You’ve gathered the information, done the reporting. You’ve interviewed all the people involved, the eye witnesses to the explosion, the police, etc, etc. And now you have to write the story. You have pages in your notebook of facts, observations, quotes. You may have some agency copy, some material from other media. The first thing to do is stop and think. Do not start writing until you have a plan. Read through all your notes, marking the most important pieces of information and the quotes you want to use. The information you have gathered will not have entered your notebook in order of importance. You need to decide what is more important, what is less important, to establish a hierarchy of pieces of information. And this is where you must think about your audience.
Not necessarily what interests you most, but what will interest them. It may not be the same thing, and this is where knowing, having a feeling for, understanding your audience is so important. As you stare at the blank screen try to imagine the reader. It depends on the publication you are writing for, of course. You can assume more knowledge if you are writing for a specialist publication, or a specialist section of a newspaper.
A cricket report or commentary can assume knowledge of the rules of cricket; an article for a motoring magazine can assume the reader knows what a supercar is. But some specialist publications set out to educate – computer magazines are a good example – and while interest can be assumed, knowledge of how to use specific pieces of software cannot. So understand the intentions of the publication you write for, or if you are a freelance you seek to sell to. The market sector in which the newspaper is located is also relevant to how you write. You will find longer sentences and paragraphs and sometimes longer words in the more serious newspapers selling relatively small numbers of copies than in mass-selling newspapers with circulations 10 times as big. The reader of the Guardian will tend to be better educated and to have a larger vocabulary than the reader of the Sun.
But do not, as a writer, show off your extensive vocabulary. It is never better, wherever you are writing, to prefer the less familiar word – “wordy” is always better than “prolix”. Nobody is impressed by the use of a word they do not understand or would not use in everyday speech. The danger of talking down to the audience – assuming vocabulary as well as knowledge – is that it insults readers, makes them feel inadequate. And that turns them off and, worse, turns them away.
They do not read on, and you have not communicated with them. The best writing for popular journalism is some of the best writing in journalism, and is hard to do. It is readily understandable, instantly readable and, if it is done well, makes you want to read on. Space is always the most precious commodity in a newspaper. Long words and sentences take up more space. Self-indulgent writing pleases nobody except perhaps the writer. Stephen King, who has sold more novels than most, reflected on his craft in On Writing, and drew a similar message: “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.
The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.” So the overriding message in journalistic writing is: Keep It Simple. One of the greatest editors and journalists is Harold Evans, who has written one of the best books on journalistic writing, Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers. He summed it up thus: “It is not enough to get the news. We must be able to put it across.
Meaning must be unmistakable, and it must also be succinct. Readers have not the time and newspapers have not the space for elaborate reiteration. This imposes decisive requirements. In protecting the reader from incomprehension and boredom, the text editor has to insist on language which is specific, emphatic and concise. Every word must be understood by the ordinary reader, every sentence must be clear at one glance, and every story must say something about people. There must never be a doubt about its relevance to our daily life. There must be no abstractions.” Below are a series of tips for keeping things simple and encouraging the reader to read it. They are addressed at news writing, but most apply to all forms of journalistic writing.
This is the start of the story, the opening paragraph. The traditional news introductory paragraph, still the dominant form, has two related purposes: to engage the reader instantly and to summarise what the story is all about. The structure is known as the “inverted pyramid” and dates back to the days of hot metal when words on their way on to paper passed through a stage of being slugs of lead. It was always easier and faster to cut a story from the bottom, using a pair of tweezers. News stories always have to be cut because reporters write them too long, and the (imperfect) theory was that a well structured story could always be cut from the bottom so that in extremis (do not use – see later) if the intro was the only paragraph left it still made sense.
The good intro depends on your judgment and decisiveness. It declares why the story is being published, what is the newest, most interesting, most important, most significant, most attention-grabbing aspect of the story. It is not a summary of everything yet to come.
