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Writing news stories “right.”

Updated on May 2, 2011

Tips for creating news articles and web content.

Whether you’re doing newsletters, web items, magazine articles, podcasts, radio/TV news stories, PowerPoint presentations, or other materials, there’s a kind of writing found in these pieces that comes from the world of journalism. Media professionals use it everyday as a way of organizing their messages in an orderly, logical manner.

Remember, though, writing is an art, not a science. There is no set formula that can apply to all news stories, but there are some points to remember for effective news writing. These include: (a) accuracy; (b) brevity; (c) clarity; (d) simplicity; and (e) variety. Below are some guidelines to follow when writing:

1. The most important information goes first – This is known as the pyramid style of writing. Pick out the most important facts and use them at the beginning of your story. Follow these with the second most important, the third most important, etc. If you can, think of a clever or catchy way to start your story with an attention-getting “lead paragraph.” This is the essence of your story. Think of it this way: if a webpage editor only has enough space to include your lead paragraph, what do you absolutely need to say? Make your main point here, and explain it more fully later on in the story.

2. Use simple words – Avoid unfamiliar words and words of more than three syllables. For the most part, use conversational language. Write as you talk.

3. Use short sentences – Avoid sentences of more than 30 words, trying to average about 20 words per sentence. However, it’s still important to vary the sentence length. Stories with varying sentence lengths will read more smoothly.

4. Use short paragraphs – Avoid paragraphs with more than four typewritten lines; try to limit the first paragraph to three lines. Variation of paragraph lengths will improve the story’s readability.

5. Use action verbs – Strong action verbs add power and liveliness to your writing. Verbs that denote specific actions are better than general verbs. Use he tip-toed through the tulips instead of he went through the tulips .

6. Say it directly – Active voice is preferable to passive voice. (She made the decision , instead of The decision was made by her. ) If you begin a sentence with a modifying phrase (like “Bowing to public pressure, he changed his vote”), try to keep it short and simple.

7. Stimulate interest – Before writing, determine what is most interesting about the story. Build your “lead” around that aspect.

8. Don’t editorialize – Keep your personal opinions out of the story. If an opinion is expressed, tell the reader who gave it (preferably, an expert or authority).

9. Use direct quotes, if appropriate. Direct quotes can add interest and color to your story, particularly if the speaker is important, famous, or unusual. Always use quotation marks (“ “) to set off direct quotations. Indirect quotes are a similar way of getting across information, when you don’t have the speaker’s exact words, or when you want to put their thoughts into your own words, to make things clearer. Quote marks are not used for indirect quotations. Here are some typical ways to start an indirect quote: According to Mayor Smith, the bond issue doesn’t have a chance .... -or- Mary Miller indicated that she was in favor of the proposal . (You don’t need to use italics – we just used them here for emphasis.)

9. Don’t guess – Always be sure of the facts used in the story. If in doubt, always check the accuracy of your numbers, statistics, addresses and phone numbers. Call the phone numbers to confirm that they’re right.

10. Spell names correctly – Always check the spelling of a person’s name. Even the most common names have unusual spellings, so don’t assume anything.

11. Proofread your copy – It’s often best to have someone not involved in the writing read the story for you. They can check spelling, and look out for confusing or misleading information.


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