The 12 steps to writing news
It takes practice to write an effective news story, but here are 12 simple rules you can follow to help you.
Decide what the news is
Focus on the part of your story that is likely to be of most interest to your readers. Stories become news because of their importance, emotion, impact, timeliness and interest to the reader.
The more people involved, the more newsworthy the story. Likewise, the more people affected, whether it’s by campus car-parking charges or a pay award for staff, the more newsworthy the story is.
News is what’s new. Time is of the essence. So what’s news today probably won’t be news in a few days, unless there are major new developments.
Who, what, where, when, why and how?
Include information that answers these questions within the headline and the first two paragraphs. Try to get as many of the Ws into the first (lead) paragraph as possible.
For example your first line could be: “Sanjeev Bhaskar [WHO] presented degree certificates for the first time [WHAT] at this week’s [WHEN] summer graduation ceremonies in Brighton [WHERE].”
News first, background later
Tell the best bits – the new bits – first. The background to the story should come later.
Don’t try and tease your readers into getting to the end of your article by withholding information.
Would your story still make sense if someone read only the first two lines? Or even just the headline? It should.
Be objective and stick to facts
The reporting ‘voice’ in the story should contain only facts. Any opinions or subjective descriptions should be attributed to a named source.
E.g. don’t write: ‘The event was a great success and led to a pleasing increase in applications’.
Who says it was a success? Who is pleased?
Instead, write: ‘Dr Jones said the event went well: “It was a great success and I am pleased that, since it took place, we have had a number of new applications.”’
Keep it simple and short
News stories should be no more than 400 words long, and preferably 250-300 words long. You need to write in a succinct and engaging way but still include all the important facts.
Don’t include too many flowery words. Be punchy. If something isn’t essential to the story, don’t include it.
For text to be easily readable at speed, write in short sentences (think 25 words or fewer) and use simple language.
Use plain English and not academic or technical jargon.
Assume no prior knowledge - some people find it helpful to imagine that they are explaining the story to a relative who doesn’t work in higher education.
Universities are full of acronyms and, especially if you have worked in the sector a long time, it can be easy to forget that not everyone will understand what they mean.
Always spell out an acronym the first time it is used, followed by the acronym itself in parentheses. From then on, in your story, you may use the acronym. E.g. ‘the Teaching and Learning Development Unit (TLDU) organised the event. The TLDU is ...’
The University has a 'house style' – a consistent way of writing – that is part of our brand. Having a set house style helps to convey an impression of quality and thoroughness, no matter who is writing or editing.
You can read the writing and style guide at the Publications and Branding web pages.
Do not use! (As the author Scott Fitzgerald said, it is like laughing at your own jokes.)
Don’t use ‘I’ or ‘we’
Readers won’t necessarily know who wrote a news article, so don’t talk about yourself or your team in the first person.
Always name individuals (even if that person is you) or units/teams mentioned in your piece. Never say ‘we held a lecture’; instead say ‘the History department held a lecture’.
Write a great headline
Many news writers argue that the headline is the single most important part of a news story.
Research shows that, on average, 80% of people read only headlines and then skip the rest of the story.
For this reason, you need to make sure that yours is clear, concise and tells your story using just a few (4-8) words. What is the minimum information that you want a skim reader to know?
Many find it easiest to write the headline last. This way you can try taking your first line and trying to distil it back to its bare bones. Cut out unnecessary words and shorten phrases (e.g. ‘leads to improvements’ becomes ‘improves’).
This is not an easy skill and takes practice, but it is worth spending time on getting it right.
PS Don’t pun in a headline unless it explains your story better than plain English. Puns are fun for the writer but can muddy the water and are not always universally understood (particularly those using cultural or geographically-specific references). Choose clarity over cleverness, particularly when writing online news.
A good photo or other image to accompany your story is a great way to reinforce and complement your news. When you are writing your story, always think of how you could illustrate the story with a picture.
Check your work
Even if a deadline is really tight, still take the time to check. Chances are you will spot at least one mistake every time.
Make sure that your text has no spelling mistakes, including names, or any errors with grammar or punctuation. Then read it over again, asking yourself:
- Does it make sense?
- Are things explained in order?
- Is it as easy as possible to understand?
- Is it accurate?
- Have you repeated yourself?
- Are any ideas or phrases covered twice?
- Is it written in plain English?
- Are all dates and numbers correct?
If you wrote the article, get someone else to look over it for you. You might also want or need to run it by any individuals or units/teams mentioned in the piece.