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Want to Learn to Write News Stories? Just Follow the Format

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Want to Learn to Write News Stories? Just Follow the Format

Student journalists at work

Photo by Tony Rogers

Many students take journalism courses because they like to write, and many journalism courses focus a lot on the craft of writing.

But the great thing about newswriting is that it follows a basic format. Learn that format and you'll be able to write news stories, whether you're a naturally talented writer or not.

The most important part of any news story is the lede. The lede is the very first sentence of a news story. In it, the writer summarizes the most newsworthy points of the story in broad brushstrokes.

If a lede is well-written, it will give the reader a basic idea of what the story is about, even if she skips over the rest of the story.

Example: Two people died in a rowhouse fire in Northeast Philadelphia last night.

See what I mean? From this lede you get the basics: Two people killed. Rowhouse fire. Northeast Philadelphia.

Now, there's obviously a lot more to this story: What caused the fire? Who was killed? What was the address of the rowhouse? And so on.

Those details will be in the rest of the story. But the lede gives us the story in a nutshell.

Beginners often have trouble figuring out what to put into a lede and what to leave out. Again, think of the broad brushstrokes idea: Give the major points of the story, but leave the smaller details for later.

The Five Ws and the H

One way to figure out what goes into a lede is to use the five Ws and the H: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Who is the story about? What is it about? Where did it occur? And so on. Get those into your lede and chances are you're covering all the bases.

Sometimes one of those elements will be more interesting than the rest. Let's say you're writing a story about a celebrity who dies in a car crash. Obviously, what makes the story interesting is the fact that a celebrity is involved. A car crash in and of itself is all-too common (unfortunately, thousands of people die in car crashes ever year.) So you'll want to emphasize that "who" aspect of the story in your lede.

But what about the rest of the story, the part that comes after the lede? News stories are written in the inverted pyramid format. Sounds weird, but all it means is that the most important information goes at the top, or beginning of the story, and the least important stuff goes at the bottom.

We do this for several reasons. First, readers have a limited amount of time and short attention spans, so it just makes sense to put the most important news at the start of the story.

Second, this format allows editors to shorten stories quickly on deadline if needed. After all, it's a lot easier to trim a news story if you know the least important stuff is at the end.

Writing Tight

The other thing to remember? Keep your writing tight, and your stories relatively short. Say what you need to say in as few words as possible.

One way to do this is to follow the S-V-O format, which stand for Subject-Verb Object. To see what I mean, look at these two examples:

She read the book.

The book was read by her.

What's the difference between these two sentences? The first one is written in the S-V-O format:

She (subject) read (verb) the book (object).

As a result, the sentence is short and to the point (four words). And since the connection between the subject and the action she's taking is clear, the sentence has some life to it. You can even envision a woman reading a book.

The second sentence, on the other hand, doesn't follow S-V-O. As a result, the connection between the subject and what she's doing has been severed. What you're left with is a sentence that's watery and unfocused.

The second sentence is also two words longer than the first. Two words may not seem like a lot, but imagine cutting two words from every sentence in a 10-column inch article. After awhile it starts to add up. You can convey much more information using far fewer words by using the S-V-O format.

Also read:

The Newswriting Format in a Nutshell

Five Steps To Writing a Great Lede

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