The best intro will contain a maximum of two or three facts, maybe only one. In a popular tabloid it will consist of one sentence, probably no more than 25 words. The worst intro will be uncertain of what the story is all about and will contain several ideas. The best intro will demand that you read on. The worst will make it likely that you will move on.
As Tony Harcup puts it in his Journalism, Principles and Practice: “The intro is crucial because it sets the tone for what follows. A poorly written intro might confuse, mislead or simply bore the reader – a well-written intro will encourage the reader to stay with you on the strength of the information and angle you have started with.” Rest of the story
Once you’ve got the intro right, the second paragraph will be the most important you write. And so on. Holding the reader’s interest does not stop until he or she has read to the end. You have already planned your structure, the hierarchy of information. After the intro you are amplifying the story, adding new, if subordinate, information, providing detail, explanation and quotes. And doing all this so that the story reads smoothly and seamlessly.
News stories are about providing information, and there is nothing more frustrating for the reader that finishing a story with unanswered questions still hanging. Journalism students are taught about the five Ws: who, what, when, where and why. They are a useful tool to check you have covered all the bases, though not all will always apply. It is always difficult to detach yourself from your own prose when you read it through, but try. Try to put yourself in the place of the reader coming cold to the story, interested in it and asking the questions that will make it clear. Have you dealt with them?
The subeditor, or text editor, will soon tell you if you haven’t. There is always a problem over how much knowledge to assume, particularly with a running story of which today’s is another episode. You cannot always start from the beginning for the benefit of reader recently arrived from Mars, but you can include sufficient to ensure it is not meaningless. It is a matter of judgement.
Active not passive
Always prefer the active tense in news writing, and particularly in intros. The active tense is faster and more immediate; it also uses fewer words. “Arsenal were beaten by Manchester United last night … ” is slower than “Manchester United beat Arsenal … “, and if it is a London newspaper “Arsenal lost to Manchester United … ” is still preferable. Positive even if it is negative
Not: “The government has decided not to introduce the planned tax increase on petrol and diesel this autumn.” But: “The government has abandoned plans to raise fuel taxes this autumn.” News is more engaging if it describes something that is happening, rather than something that is not.
Long quotes bring a story grinding to a halt, particularly if they are from politicians, particularly local politicians, bureaucrats or bores. Short, incisive, direct quotes change the pace of a story, add colour and character, illustrate bald facts, and introduce personal experience. Journalists paraphrase speeches and reports to focus on the main points, and to make them shorter and more comprehensible. It is a vital skill, as is using indirect quotation. But a quote will add a different tone of voice, inject emotion or passion, answer the question “what was it like?”, “how did you feel?”, “what are you going to do next?”, “what actually happened.” Usually the reporter was not there and is gathering the information after the event.
The direct quote provides actuality. And sometimes the quote has to be there to provide the precision, when the actual words used are crucial, and sometimes the story itself. Never use a word other than “said” when attributing a quote. Affirmed, opined, exclaimed, interjected, asserted, declared, are all tacky synonyms which do nothing to help the flow of the story. When people speak they “say”. On rare occasions it might be relevant to the story if they shout or scream; in which case break the rule.
Language used in letters from bank managers, council officers, utilities and read from their notebooks by police officers giving evidence in court should always be avoided. People do not “proceed”; they walk. Police do not “apprehend”; they stop or arrest or detain. “At this point in time” is now. George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, converts a passage from Ecclesiastes and turns it into officialese to make the point.
Original: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, not the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Orwell’s rewrite: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
Keith Waterhouse, the veteran Daily Mail and Daily Mirror columnist wrote an irresistible book on journalistic writing called Newspaper Style. It was in fact an adaptation of the Mirror style book he had been commissioned to write. In it he warns of the dangers of adjectives thus: “Adjectives should not be allowed in newspapers unless they have something to say. An adjective should not raise questions in the reader’s mind, it should answer them.
