A good first sentence. (via GQ.com)
There are lots of different kinds of journalism writing, from news to features to reviews to obituaries to sportswriting to many, many others. People spend a career developing their skills in each area, so you can’t really learn it all in one go.
You’ve got plenty of time to develop your own style. But it’s good to master the basics first, and these are some tips to get you started with writing simple news stories. The kind you see online and in newspapers all over the world every day.
1. Get to the point
Put the most important piece of news in the first sentence. And try to include the Who, What, Where, When and Why of the story as early as you can. This isn’t an essay, so you don’t need any kind of introduction before you get to the interesting stuff.
2. Include the sources of any opinions
Take care to attribute statements you include in your article to whoever made them. For example, ‘The decision not to send the criminal to jail was a disgrace, according to the victim’s family‘. Otherwise it just looks like you’re putting your own opinions in. Save those for comment articles and columns, not news stories.
3. Your story doesn’t need a ‘conclusion’.
Student journalists often feel they need to include a sentence or two at the end of an article, summing things up like the conclusion to an essay. Don’t. If you’ve already gone over all the important details, there’s no need to re-state them at the end. News stories generally just finish, usually with a quote from somebody.
4. Write in short sentences.
Short sentences make articles easier to read. Writing like this is sometimes tricker than it looks, especially if you’re used to writing essays. The best tip I can give you would be to try to avoid using commas unless you really have to.
5. Use two short words instead of one long one.
If you’re looking at an article and you don’t understand a word, it’s a pretty big turn-off. So give your readers some help. You might know what ‘facilitate’ means, but ‘make easier’ is much better.
6. Don’t mix up your tenses
It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but generally newspaper and online news articles are written in the past (or future) tense, while broadcast scripts for radio and TV are in the present tense. Changing between the past and present tense in the same article can be off-putting, so try to stick to one.
7. Avoid using journalism clichés
There are hundreds of words and phrases used every day by journalists that are actually quite strange if you think about it. Sometimes these can be useful ways of explaining complicated things, like “test tube baby”. But more often you get scientists as “boffins” or an unhappy footballer making “a come-and-get-me-plea” while a celebrity is spotted “quaffing” Champagne. There are simple words in plain English for these things, so please use them instead.
The picture of Hemingway that appeared with the first edition of For Whom The Bell Tolls.
Some further reading. In 1946, George Orwell offered a list of six rules for good writing (at the bottom of this essay) and they still stand up well today.
On the point about short sentences, a survey some years ago found that journalists’ favourite novel was For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was himself a journalist-turned-author, and it showed in how he used short sentences and rarely included commas. Give it a read.
And on journalism clichés, it’s worth looking at John Rentoul’s The Banned List (online and in book form) as well as Rob Hutton’s Romps, Tots and Boffins, which you can get a free sample of for Kindle here.