SNN Newsroom

How to Write a
Great News Story

with Lawrence Surtees


The News Story  "Whammy"
Nature of News Body of the Story
Reporting  Ending
Types of News Stories  Qualities of Good Stories
Organization of A News Story A Writer's Voice
Starting to Write: The Lead  Tips
The Angle  

What is a News Story ?

News writers produce news stories.

They are called "news stories" because they tell stories about ACTUAL PEOPLE, PLACES, EVENTS and THINGS.

Yet a news story is different than traditional stories, such as legends, fairy tales and other works of fiction. Those stories are usually much longer and are organized very differently. The job of a fictional story is to entertain and those stories can afford to deliver their main point at the end of the story, which is often why they begin with the phrase, "Once upon a time. . ."

A news story is almost the opposite. It is immediate and often delivers perishable information that may change moments later. It must compete with many other stories for a reader's or listener's attention, so it contains it's punch line in the very first sentence. But a news story is different than other types of non-fiction writing because of "news".

If you read something and say to yourself, "I know that", then what you're reading probably is not news and can be considered a historical fact.

Nature Of News
Impact and immediacy are central to any definition of news.

The Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary defines news as:
"1. Information of a recent event, development, etc., especially as reported in a newspaper, on the radio, etc. 2. Any new or unfamiliar information."

Yet news is often an elusive thing to define -- almost as hard as trying to pin Jell-O to a wall. That is because something that is considered newsworthy to one person or audience may not be considered news by another. For example, a story that may be the top story on the front page of The New York Times may not appear in The Globe and Mail at all. Or a story in The St. John's Evening Telegram may not appear in any other paper in Canada.

Relevance is a key factor to determining what is news. But news reporters and editors have to decide what is relevant on behalf of their readers and listeners. That is why it is also part of the job of reporters and editors to think about the needs of their audience. Thinking about who their audience or readers are will help determine what a student will consider newsworthy -- and what they will write stories about.

News writers, like other writers, develop their stories from ideas. But there is still something extra that makes a news story different from other forms of writing.

That is because news writers must go out into the world and report the news. A news writer must first be a reporter -- a person who finds and gathers the news.

Much of the news comes from covering things that either have just happened or are still happening, like an election, a fire or disaster, an important speech, a research discovery or a rocket launch -- to name just several examples. Those events are called "breaking" news and stories about them are trmed "hard" news.

But ideas for news stories can come from many other sources:

 Listening -- Many stories come from hearing what people say
 Observing -- Some of the best stories come from noticing something new, unusual or something taken for granted by everyone else
 Asking questions
 A tip -- A suggestion or story idea from a person who knows about something that may be a potential story
 A document
 Another news story -- Termed a "follow up," that answers questions the previous story did not goes in a new direction or examines a local element to a story originating elsewhere; and
 A writer's curiosity and imagination. -- Once you have an idea about something you think is news, a reporter then tries to find out as much as possible about the story.

Reporting often involves research -- going to libraries, reading about an idea, thinking about where to get more information and who to talk to (all things that Internet can help with). Most of all, reporting involves meeting and interviewing people who either know about the story or who are part of it. Those people are called sources.

Reporting is at the heart of a news story. Interviewing real people provides the meat of a good story -- quotes of what they said. Talking to people often leads to unexpected information that can take a story in a whole different direction. And people often tell wonderful stories, called anecdotes, to illustrate what they are talking about.

It is reporting that makes a news story so different from other forms of writing. And it is meeting people and learning surprising, unexpected -- and sometimes amazing -- things that makes reporting so rewarding. And any of those ingredients will make your news story interesting.

A cautionary note on reporters and their sources is in order first. Reporters must always identify who they are and the fact that you are a reporter before beginning an interview. And if you want to interview someone or use what they have said in a story, you must ask permission and inform the source that you would like to publish that information or quotes. This is more than just courtesy and good ethical practice. If a reporter does not reveal who they are and ask permission, then they may be invading people's privacy -- and undermining society's confidence and trust in journalists. So ask first and avoid problems later.

Types Of News Stories

There are many kinds of news stories. Some are urgent and short, while others may be less immediate and very long. The major types of stories found in newspapers and magazines include:

Hard News -- Immediate, or "breaking," story that can't wait for publication.

Soft news -- A story that can wait for publication and is usually about a trend, an on-going event or about an interesting person.

Feature -- An in-depth, magazine-length story; a journalist's equivalent of an essay.

Personality profile -- Also called a "newsmaker" that explores a person in the news. Can also be about an interesting, but unknown person, and is called a "human interest" story.

Backgrounder -- A story providing additional information on a news event. It may accompany a longer news story and is called a "sidebar."

Organization Of A News Story

Borrow a recent daily newspaper from a parent, friend, school library or teacher and look at the front page. Scan several stories briefly. No matter how different the news is and the stories they tell, it doesn't take long to realize they all seem similar.

News stories are organized in much the same way. And once you learn how they are organized, they will be much easier to write.

 The first paragraph is called the LEAD (pronounced as in "to lead")

The rest of the story is called the BODY, which generally backs up the LEAD.

And, finally, as with any good story, there should be a pithy ENDING.

The structure of a news story is often referred to as the "inverted pyramid." That is because the main, and most important, point is contained in the first sentence. The rest of the story contains elements of less importance as the reader nears the bottom.

The inverted pyramid arose during the era of movable lead type. It allowed editors and composers, who laid out columns of type set stories, to trim a story quickly at the last minute from the bottom up. The replacement of hot type with computers has made it easier to edit a story to fit its allotted space on a newspaper p age -- and eased the strictures about news story writing.


Starting To Write: The Lead

The lead, or opening paragraph, is the most important part of a news story.

In a single paragraph, a lead must summarize the basic facts of a story and convey to a reader what you found out in your reporting. But it must be more than just an opening to your story. The lead must also catch a reader's or listener's attention and make them want to read the rest of your story.

And that makes the lead the hardest part of a news story to write. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to tell you how to write a perfect lead. If it's any consolation, you are in good company because any experienced writer will admit it never gets any easier to write a great lead.

Journalists are taught a simple rule about basic news leads, called the "5-W's." They are: Who? What? Where? When? Why? A sentence or paragraph that gives a reader the answer to all the five W's will automatically summarize any story.

There are many other kinds of news leads, but they all fall into two categories: "hard" leads and"soft" leads. The choice depends on the nature of the story and determines the form of the rest of the story. A hard lead is suited for an urgent, breaking event, while a soft lead is more indirect and
suited to feature writing.

 A hard lead:

If Canada and France don't reach an agreement on fish quotas by Sept. 30 Ottawa will unilaterally impose one, Fisheries Minister John Crosbie says. -- St. John's Evening Telegram, Sept. 16, 1992.

A soft lead:

Bryan Adams spoke and the fans listened. "Be good to Osoyoos," Adams told the crowds of 30,000 who gathered in the Okanagan town Sunday for the only B.C. stop in his Waking Up the Nation tour. "Osoyoos has been good to you tonight. So have a good time and don't wreck the place." Then the clean cut kid from North Vancouver gave the fans what they had come for. -- Vancouver Sun, Sept. 8, 1992

Any lead must also impart the central idea, or theme, of your story. A good lead, and a good story, needs a newsworthy idea.

The Angle
The main idea of a news story and lead is called the "angle."

It is also referred to in newsrooms as the "hook" because the angle is used to grab, or hook, the reader's attention to make them want to read the rest of the student's story.

Simply, it is the main point a student learned from their reporting and that the rest of their story will try to support.

Finding the angle of a news story forces a newswriter to be critical of a story idea and the reporting. A news writer will discover if there's no angle in an idea or the facts that have been gathered before an editor, teacher or reader will.

Writing the lead and angle involves making some difficult decisions. A news writer must sort through the facts that were gathered from the reporting and decide what the theme is. There may be several different themes, but the writer must decide what the central theme of the story will be in the lead.

Then students must consider what form their story will take.

In sorting through a mass of material, Carman Cumming and Catherine McKercher of Carleton University tell reporters to think about "S-I-N" -- which stands for Significant, Interesting and New. Students should look for either of those three things from their research and interviews and they will be able to find a compelling angle for their lead.

The late Walter Steigleman, a journalism teacher in Iowa, told his students to look for the WHAMMY. He explained that the whammy is the single fact that makes your story unique.

Consider the following example, based on a radio interview with Vern Walters of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia with CBC's As It Happens in early March 1996:

Vern Walters, a third-generation blacksmith from Lunenburg, has decided to retire and has put his shop up for sale, closing a 120-year-old family-owned business.

That lead has all the required elements. But a "whammy" is provided when it is learned that Mr. Walters is probably Canada's only working maritime blacksmith -- a blacksmith trained to do special blacksmithing to build and repair boats:

Vern Walters, one of Canada's last remaining maritime blacksmiths, has put his shop in Lunenburg up for sale, closing a family- owned business begun 120 years ago by his grandfather.

That story also illustrates the human interest story, which focuses on an interesting or unique person.

The only way to really understand leads and angles is to try writing one. News writing is like learning to play a musical instrument -- the more you practice, the easier it gets and the better you become.

 Here is a suggested assignment:

Pick a provincial or federal government site on the World Wide Web and find a recent speech or news release about a topic that received wide coverage in the media. Make a copy and identify what you think the single-most important point is -- find the angle -- and then write a one-sentence lead.

Then compare your lead with a published story about the topic from a local or out-of-town newspaper from the following day.

Two good sites on the web with easy access to lots of current news are: the Government of Canada's primary web site and click on "What's New"; and the White House electronic briefing room, which contains presidential news and speeches (


Body of a Story

The rest of a news story is called the body. In a hard news story, the body supports the lead and in the classic inverted pyramid style is organized so that the facts and quotes are written in declining importance.

