2.2: Writing the Hard News Story
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"There is but one art—to omit."
- Robert Louis Stevenson
By now I bet you're in no mood to read a lot from me about how to write for a newspaper. You're impatient. You've done your reporting, you're on deadline, and you'd like me to tell you what I have to say and shut up so you can work. Good. This is how your readers feel when they pick up your newspaper or call it up on their computer—they're smart and in a hurry and want you to tell them what you know so they can learn the news and move on.
So how do you write for a newspaper? Clearly and succinctly. With hard news, you write short, declarative sentences that give lots of information coherently so the reader understands them effortlessly and they seem to have been effortless to produce, even simple.
But, of course, it's not simple to write clearly and succinctly! Pascal said he could make his writing shorter but he didn't have the time. The first paragraph of a newspaper article is called the lead, in newspaper lingo spelled "lede," because newspaper type used to be set in lead and editors didn't want to mix up the two words. The way to write a lede is sit at the keyboard until small drops of blood form on your forehead. That's the old joke—and not all that funny, believe me. Some people can write up a snazzy newspaper lede instantly, but most of us flail away hideously, banging out a sentence, erasing it, writing it again, cutting it apart, and stitching it together until it reads like it's been in an accident. Eventually, though, we place the right words in the right order to say what we mean precisely, and that's when we newspaper hacks are just like any artist who makes something super hard look easy. We are like Picasso, or Roger Federer, or that athlete playing the Sugar Plum Fairy, and just as they did, we sweated it out.
But now because you are so clever, you are looking at the clock (and not just at the clock but at the calendar), and you are thinking you'd better learn how to make good writing look easy in a big hurry, because you don't have time to write and erase, write and erase until the cows come home and Middlebury accepts someone else. Thus, you are eager for some inside tips on how to learn news writing quickly. I have two of them: the first simple, the second complex.
The simple tip is this: Practice. You get good at doing this sort of writing by doing it over and over, getting the hang of it, the rhythm of it. It takes a while to quit writing too many words or too many complex sentence structures.
The more complex tip is this: You need to adopt a professional attitude that says I'm not important here—the story is what's important here, and my writing is not about me—it's about the story.
If you adopt this professional attitude, your mind will soon be preoccupied with relevant data only, such as: What am I trying to say in this newspaper article? And thus your mind will not go meandering down the time-consuming and pointless psychological roads our minds generally travel when we write for an audience, roads really more like halls than like roads, specifically like halls of mirrors, in front of which we pause in admiration, or in horror. This is a fabulous sentence, we think as we bang out a sentence, and we are so clever to have thought of it, and before we've strung together two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, we've already decided we're as good as Hemingway and better than John Grisham, whom we could write exactly like if we weren't aiming so much higher. Time meanwhile is passing, and the sentences aren't that good, believe me. This is because we always love our most overwritten sentences, because we think they show us off—how nifty we are, how clever with words, how sophisticated, whatever. We love ourselves, we love our dramas, we love our most dramatic sentences. But, hey!—newspaper readers are not interested in us right now. They want to know the news.
So the hall of mirrors is a bad place to hang out when you think you're writing well, and it's even worse when you think you're writing badly. There you are, struggling with a lede. You keep writing the same exact sentence over and over (REDRUM), in the mirror you look like a hideous wreck, and you know you're a fraud and a loser; plus there's a Dali clock dripping down the wall. When you are writing on deadline, you don't need this distraction, believe me.
The bottom line: Just be professional, even when the writing's hard, even when you're too exhausted or frustrated to bother sweating blood. Just stay calm and remember you have the one gift you need in order to write well, and the newspaper's given it to you—you have something to say.
Here's how to do it:
- News writers get to the point and get out. So write simple, declarative sentences. Try to avoid dependent clauses.
- One line of typewritten 12-point type is two or more lines in a newspaper column; two-line computer sentences are four lines in a newspaper—and all of this is getting too long for your reader. Try to keep your sentences to 1.5 computer lines on average.
- If you want your prose to have power, use lots of nifty verbs. Think in verbs. Deliberately use action verbs and take time to select them.
- Use the active, not passive, voice. Know the difference between the two. (The active voice puts the subject first: "Sally ran," or "John hit the wall." The passive voice puts the subject last: "The wall was hit by John." Or, if the subject is not important, leave it out: "The rodents were trapped," and who cares by whom! But consider what happens if the subject actually is important, but the passive voice construction omits it—then you get a sentence like this: "The CIA agent's name was leaked," or "During the protest, shots were fired." Well, okay, but who leaked? Who fired? The passive voice is dangerous; it allows facts to disappear.)
- Be repulsed by clichés.
- The opening paragraphs (or grafs) of a hard news story, along with the sentences themselves, are likely to feel like puzzles whose pieces you must fit together, or like very fine gold necklaces that tangle easily. If you start to come unglued, relax and think about how you would tell this news story to a friend. You would get to the point immediately with the most important thing first (a squirrel attacked the English teacher!) and take it from there in the next graf, giving the next bit of information that your friend would logically want to know. Keep the sentences short, keep the paragraphs short, and after those first few grafs, the story will write itself.
- The tone of a news story should be neutral (just the facts, ma'am), and while ordinarily that tone can be stiff or dull, in a news story it's exactly right for two crucial reasons. First of all, tone carries meaning. If your tone is emphatic, angry, melancholy, low-brow, high-brow, laid-back, critical, or, really, anything but neutral, that tone conveys an opinion. But you don't want your opinion seeping into a hard news story. Secondly, a neutral tone is appropriate because the information being delivered—not the language it's delivered in—carries the sentence's energy. To wit: "The President today pardoned a staff member for lying to a jury about the Vice President's participation in a campaign against an FBI agent's reputation." This sentence has a neutral tone, but it's a bomb all right.
- Don't use inflated or sensational tone to create meaning where none exists.
- Don't select sources with only a specific point of view and then use neutral language to disguise this bias.
- Be sensitive to the denotation and connotation of words (remember Helen Keller...).
- As the first paragraph of a story, the lede gives the most important information. Readers often simply glance at the lede, so above all, write it clearly. Do not confuse the reader!
- The lede must be supported by the content of the story. If your story doesn't end up supporting your lede, change the lede or spike the story.
- A direct lede, also known as a summary lede, gives a summary of the story's main facts and will emphasize what is important of the WWWWWH list: who, what, when, where, why, how. It should be one sentence long, 30 words or less.
- A blind lede is a lede that refers to people but saves their names for a later paragraph.
- A nut graf is a paragraph that follows the lede and fills in crucial information.
To learn the craft of writing ledes and nut grafs, practice, practice, practice. You can copy ledes from your newspaper verbatim—that's actually a useful way to get the hang of them—or you can hide the lede of an article, read the rest of the story, and then go back and try to write the lede. Compare it to the published lede, and you'll see how quickly you're learning. And if you aren't learning so quickly, not to worry. Join the crowd. Soon you'll understand the little saying about beads of blood on your forehead.
To wit: Let's say you're writing an article about a high school band holding a fundraiser for one of the musicians whose family lost their house in a fire. The first time you write the lede, you're likely to write something like: "The Tallant Marching Band will hold a fundraising carnival to raise money for the band's trumpet player whose family lost all their posessions after a fire broke out in their home and destroyed all the home's contents." That's not a hideous lede by any means. But it's not good, either. Well, actually, it's a bit hideous, because it is so repetitive. You should give your reader information once and that's enough; then get on with the next bit of information. Here's a better lede for that story: "The Tallant Marching Band will hold a fundraiser next week for their trumpet player whose family lost their house in a fire." Now, you're probably thinking that sentence is not a glorious piece of prose. It's sort of bland, no big deal. And in some ways you're right—it's no big deal. But it's a good, solid lede, and it was not easy to craft.
The Inverted Pyramid
- The inverted pyramid is the basic structure for a breaking news story. It begins with a direct lede. The second paragraph (nut graf) tries to answer questions a reader would naturally ask after reading the lede. The next most important facts follow in the next paragraph, and so on, so if readers don't have time to finish your article or don't feel like it, they'll get the most important ideas up high. You add quotes along the way, not before crucial information, but soon enough to add a human voice to a hard news story.
