News writing for beginners
Writing a good news story is utterly unlike any other kind of writing. It’s a way of conveying facts as quickly as efficiently as possible, without influencing the opinion of your readers.
Clearly separating news and opinion is vital for a print publication, and you can get in legal trouble if you start mixing the two.
Don’t bury the lede
The lede is the “top line” or most important single aspect of your story.
If a new report has been published about high student rents, readers want to know that from the very first sentence, if not the headline. They don’t want to have to read half of your story to get to the most important piece of info.
The inverted pyramid
Put the most vital, interesting info first, and put the most boring stuff at the end.
News writing communicates the most vital piece of info – the “top line” – first.
After that, you can add in more info and context, starting with the most important bits.
Your news article doesn’t need an introduction or a conclusion.
It is not a storybook or a narrative. Readers don’t care about the characters or the plot. Readers just want the facts.
The idea is that someone can read the first paragraph or your article and understand exactly what it’s about, and stop reading at any point before the end with a rough but basically correct idea of what they’ve read.
If you’re writing about high student rents, you might be tempted to start by saying “Many students suffer under the weight of high student rents…”, but you’d be better off just giving the top line of your story, which might be something like, “Student rents have climbed to a ten-year high, a new report has revealed”.
News writing is not the place to show off your writing flair. Save it for the features section.
The five W’s & the one H
Your readers will want these questions answered. Don’t disappoint them.
Your reader is going to have questions. Your news story should answer all of them as quickly as possible.
Every news story begins by announcing “something has happened”. Your article should explain what has happened, where it’s happened, who it’s happened to, when it happened, why it’s happened, and how it’s happened.
These basic questions are called the five Ws and the one H.
If the top line of your story is that the SU president has called publicly for lower student rents, your reader will probably want to know when this call was made (this morning, last night?), how the SU president made this public statement (on Facebook, in an email newsletter, in exclusive interview with you?).
They will also want to know why they made it (are rents high? Why is that?), along with who the SU president is (what were their manifesto points, are student rents an ongoing campaign of theirs?)
If you’re not sure you’ve covered all your story’s angles, refer back to these questions.
What’s the hook?
Every news story needs to be connected to a current unfolding event – a “hook” – or it’s not news.
Every news story needs to “hook” into something that’s just happened. It may be that student rents are extremely high at the moment, but this in itself is not a news story.
If a prominent public figure, like a politician or a university vice chancellor spoke out against high student rents, or a new study was published condemning them, that would be a good hook for a news story.
Equally, if you can find someone willing to be interviewed about an extreme experience with high student rents, that would also be a good hook. However, be careful, because if the story becomes about one person and their experience, it is a profile interview (a sort of feature) rather than a news story.
You can’t make a news story out of a general feeling or mood in society. Without a concrete hook, you will be better off writing a feature or opinion piece.
Past tense only please.
Unless you have a very good reason to expect that whatever you’re writing about will still be happening as your story is being read, stick to the past tense. If you are interviewing Fred, the president of the Students’ Union, about high student rents, you would write “Fred said” rather than “Fred says”.
Do you know who I am?
Only ever use third person.
In news, the writer may as well be anonymous. You cannot write about yourself and the word “I” should never appear. News must always be third person. First person is the enemy.
Use active, rather than passive phrasing.
Do you see the difference? How about:
Active phrasing is easier to read and saves words. It suggests that nouns (people and organisations) are actively doing things.
In passive phrasing, you suggest that people and organisations are simply having things passively happen to them. Passive phrasing also uses more words and takes longer to read.
He said, she said
“Said” is the only verb you should be using with quotes.
In news, everyone says.
Let’s say that you interview Fred, the SU president, and he gets angry with the findings, shouting “It’s an outrage! We need to name and shame these dodgy landlords and hold them to account.”
Always quote people directly, never report speech
In your article, the only appropriate way to quote these remarks is to start with “Fred said”. You shouldn’t use, “exclaimed”, “shouted”, “wondered”, “commanded” etc.
Even if Fred had fire in his eyes and seemed like he could throttle a landlord there and then, it’s still just “said”.
As a news writer, your job is to present raw facts, not to tell readers how to interpret them. “Said” is a good neutral term which allows the quotes you give to stand on their own merits, without biasing readers. Don’t worry about overusing it.
You should always take care to quote people directly. Never indirectly report or paraphrase speech. It’s fine to tighten up choice quotes by removing unnecessary words, as long as you don’t change the meaning.
Here’s an example story to get you on the right track.
SU to “get tough” on student rents
SU president Fred Surname has called for action on “dodgy landlords” charging high student rents.
In an exclusive interview with the Student Paper, Surname said, “Most students spend over half of their maintenance loans on rent, and the less well-off students are often left without enough money to live on after rent.”
“I’ll be making sure these dodgy landlords won’t be able to get away with it for much longer.”
Surname has made tackling high rents a key issue for the Students’ Union since he was elected in April last year.
It was one of three main campaigns set out in his manifesto, the others being greater support for students with mental health issues and more celebrities on campus.
One local landlord who did not wish to be named said, “It’s ridiculous. These students have tons of money.”
“I have to set a fair rent at the market rate. Students are no different from any other tenants.”
Rents in student areas like the Village and the Square have been steadily increasing over the last ten years. An NUS survey published in 2015 suggested students were nationally paying over half of their maintenance loans on rent, compared to only a third back in 2005.
The University’s student advice team offers impartial advice and support for students struggling financially.
Agnes Agony, from the University’s student advice team, said, “We offer drop in sessions as well as scheduled appointments for all students.”
“There’s no reason to suffer in silence, there’s a lot of support out there.”
Students wishing to book a session with the Advice team can email firstname.lastname@example.org.