After the lead, a story may have a theme paragraph that spells out the theme or sub-themes in greater detail. The story then proceeds with sections that explore the theme and sub-theme in more detail, and in order.

In addition to the writer's narrative, each sub-theme is backed up with background facts and relevant quotations that you have selected. Remember that readers want to know who said something that appears in quotation marks, so identify the speaker. And that means asking permission and making sure you know how to spell a source's name correctly.

The body of a story can be written in other ways that depart from the inverted pyramid. One form is called the hourglass, which tries to retain the suspense of traditional fictional storytelling.

But a story should proceed in a natural and CHRONOLOGICAL order. Sticking to a logical order will make it easier to write the story, as well as to allow you to keep track of your ideas and material. Don't jump back and forth and keep paragraphs short and simple -- one idea at a time.

After you write down a lead, begin the body of the story with a brief point-form outline. An outline is real simple, especially on a personal computer, quick to start, helps organize your thoughts -- and allows you to remember all the great stuff you want to put in your story.

Newswriters also refer to a story's "flow." Writers don't just plop down a string of ideas and sub-themes, one after another. You have to string them together, which you do by writing "transitions." Those come at the end of one idea and relate that thought or statement to the next idea.

The Ending
Inverted pyramids stories don't need a strong ending since those hard news stories simply end when there is nothing more to say.

But other kinds of news stories often need a good ending. And as with any other kind of writing, the ending can be as difficult as the beginning.

One way to end is with a "kicker," which is often a catchy quote. Another effective ending is to conclude with a quote or anecdote that relates the story back to the main theme and leaves the reader thinking about the essence of the story.

But avoid preaching or lecturing at the end of the story. It is often hard to resist, but if the story is told well, the quotes and facts that a newswriter chooses will allow the reader to come to the same conclusion on their own.


Qualities Of Good Stories
Whatever the form, a good news story has at least seven elements, says Donald Murray, writing coach of The Boston Globe, in his guide to writing:

1. Information.
Substance is the raw ingredient of a story. A writer must have specific, accurate and revealing details to work with to be able to write well.

2. Significance.
Good stories affect people, impart information they need to know and tell what is happening and may happen.

3. Focus.
Memorable stories are limited and precisely focused. They say one thing. Says Murray: "They tell not of a battle, but of a soldier; they talk not about governance, but about a deal; they discuss not a socioeconomic group, but a person and a life."

4. Context.
An effective story offers perspective to a reader so they know the context of where a story came from, where it is going and how widespread or typical it is. And a skillful writer weaves context throughout the story, rather than delivering it in one huge paragraph.

5. Form.
A writer must give a story a natural and logical shape. A narrative will work if it contains all the information a reader needs and if the story can be arranged in a chronological order. The form of a story must also give a reader a satisfying sense of completion and that the information presented is heading toward an inevitable conclusion.

6. Faces.
People like to read about people. Journalism presents ideas by introducing readers to the people who create ideas or are affected by them. And news stories work best when the writer gets out of the way and lets the people in a story tell the story to the reader.

7. Voice.
Even in the electronic age of instantaneous, mass communication, a writer speaks to one reader. How a student chooses their words, particularly in their narrative, to speak to their audience determines their voice.


A Writer's Voice
"Voice?" Those of you who have read this far are probably thinking this is getting really wierd.

But it's not strange at all. A memorable news story creates the illusion of an individual writer speaking aloud to an individual listener, Don Murray writes in his guide.

A newspaper is filled with fascinating conversations. Your job as a newswriter is to find your voice and keep it consistent throughout your story. Try reading a paragraph from a book or newspaper to yourself right now -- and listen to the voice that says the words silently to you. The voice comes from the written words an d is the voice of the writer.

The voice of a story begins with your point of view and how you view the subject that you are writing about. Your own background, experiences, knowledge and attitude affect your voice.

A writer's voice is then tuned by language and selecting the right words, then the right phrase, the right sentence and right paragraph. Once you start writing, it is just important to read your own words -- and to rewrite and reread.

What's the right word? Mark Twain wrote, "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Every writing guide and coach has their own list of tips. Here are some points to remember as you report and write:

Look for colour -- Keep your eyes and ears tuned for the catchy or unusual fact, observation or quote.

Focus -- Look for the angle and stick to the theme throughout the story.

Explore -- Be curious; ask the obvious as well as the unusual question; then explore different ideas and different ways of writing them as you write.

Rewrite -- Don't be wedded to your initial idea or to your prose; follow the story.

Simplify -- The simplest and clearest way of saying something is often the shortest and most eloquent.

Reveal -- Don't just describe something, reveal a piece of the world to yourself and to your readers. That makes reporting fun -- and the greatest joy of news writing is also the greatest joy of reading.


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