- Each paragraph should be one sentence long or two at most.
- There are several other structures for newspaper stories, but they are most effective with feature stories, and they're described in section 2.3 of this book. For now, practice the inverted pyramid for hard news stories. The inverted pyramid gets the job done.
- Quotes must be verbatim or else edited in such a way that they accurately (that's ACCURATELY, not "adequately") convey the speakers meaning and intention. If you cut words from a quote, you indicate you've done so with ellipsis: "...". If you replace words in a quote, you indicate this with square brackets around [your replacement].
- Individual words or phrases from a quote shouldn't be inserted into your prose, as you would do with quotations from a work of literature. Instead, keep a source's quote intact. Either precede it, or follow it, with the source's name.
- Quotes should add color to your story or offer information in a rich way. Don't use quotes simply to deliver information that you might just as easily present in prose, unless, of course, the person giving the information is also significant to the story. For example, if the President of the United States said, "The law should be voted on this afternoon at 4 p.m.," you might offer that as a direct quote. It reveals something about the President's attention to this issue; it's giving the readers something more than simply the time of the vote. If one of his aides said the exact same thing, you would present the information in prose, not in the form of a direct quote.
- If you get a good quote from a source, just write it up. Don't precede the quote with a sentence about what it says. Your reader can figure that out for herself.
- Really terrific quotes are called "money quotes"—as in: Ka-ching, I got it on the record.
- If you see something with your own eyes, if the information is common knowledge, or if you can learn it from three printed sources, you can present it as fact.
- You must attribute everything else to a source.
- Try to place one source's information in successive sentences, so you only need to attribute the information once per graf.
- Otherwise, each sentence must contain an attribution.
- Use "he said" and "she said" when reporting what a source says to you. Do not use "claimed," "announced," "admitted," "replied," "shouted," "retorted," "argued," "insisted," or any other synonym for "said." All other synonyms carry shades of meaning and thus editorialize the news story. But news stories do not contain opinion. Just use "said."
- Use "according to" if your source is a document or report or if the source is offering you information but not quotes.
- On first reference, use a person's full name and title. Some titles precede the name (e.g. President Barack Obama, Justice Ruth Ginsberg), but most often a title will come after a name (e.g. Jennifer Jones, Superintendent of Schools).
- After a first reference, use a person's last name only, preceded by Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss (depending on the stylebook).
- Newspapers use a stylebook, such as The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage or The Associated Press Stylebook, to keep these and other style rules consistent.
Elements of Structure and Balance
- Use a quotation early in the story to bring in a human voice.
- Provide background after the breaking news.
- Go through the accuracy checklist from David Yarnold, Executive Editor of the San Jose Mercury News:
Accuracy Checklist from the San Jose Mercury News
- Is the lede of the story sufficiently supported?
- Has someone double-checked, called, or visited all the phone numbers, addresses, or web addresses in the story? What about the names and titles?
- Is the background material required to understand the story complete?
- Are all the stakeholders in the story identified, and have representatives from that side been contacted and given a chance to talk?
- Does the story pick sides or make subtle value judgments? Will some people like this story more than they should?
- Is anything missing?
- Are all the quotes accurate and properly attributed, and do they capture what the person really meant?
- Read the story once more before you turn it in, checking that you do not editorialize or shade the story by your word choice or sentence structure, the arrangement of paragraphs, or the inclusion or exclusion of material. (More on this in the "Ethics and the Law" chapter of this book.)
- With a sticky note, cover up the first graf of a news story. Read the rest of the story, and then write an original lede. Compare your lede to the printed version.
- Take one page of a newspaper, and read each story on the page. Write a tweet (140 characters or less) that describes the essence of each story. Looking only at your tweets, decide on the verb that belongs in each lede.
- Take a hard news story and deconstruct it into a bullet-pointed list of facts or pieces of information, with no prose. Then reconstruct it back into an article in the inverted pyramid structure.
- Take the same news story notes and reconstruct the article again, this time with a different story structure.