Details Drive the News: Let the Quotes Do the Heavy Lifting in Your News Stories

Jerz > Writing > Journalism

Good journalists love details. Cut the filler.

Unnecessary introductions, transitions and summaries leave less room for details like the brand of the beer that was found at the crime scene, the make and model of the car the suspects were driving, and the name, breed, and weight of the dog that was riding along with them.

When you write an essay for school, your reader is a teacher who will give you points for your vocabulary, for your thoughtful reactions to literary passages, and for your defense of your own opinions. Your teachers want to see how well you, someone they already have a personal relationship with, engage with ideas.

Journalists have a different audience. They write for busy readers who just want the news.

What matters when it comes to reporting the news is not generalities, transitions, a personal relationships between the writer and reader, or wordplay that shows off the writer’s technical skill. What matters is specific details.

Details drive the news. (The following videos cover the same content as this handout.)


Avoid Essay-style Filler

Bad Example

There are many differences between school essays and journalism. One is that a news story never begins with a pointlessly over-generalized introduction like this one.

“Details drive the news,” said Dennis Jerz, who tells his journalism students to cut the essay-style filler.

Jerz also criticized unnecessary transitions like this one, which summarizes a quote that should stand on its own.

“Let the quotes do the heavy lifting for you,” Jerz said.

Clearly the differences between writing a language arts essay and reporting the news are worth learning. One can only hope that student journalists will learn to recognize wordy filler like this paragraph and cut it from their drafts.

In 98 words, the above passage says very little. Instead, it’s full of features typical of mediocre school essays, such as a very general introduction that leads into a specific example, and padding that summarizes the contents of quotes.


Good Example“Details drive the news,” said Dennis Jerz, who tells his journalism students to cut the essay-style filler. “Let the quotes do the heavy lifting for you.”
This revision is about 25 words, which leaves plenty room to add useful details such as the name of the school where Jerz teaches, and even quotes from two or three students sharing their reactions to what they learned.

Avoid Undermining Your Sources with Summaries


Bad ExampleSally Smith commented on her father’s strange sense of humor. “I guess you’d say it was kind of quirky.”

She said it had a big effect on her professional life. “It probably influenced my choice of a career. I’m a child psychologist.”

This passage TELLS. It offers the reporter’s an opinion about the father’s sense of humor (“strange”), which TELLS the reader how they are supposed to feel. While the reporter has sensibly attributed to Smith the opinion that it had a “big effect,” a more effective news story would use direct quotes from Smith to SHOW this point, without relying on the reporter’s narration to TELL this point.


Bad Example“I guess you’d say it was kind of quirky,” said Sally Smith, recalling how her father’s unusual sense of humor drove her to study child psychology. “It probably influenced my choice of a career.”


If you have a great quote, use it; however, all quotes are not created equal.

This version shows an attempt to engage the reader with a quote, but in this case, the quote needs so much context that it’s more confusing than useful in the lead.


Good ExampleA woman, sitting in her childhood living room, remembers her father.

“He hugged me tight and whispered, ‘I’m going to miss you when we send you back to the factory,'” said Sally Smith, a child psychologist. “It probably influenced my choice of a career.”

We don’t need to know, in the first paragraph, the woman’s name and job title, or the city where the house is. Those details can be slipped into the next few paragraphs. For now, the very brief opening sentence provides just enough context to let the quote do its work.

In this revision, the better choice of a more engaging quote means that we don’t need to be TOLD what to think about the father’s sense of humor; we can see for ourselves how it affected his daughter.

20 Nov 2018 — first posted

One thought on “Details Drive the News: Let the Quotes Do the Heavy Lifting in Your News Stories

  1. Pingback: If You’re An English Major You Should Take a Journalism Class–Even If You Think You Hate Journalism | Jerz's Literacy Weblog (est. 1999)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *