To write a news story, you’ll use many of the skills that help you write good personal essays; however, the two kinds of writing have important differences, so what counts as “good writing” is also different.
English Essay: Driven by your thoughtful analysis of long quotations from already-published sources (written by experts).
- It’s a good English essay if it’s powered by the author’s thoughtful engagement with already-published texts.
- It’s not a good English essay if it depends mostly on quotations from people you talked with. (Your English professor wants to evaluate your ability to think and write about your own ideas, not copy down what people say to you.)
News Story: Driven by the timely, first-ever publication of short quotations from eyewitnesses, participants, decision-makers, or perhaps random citizens directly affected by a current event.
- It’s a good news story if it’s powered by fresh, unpublished quotations from credible sources you’ve interviewed yourself.
- It’s not a good news story if it’s powered by your own summaries of or commentary about already-published statements. (Your reader doesn’t want to be impressed by or even notice your brilliant writing skill.)
|English Essay||Traditional News Story|
|Primary Audience||The instructor: an expert on a narrow subject. Trained to recognize the kinds of errors beginners make.||A diverse body of impatient non-experts. Usually less informed than the reporter; depends upon the reporter's accuracy and fairness. Has chosen to read this particular article rather than watch another cat video, and will leave this article immediately if bored.|
|Purpose (reader)||To help the student learn. The reader is an educator who would possibly rather be watching cat videos, but gets paid to scrutinize and evaluate papers written by beginners. Such evaluation might might involve:|
* Acknowledging the accurate application of information the instructor has taught.
* Rewarding intellectual investment and academic achievement.
* Offering detailed suggestions for revision.
|An ideal reader wants to gather information on current events from an unbiased source of first-hand knowledge.
* Too often, though, the general reader settles for confirming what they already believe.
* A good journalist educates an audience by embedding multiple perspectives into every story (rather than just confirming what the dominant culture takes to be the truth and tacking on a token "opposing view").
|Purpose (writer)||Homework. To earn a good grade, which sometimes risk-averse students interpret as playing it safe and avoiding making errors. Gaining the instructor's approval. Maybe learning something along the way. (But those cat videos tho.)||Job. To meet a trained editor's expectations that articles be accurate, timely, and well-written; to satisfy a diverse readership of impatient non-experts.|
|Quotations||A common (but very wordy, unimpressive) pattern involves three parts: 1) introducing the quote (naming the author, the source, and summarizing the content); 2) inserting several sentences or even a whole paragraph; 3) making a connection between the quote and the point you want to make. I say this pattern is common, but it's not acceptable at the college level, because it's mostly filler.|
In the book My Big Boring Academic Study by noted smart person H. Maximillian Wordsworth-Fuller, it talks about how inserting a lengthy quote in your paper takes up a lot of space but doesn't actually demonstrate your ability to engage with the material and develop an original thought. "A long passage from your source, including several complete sentences that stretch out the length of your paragraph and help you meet your word count, without helping you support an original argument. This quote, for example, goes on for much longer than you need if your goal is to back up a specific point you want to make in order to defend an original thought. What's happening here is you are admitting you don't actually know what you want to say, so you are filling space with a long quote on the same general topic as the topic you chose for your paper. This sure is a long quote, isn't it? It bulks up your paragraph without actually requiring you to develop your own thoughts. You could just go on and on with this quote, and it wouldn't help your paper at all" (Wordsworth-Fuller 123). As you can see from this quote, [a conversational exploration of the entire quote, paraphrasing it point by point, and perhaps making some effort to connect it to the point you are trying to make].
|“Journalists invoke trust by following a basic formula their readers expect from news," said Dennis Jerz, who teaches journalism at Seton Hill University. “Grab the reader with a short quote, establish the speaker's name and relationship to the story, and then optionally continue the quote for another sentence or two."
"The quoted words do the heavy lifting," said Nate Gruff, who has edited the the Greenstown Rag since 2003. "Reporters don't insert themselves into the story by introducing quotes with a summary or explaining what the speaker meant. If you think your readers need an explanation, ask your source to provide it."
