Building blocks of Newswriting
Building blocks of Newswriting
(including material from Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center)
The language of news
Newswriting has its own sentence structure and syntax. Most sentences branch rightward, following a pattern of subject/active verb/object. Reporters choose simple, familiar words. They write spare, concise sentences. They try to make a single point in each. Journalistic writing is specific and concrete. While reporters generally avoid formal or fancy word choices and complex sentence structures, they do not write in generalities. They convey information. Each sentence builds on what came before.
No sentence counts more than a story’s first sentence. In most direct news stories, it stands alone as the story’s lead. It must summarize the news, establish the storyline, convey specific information and do all this simply and succinctly. Readers confused or bored by the lead read no further. It takes practice to craft clear, concise and conversational leads.
Some leads snap or entice instead of summarize. When the news is neither urgent nor earnest, these can work well.
All news is based on information, painstakingly gathered, verified and checked again. Even so, “truth” is an elusive concept. What reporters cobble together instead are facts and assertions drawn from interviews and documentary evidence.
To lend authority to this information and tell readers from where it comes, reporters attribute all information that is not established fact. It is neither necessary, for example, to attribute that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was first elected president of the United States in 1932 nor that he was elected four times. On the other hand, it would be necessary to attribute, at least indirectly, the claim that he was one of America’s best presidents. Why? Because that assertion is a matter of opinion. The more precise the attribution, the better. Whenever authorized to do so, name your sources.
Quoting and paraphrasing
“Great quote,” ranks closely behind “great lead” in the pecking order of journalistic praise. Reporters listen for great quotes as intensely as piano tuners listen for the perfect pitch of middle C. But what makes a great quote? And when should reporters paraphrase instead?
The quoted word is often used to convey color and emotion or to back up a point made in the lead or elsewhere, not to give basic information. Avoid partial quotes.
Supporting the lead
Unlike stories told around a campfire or dinner table, news stories "front-load" information. Such a structure delivers the most important information first and the least important last. If a news lead summarizes, the subsequent few paragraphs support or elaborate by providing details the lead may have merely suggested. So, for example, a story might lead with news that a 27-year-old unemployed chef has been arrested on charges of robbing the desk clerk of an upscale hotel near closing time. The second paragraph would “support” this lead with detail. It would name the arrested chef, identify the hotel and its address, elaborate on the charges and, perhaps, say exactly when the robbery took place and how. (It would not immediately name the desk clerk; too many specifics at once clutter the story.)
Wire service stories use a standard structure in building their stories, often called the “inverted pyramid” structure. First comes the lead sentence. Then comes a sentence or two to back up the lead, i.e. to support the information conveyed in the lead. Then comes a lead quote — spoken words that reinforce the story’s direction, emphasize the main theme and/or add color.
The "inverted" or upside-down "pyramid" can be thought of as a simple triangle with one side drawn horizontally at the top and the body pointing down. The widest part at the top represents the most substantial, interesting, and important information the writer means to convey, illustrating that this kind of material should head the article, while the tapering lower portion illustrates that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance.
It is sometimes called a summary news lead style. The opposite, the failure to mention the most important, interesting or attention-grabbing elements of a story in the opening paragraphs, is called “burying the lead.”
When context matters most
Sometimes a story’s importance rests on what came before. If one fancy restaurant closes its doors in the face of the faltering economy, it may warrant a few paragraphs mention. If it’s the fourth restaurant to close on the same block in the last two weeks, that’s likely front-page news. If two other restaurants closed last year, that might be worth noting in the story’s last sentence. It is far less important. Patterns provide context and, when significant, generally are mentioned either as part of the lead or in the support paragraph that immediately follows. Consider the difference between context — information needed near the top of a story to establish its significance as part of a broader pattern, and “background” — information that gives historical perspective but doesn’t define the news at hand.