Today’s entry combines information I’ve learnt on my NCTJ course so far, particularly the Reporting module, and little nuggets I’ve picked up from books and the internet, about how to write a good news article. I don’t profess at all to be any kind of expert on the matter – I am merely acting as a middle(wo)man to give you what I consider to be the most important tips I’ve collected over the past couple of months:
- WWWWWH… – Absolutely crucial. In the first sentence of a news piece, you should try to include as many of the five Ws (and the H) – what, where, when, why, who, how. It sounds really obvious, but you don’t want to leave your reader wondering where something happened, or who was involved, until halfway through the story. Sometimes you might be able to leave the ‘how’ or the ‘why’ until a couple of paragraphs in if it’s not particularly interesting, but all of these facts should definitely feature close to the beginning of the story.
- Get my best angle – You need to figure out what the interesting part of your story is. Is the person involved a controversial figure? Is there something particularly shocking and surprising? Where’s the drama? For example, recently we looked at a sample paper in our Reporting class involving a plane crash. However, the crash wasn’t actually the best angle – there was a heroic member of ambulance staff who saved the pilot and co-pilot from the burning wreckage. The human angle, i.e. the heroism, was more interesting than the fact a plane has crashed. The ‘human angle’ is what you should look for – how does it affect the reader? Why would the reader connect with your story?
- Who are you? Who who, who who? – Something vitally important is to find people who’ll give your story its colour. This means people who actually know what happened, or who will have a strong opinion on the matter. At the end of the day, the people you get in touch with will need to provide you with your quotes and the extra points of interest for your story. If it’s a story about a cat who can count, you’ll want to contact the owner, of course, but then how about getting in touch with a vet, or the RSPCA? Someone who will be able to verify how astonishing this is, to make your story more credible, and to make your readers say, ‘Wow, a counting cat IS pretty brilliant!’
- Concise is nice – Don’t ramble! Don’t say something in two sentences where one would suffice. Often you’ll be given tight word limits, which will involve using a range of linguistic tricks to say what you want as concisely as possible. Even things like cutting out the word ‘that’ can make the difference between you meeting or sailing over your wordcount (e.g. ‘He said that it was sunny’ compared with ‘He said it was sunny’). ‘In a similar way to’ can be replaced with ‘similarly’… The shorter the better really. If you have a lot of words left after you’ve got all the essentials, even better – you can then go back and add in any non-crucial information you didn’t think you’d have space for, but that will add to the story nicely.
- Fresh eyes – This is particularly important for ongoing stories. If there’s a local issue, such as a series of campaigns taking place over six months against a new development, don’t just cover the same story in the same way every time. Is there someone new you can speak to, or someone from the other side of the argument? If you’ve always focused on the pros, what are the cons? This is why I wrote my BNP article – I thought it was important to abstain from influencing the article with my own opinions, and I thought it would be interesting to create a non-biased piece about the matter, as people tend to write either strongly-pro or strongly-against articles about the topic. I didn’t think it was relevant that I don’t agree with the BNP’s ideas – people have given good feedback on that piece, based on the fact I didn’t take the easy route of writing a stale old opinion piece. It’s good to try something different, and people will appreciate being given the chance to see something in a new light.
- Hit me wordcount one more time – On a similar note to the issue of being concise, you really need to be finding out, and then sticking to, your wordcount. In the NCTJ exams, marks are docked if you stray from the prescribed wordcount, and it’s important in the real world too. If you go too far over, you’ll annoy the editors, who have to waste time cutting down your story, and if you’re under, they won’t take kindly to having to bump up your wordcount with their own research. The wordcount is there for a reason, and if you go over, it’s not concise enough, and if you’re under, you’re probably missing something. In the worst case scenario, your piece might not be used, if it doesn’t fit in.
- Lights, camera, action! – Multimedia journalism is becoming a necessary skill, and there are myriad articles online documenting how important it is to make sure your story is interactive and internet-ready. Your story will probably need photos, and of course if you have video footage, then even better. There are entire courses now (expensive ones… seriously) teaching budding journalists how to make their stories fit for the modern reader, but it’s pretty self-explanatory, I’d say – get your photos up, get videos edited and online, get yourself on Twitter, learn to make polls (fairly straightforward on most blogs), familiarise yourself with basic graph-making software (Microsoft Excel is the easiest), learn how best to use Google Maps… anything that’ll enhance the basic text when your story goes online.
- A picture speaks a thousand words – Lots of stories just aren’t as good without a picture. Pretty much all stories will involve people, so try and get a photo of them (legal matters allowing). Or, if your story is about a certain place, such as a controversial building, take a photo of that. It doesn’t need to be paparazzi level – let’s be honest, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not in a position to be going out and snapping candid shots of celebrity scandals from behind trees just yet – but something that allows the reader to put a face to the name, or to illustrate what you mean, can really help your story along.
- Contextual healing – Somewhere in your story, it’d be a nice idea to put whatever is going on into context. If the person involved has done something similar before, say so. If they’re planning to do it again, tell the reader. If John from the tennis club has won Player of the Year for the fourth year running, make sure his previous successes are recognised. If 98-year-old Mary has just completed a skydive, and is planning another for next month because she loved it so much, this is a really nice character-building addition.
- Checkmate – CHECK. EVERYTHING. Check names, dates, addresses, place names… Recently, I felt really stupid having to ask a man how he spelled his name… and that name was Chris. A shudder of embarrassment ran through me as I had to spell it back to him to make sure I’d got it right, but I would’ve felt a whole lot more ridiculous quoting him as Chris and having him phone me the day later telling me he was a Kris. In Reporting, I sit there checking road names and names with lots of variations over and over again (is there an E at the end of the name Clark(e)?), just because it’s a lot worse to have to apologise for a mistake that could’ve been avoided with a quick question.
OK, so these are the best tips I’ve learnt so far for writing news stories! These tips are probably duplicated all over the internet, but to be honest, the best way to write a good story is just to practice. Write all the time. Even if you don’t like what you’ve written, you’ll get a gut feeling about what’s wrong with it. Don’t let any inaccuracies slip through, and mostly, if it’s something you want to read about, it’s probably something that at least one other person will want to read too.
Is there anything you’d like me to write about next? I still have a couple of interview writeups to do, but I’d like to do some more about the technicalities I’m learning about. I’m definitely going to do a comparison between my first shorthand notes and my most recent, now we’re approaching the point where we’re three quarters of the way through the theory, but is there anything else you’d like me to talk about? Especially anyone considering training as a journalist so far – I’m only a month into my training, but considering that’s almost a third of the way through, I’m picking up a lot of information very fast!