If a source says something dry, without revealing any emotions or opinions that can liven up a story, reporters often paraphrase, according to Gus Griffin, a freshman journalism major at Elizabeth Mount University. They might use "just the snappiest, most quoteworthy parts of a quote," he said.
A little variety can keep readers from dying of boredom, said Sally Student, a sophomore creative writing major who writes a humor column for The Elizabethan at EMU. "Because putting boring stuff in quotation marks doesn't make it quoteworthy."
A good journalist will never do this:
Nate Gruff, editor of the Steelsburg Rag, hates it when writers suck the life out of a quote by summarizing it right before they use it. “The next reporter who unnecessarily introduces a quote gets thrown out the window,” he said. He is clearly a man whose ire is not to be trifled with, as his cowering reporters could no doubt attest.
A good journalist would do it this way instead:
“The next reporter who unnecessarily introduces a quote gets thrown out the window,” said Nate Gruff, editor of the Steelsburg Rag.
"I'm sorry, it won't happen again, please don't fire me," said intern Ace McSparky. "Can I get you another bourbon, sir?"
Note that instead of the reporter taking up space summarizing Gruff's words and offering an opinion of Gruff, the revision quotes an additional source whose words give the reader something to react to. (If that source was only kidding, we should say "joked" or "quipped" instead of "said.")
|Author's Position||A good student writer takes a stand on an assigned topic. The instructor already knows the facts, and wants to see the student defend an evidence-based position. |
* A purely personal opinion like "I liked Macbeth better than Hamlet" is worthless...
* ...but an instructor would value a paper using Aristotle's definition of "tragedy" to defend the claim that Macbeth comes closer to the Greek ideal than Hamlet.
|A good journalist reports neutrally on recent events that the audience doesn't already know. Focuses on facts: what the reporter observes, and what credible sources say.
The informed opinions of newsmakers are often part of the news. However:
* All sources are not equally credible or newsworthy.
* The reporter's opinion belongs nowhere in a traditional news story.
* Reporters should verify every detail they didn't witness. ("If your mother says she loves you, check it out.")
* Paragraph (topic sentence, supporting details, conclusion)
* Paragraph (topic sentence, supporting details, conclusion)
* Paragraph (topic sentence, supporting details, conclusion)
* (Repeat as necessary)
|Headline (Essence of the story; grabs the reader)
Lead (Exactly what is the news you're reporting?)
* Recent Developments & Crucial Context
* Expert Opinions, Background, Other Important Stuff
* Interesting Details
* Gradually Less Important Material
* Optional Details Most Readers Don't Need to See
* Most of Your Readers Are Watching Cat Videos Now
* Honestly Not Even Your Mom Will Read This
NO CONCLUSION -- just stop.
|Paragraphs||Long and well-formed.|
* About 200 words each; even longer for advanced work.
* Follows a pattern that involves
** a topic sentence
** supporting details, and
** a concluding sentence
* Relies heavily on introductions and transitions to develop complex topics.
|Just 2-3 short sentences.
* 40 words would be considered long.
* Follows a pattern that involves:
** One speaker per paragraph. (Start a new paragraph for each new speaker.)
** One idea per paragraph. (If your source has a lot to say, break up the speech into bite-sized chunks.)
** Most transitions (such as "Not everyone shared Smith's opinion. One person who voiced a different opinion was...") are filler.
|Essays for Your Instructor
||Journalism for the General Public
Instead of a thesis or research question, a news article has a lead (or “lede”).
Instead of long paragraphs designed to convince professors that you understand your subject, a news article has short paragraphs (usually 1-3 sentences) with details carefully chosen to help non-experts understand your subject.
An essay begins with a problem, and builds towards a persuasive presentation of evidence supporting answer. It progresses from uncertainty to certainty, by carefully arranging evidence in order to persuade the reader.
When done well, the academic essay
While it is only one possible way to frame an academic argument, the “five-paragraph essay” is often a significant influence on the writing habits of college students.
A traditional news story begins with a lead (a micro-summary, in one or two sentences), and continues with a hierarchy of details, from most to least important. (The Inverted Pyramid.)
