask I did go to university in the North, where conversation on public transport can break out at any time.
2: Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ structure
Now several of you may be wondering what the Egyptians could possibly have to say about newswriting, whereas any newswriting veterans reading this know exactly what I’m talking about.
Basically, use your imagination to flip a pyramid on its head, split it into segments, and then fill the segments with the various components of your news story, like so:
Keep your paragraphs short (one sentence) and ordered, with important information at the top end, tapering down to more superficial details towards the end of the story. Don’t make the mistake of writing it like a feature and leaving a cliffhanging detail or shocking development until the end.
Personally I also like to use a strong quote no later than three/four paragraphs into the story, which validates the story and helps to break up the monologue of dry statements.
3: Listen to the story; don’t set your own agenda
It can be really easy to fall into a trap that snares even the most experienced journalist: setting the agenda for a news story in your head before researching the details or talking to a single source. Yes, many stories will be as straightforward as they seem, but others won’t be!
Sometimes you’ll think you know which direction a story is going, only for a source to say something which turns the whole thing on its head, or for a bit of research to uncover a whole new layer.
Take the (entirely fictional) guinea pig robbery from earlier. On first glance it may be a straightforward piece about pet thievery, but what happens when a neighbour tells you that the owners had been reported to the RSPCA multiple times recently? Or that a strange snuffling sound can be heard from an upstairs bedroom?
Ok, perhaps this example may have gotten out of hand, but you get the idea: don’t pre-judge a story and write your own agenda!
4: Don’t be inebriated with your own ostentatiousness
Long story short, keep your news writing sweet and simple, no matter how tempting it is to display your newly-expanded repertoire of verbs and adjectives.
News stories should be as simple to read as possible, with functional rather than flowery language simply telling the story without any unnecessary bells and whistles (perhaps an exception to this is when writing for a specialist publication, where certain bits of jargon may be acceptable and even necessary)
And if you don’t believe me, perhaps George Orwell (he of Animal Farm and 1984 fame) can convince you:
5: Remember your platform
Now while all the previous tips are pretty universal for any type of news writing, and can be applied across multiple platforms (print, online, TV, radio etc), writing for these different media formats can require tweaks to your writing.
For example, imagine you are writing for a regional newspaper, and have to write the now-famous guinea pig robbery story for the paper’s print and online platforms.
Now in the online version SEO is probably vital, so cramming as many key words and locations into the intro paragraph is probably encouraged. However this is often not necessary in print (as either the area is obvious given the newspaper location) or the location is purposely left until later in the story to keep people reading.
And now imagine that the guinea pig story has gone viral (how could it not), and suddenly is being covered by the local TV news broadcast. If you happened to be writing the script for the newsreader you would again have to alter your writing to suit the platform.
So there are just a few top tips for setting out to write a news story, but are by no means the only ones to follow. Do you have any more advice for other wannabes wanting to sharpen up their newswriting skills? Leave us a comment below or tweet us @wannabehacks