How to Write News Stories

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Do you want to pitch strong, timely news stories to papers and magazines? Looking for ways to sharpen your accuracy, credibility, and professionalism? Here are a few pointers to give you an idea of what publishers are looking for and what editors love to see:

  1. Timeliness: In the print media, particularly newspapers, most of news reaches readers several days or even weeks after it’s written. This means it’s important to emphasize the elements of your story that will still be current. Instead of leading with: “On December 5, Ourtown Ministries held a conference on homelessness,” begin: “Homelessness is an epidemic in Ourtown,” says the director of a local ministry that hosted conference on homelessness in December.”
  2. Lead: The lead is the heart of the story. It should grab the reader’s attention, be in the present tense, and sum up the story in 30 words or less. Writing the lead is half the job. A hard lead contains all the facts. If you use a more oblique approach to catch attention, (known as a soft lead) the key information should follow immediately.
    1. Hard lead: “A family in Ottawa’s Westboro neighborhood fled their house in a panic early Monday morning when the roof started to collapse under all the snow that fell over the weekend.”
    2. Soft lead: “The little town of Bethlehem may be overshadowed by a wall 24 feet high and crowned with razor-wire, but it’s home to a small beacon for peace. Wi’am is a grassroots conflict resolution centre in the Bethlehem devoted to building peace in the Middle East using principles of traditional Arab peacemaking.”
  3. Direct quotes: The reader should have encountered a direct quote by the second or third paragraph. Quotes should be colorful descriptions, convictions, or gut responses rather than plain factual information.
    1. Weak quote: “Last year 1,000 cars were stolen in this city,” said the mayor.
    2. Strong quote: “I’m horrified at the way car thieves in our city are thumbing their noses at the law,” said the mayor.
  4. Active verbs: Use every opportunity to turn passive constructions (A plan for a new shopping mall is being discussed by city council) into an active construction (City council is discussing plans for a new shopping mall.) Subject – verb – object. It’s snappier, and more effective newswriting.
  5. Shorter is better: I’ve found that my stories almost invariably are stronger and tighter after I trim them down. When I’ve edited a story, it almost always ends up shorter. If you’re over your assigned word count, go over your story and see where you can tighten it up without losing any content.
  6. Always use “said”: When quoting someone avoid using charged words like “admitted,” “claimed,” or “suggested.” Stick to “said” or “says.”
  7. Get both sides of the story: It does not matter whether your story is about abortion, same-sex marriage, freedom of expression or whether the Holocaust really happened or not, there are always two sides to present. As a reporter, it’s your job to find intelligent voices who speak for both sides. If only those people who already agree with our position want to read our paper, we won’t have much of an impact in the world.
  8. Sources: A news story is not well researched unless you’ve interviewed at least three people. For example, if you’re writing a profile, interview the person’s mother, colleague or employer.