A news story is not necessarily chronological. Narrative can be effective in softer stories, such as this feature describing what happens when a world-class musician plays at a busy subway station. But a reporter who attends a two-hour meeting should not start out by listing what happened first, then second, etc.
Instead, a good reporter would lead with whatever item was most newsworthy, regardless of whether it was first or last or in the middle of the meeting agenda. (See “What is Newsworthy?“)
Two-thirds of the way through the news story about the fist-fight that broke out during a school board meeting, the reporter might mention that before the fight, the board elected a new member and voted down a library expansion — but only if those items were truly newsworthy.
|Flowery, Roundabout Puffery
Your high school teachers probably rewarded you for writing grammatically correct sentences in almost any context.
You might have been faced with the dilemma of how to respond appropriately to the significant praise your well-meaning teachers gave you for completing assignments that demonstrated a flair for words, and that being the case, possibly decided to respond by immediately developing the questionable habit of adding numerous unnecessary modifiers wherever humanly possible, never even once missing the alluring chance to boldly puff up your simple writing with all manner of clever, expressive adjectives and elegantly willing adverbs, endlessly repeating your ideas over and over, each subsequent time using ever more and more elaborate language, doubling up and even tripling up with lists and paraphrases and elaborations, to inflate and draw out your sentences, your paragraphs and your essays, determinedly and painfully stretching your one idea to reach the required word count, and in the process of filling as much valuable space on the open, willing page as you possibly can, tried showing off.
The above passage uses vocabulary words accurately and avoids making grammatical mistakes; however, it is not a good example of good news writing. What’s the first thing a journalist would do to this paragraph? Let’s see.
You might have
The bulk of the paragraph said absolutely nothing. Using a fraction of those words, news-style writing writing can pack in a lot of information without needlessly overwhelming the reader.
Clear prose empowers readers; ambiguity suffocates.
Since Fred Smith was elected mayor six months ago, the city saw the local unemployment rate drop to 4%. (Ambiguous; possibly a cause-effect relationship.)
Does “since” mean “because” (in which case Mayor Smith is praiseworthy) or “after” (in which case he’s just lucky)?
Unemployment dropped to 4%, six months after Fred Smith was elected on a platform promising economic reforms. (Clear; the reporter makes no causal claims.)
The revision begins begins with the subject and an active verb, a sure-fire way of emphasizing the main idea. The news is that “Unemployment dropped,” and the revision makes no claims that Smith was either praiseworthy or lucky. All we know so far is that unemployment dropped, and that the mayor is in a position to benefit.
Let’s consider another example:
The reason the tax reform project failed to secure necessary support is the mayor’s underestimating the negative impact of unexpected turnpike construction delays on public attitudes.
This dreary passage avoids grammatical mistakes, but the abstract subject “reason” and the colorless verb “is” smother the action.
Now the sentence opens clearly with the clear, concrete subject “tax reforms” and the active verb “failed.” We’ve already trimmed some deadwood; now let’s work on parallel structure, moving things around to emphasize the two things the mayor underestimated:
The tax reforms failed because the mayor underestimated the negative impact of unexpected turnpike construction delays on public attitudes and the unexpected turnpike construction delays.
Now, we’ll further tweak the sentence, highlighting the relationship between the two reasons.
The tax reforms failed because the mayor underestimated the duration of the turnpike repairs and the anger of inconvenienced commuters.
We still have a little problem. Let’s consider the word “failure.” Is that a word the mayor or his supporters use when they talk about their own tax reform plans? Probably not.
To be fair you have to write as if you are above the fray. Carefully attribute any opinions, predictions, or emotional statements to a named source.
Challenger Jane Jones pinned the tax reform failure on Mayor Fred Smith, saying he underestimated both the duration of the turnpike repairs and the frustration of Steelsburg commuters.
Even if you agree with Jones, in your role as an ethical journalist, you aren’t through with your reporting job until you have given Smith the chance to defend himself.
But don’t stop at challenger vs. defender. Interviewing neutral experts and citizens caught in the crossfire will help you develop the full picture of a controversy, thereby helping you to inform the public.
25 May 2012 — first published here (based on handouts I created for various journalism classes since 2003)