Tall invites the question, how tall? The well-worn phrase: his expensive tastes ran to fast cars simply whets the appetite for examples of the expensive tastes and the makes and engine capacity of the fast cars.” This test should be applied to all adjectives used in journalistic writing. If they add relevantly to the information being provided, they can stay. If not, strike them. Too many writers believe adjectives add colour and style. Vague or general ones add nothing. “Use specific words (red and blue),” says Waterhouse, “not general ones (brightly coloured).” Jargon, abbreviations, acronyms and know-all foreign phrases All of us who work in organisations, professions, specific industries or bureaucracies are surrounded by jargon. We may regard it as shorthand to speed communication because we share the understanding of what it means, but, whether intentional or not, it is a protective shield that excludes those not in the know.
That is the effect it has when used in newspaper writing. Those in the know understand; the rest do not. Anything readers do not understand makes them feel left out rather than included and turns them against the story. They may well stop reading. Medical, scientific and economic terms are a case in point. Avoid them or explain them. Price/earnings ratios and capitalisation mean nothing to the general reader. It is the same with abbreviations and acronyms. Today’s students have no idea what CBI stands for; they are more likely to know FoI.
A few could expand Nato, fewer the TUC. Many of the terms, although still in use, are generational. They need to be spelt out or explained, or another reader is lost. Just as long words speak down to those with a smaller vocabulary – and there is always a simpler, and less space consuming, alternative – so well-used Latin expressions mean nothing to those who have not learned that language, apart from lawyers who have had to mug up. Pro bono, inter alia and in extremis have no place in newspapers, and usually mean the writer is showing off.
Puns and cliches
Headline writers love puns and phrases from 60s pop lyrics and editors frequently have to restrain their use. They sit even less easily in copy, where only readers over 55 can identify. Again, the danger is excluding readers. Worst of all is the extended metaphor or pun. Like this (real) one: “Kingsbridge Silver Band has hit a high note with National Lottery chiefs to the tune of nearly £52,000. Tired old instruments struck a chord with the lottery board, which has drummed up enough cash for a complete new set, giving the band plenty to trumpet about.” Yes, really.
The printed word has done more to save the apostrophe than the whole of the teaching profession. Given the pace of newspaper and magazine production it is extraordinary that so few errors in spelling or punctuation appear, a tribute to the subeditors who prepare copy for publication. From advertising (shockingly, sometimes intentionally) to the greengrocer’s board we are bombarded with mis- (and missing) punctuation, yet it is invariably correct in print, though seldom when it emerges from the home printer. If in doubt, and most people are, consult Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots and Leaves). Often. Exercise: acronyms
What do the following acronyms stand for? If you don’t know instantly, then you can be sure there will be plenty of readers who don’t. So do not use them without explanation. Defra, Asbo, OECD, SEO; CBI; ISA; Fifa; PCT; Sats; FTSE
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Anti-Social Behaviour Order; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development; Search Engine Optimisation; Confederation of British Industry; Individual Savings Account; Fédération Internationale de Football Association; Primary Care Trust; Standard Assessment Tests; Financial Times Stock Exchange (used to describe stock market indices such as FTSE 100). Exercise: plain English
Rewrite the following two paragraphs in plain English suitable for publication in a newspaper or magazine. Remove unnecessary words, passive verbs, repetition, cliche, jargon and pompous or pretentious expression. Jot down some questions the story fails to answer. “Joseph Foster and his sibling Kate were advancing cheerfully along Wesley Street when they were in minor collision with an HGV which unexpectedly mounted the pavement.
It transpired later, when the multi-coloured Volvo truck driver who was transporting a container containing motor parts to Oxford was being interviewed by a local radio reporter, that the lorry veered to avoid a police car speeding towards him on the wrong side of the road. The spokesman at police headquarters told a different story. “But it was the children’s lucky day as they escaped shocked but unscathed. A hospital spokesman at nearby Eddington hospital, run by the Barton NHS Foundation Trust, said the two children were lucky not to have been seriously injured. ‘As it was,’ declared Andrew Brown, ‘they were examined in A and E and allowed to go home. Unfortunately Kate’s buggy was beyond repair.'”