Pete Young, a WikiTribune early adopter with a lifetime of journalism experience at The New York Times and Bloomberg thought this short guide to how to write journalism might help other community members get over any fears they may have about writing for us. Following these guidelines will certainly help get your copy up faster. See also: How to Add an Existing Story; the Style Guide; the Ethics Statement; and the Science Reporting Guidelines.
I’m grateful to Pete for his significant contribution to the early days of this project.
A WikiTribune guide to writing journalism for publication
(See also Six rules for bloggers)
Thank you for your willingness to be part of WikiTribune and sharing your knowledge and talents. We need you.
Don’t be put off by what you may have seen about journalists in the movies or on TV. It’s not a science or a practice restricted to a priestly few. It’s not a tough guy with a press card in his hatband grabbing the phone and saying, “Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite!”
Journalism is simply a method of gathering, organizing and understanding information. It is a skill that requires precision and a dedication to truth. The more you use it, the better you will become.
NEWS TELLS A STORY
News is new.
It hasn’t been reported before.
News is true.
If it isn’t true, it isn’t news.
News is not a rumor.
Names make news.
Trump says … Pope Benedict orders … Lady Gaga discloses …
(News has verbs.)
News answers the question, “Why?”
News happens someplace.
News involves time (today, yesterday, tomorrow).
News is perishable. Old news isn’t as important as new news.
News doesn’t need adjectives and adverbs to tell the story.
The best news writing doesn’t shout. It uses cool, neutral language.
There are many ways to write a story. What follows are not rules, but guidelines. Here is a good way to structure a straight news story:
CHECKLIST: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHY, WHEN, HOW
The basic information you need can be remembered in the shorthand formula “5Ws and an H.”
Who: Who is this story about?
What: What’s going on?
Where: Where did this take place?
When: When did this take place or when will it occur?
Why: Why did this happen. Why should I (the reader) care? What difference does it make?
How: Explain the process, the rationale, the events leading to what happened.
These are the fundamental questions every story needs to answer.
WRITE THE HEADLINE FIRST
Writing the headline first helps you focus your thoughts and distill things to their essence. Pick the most important information for your headline. A headline is by definition short. A good rule of thumb is 60 characters. That means you must get to the point quickly. Headlines are always written in the present tense. If in doubt about how to start, ask yourself: “What’s the surprise?” [Pro tip: on WikiTribune you can go back and improve the headline later]
THE FIRST PARAGRAPH
The opening paragraph of a story is called the lead (rhymes with need). It is a summary of the most important information. The “lede” should contain at least two of the 5Ws and H. It is often best to start with the subject first. A good lead is typically one sentence of 25 to 30 words.
THE SECOND PARAGRAPH
The second paragraph supports the lead by spelling out important details. More elements of the 5Ws that didn’t make it into the first paragraph often go here.
THE THIRD PARAGRAPH
A quote brings a story to life. Readers want to hear from someone directly involved. A good quote doesn’t restate the lead. A quote can be a great way to answer the questions “How?” or “Why?” Be sure to include the context or circumstances of the quote (“said in a statement,” said in an interview,” said in a Twitter post”).
THE FOURTH PARAGRAPH
The fourth paragraph of a story is called the “nut graph,” or sometimes the “cosmic graf.” A good nut graph puts the news in context. It explains the significance of the story, why the story matters, what impact it has, what’s at stake, who’s affected, whether this is a one-off event or part of something bigger.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
Showing information allows readers to make up their own minds. Facts, figures and examples provide proof. The secret to showing, versus telling, is to be specific.
Not: “Irma, one of the worst hurricanes ever recorded, bore down on Puerto Rico”
Rather: “Irma, with the strongest winds of any Atlantic storm since 2005, bore down on Puerto Rico”
SIZE AND SCOPE
The biggest, the smallest, the first, the last: Try to incorporate a sense of scale. Be specific.
“the biggest annual increase since 2012”
“Costco, the biggest retailer in the U.S.”
“the largest earthworm ever recorded in the U.K.”
“the smallest increase in six months”
DISTINGUISH BETWEEN ASSERTIONS AND FACTS
A fact is indisputably true and can be proven in an objective, measurable way.
An assertion is a statement of belief without evidence.
The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world.
It is against the law to drive over the speed limit.
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865 by John Wilkes Booth.
America is the freest country on Earth.
It’s legal to drive over the speed limit as long as you are driving safely.
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865 to keep slaves from getting the vote.
Both facts and assertions are different from opinion, which is a view, a judgment or an appraisal about a particular matter.
Be skeptical. The difference between a fact and an assertion is verification, evidence and confirmation of truth.
Upon hearing an assertion, the smart journalist will ask: “Says who?”
Which brings us to ….
As a general rule, events or activities that a writer witnesses do not require attribution. Everything else does.
What you can see: Demonstrators marched down Fifth Avenue calling for the release of imprisoned Muslim cleric Omar Abdel-Rahma. (You could see the people on the street. You saw the signs they carried and heard what they said.)
What requires attribution: Thousands of demonstrators marched … (Generally speaking, we’re not equipped nor qualified to estimate the size of a crowd. Ask for an official estimate from police or civil authorities and attribute the information.)
Information you obtain second-hand, criticism, statements about controversial issues and opinions all must be attributed.
Quotations are someone’s exact words. Always. Use only the exact words within quotation marks
This rule is inviolable.
What if someone uses bad grammar? Don’t change it.
What about adding a word to clarify the quotation? Use the quotation, then say what the speaker was referring to outside the quotes. “xxx,’ said Jones, referring to the streetlight. Or: asked about the streetlight, Jones said, “xxxx”.
If the quotation is really unclear, don’t use it.
The three most important things about journalism are accuracy, accuracy and accuracy.
Credibility is the most important measure of your work. Trust, once lost, is hard to regain. The credibility of your writing reflects on everything and everyone associated with WikiTribune.
When you speak to someone, ask them to spell their names. Repeat it back. Did they say “b” or “d”? “S” or “f”? Better yet, ask if they have a card, or get them to print their names in your notebook.
Take notes and record interviews. Take a picture of what you are reporting about. Photograph documents. Editors will ask to see proof of any sources you cite.
Verifying the facts is at the core of journalism.
Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences.
Use active voice.
In active voice, the subject performs the action stated by the verb. In passive voice sentences, the subject is acted upon by the verb.
Tom painted the house. (active)
The house was painted by Tom. (passive)
The dog bit the boy. (active)
The boy was bitten by the dog. (passive)
Use terms ordinary people can understand. Use real-life examples where possible:
- A fire of 12 acres is hard to visualize if you’re not a farmer. Twelve acres is about the area of the Tower of London
- 1,000 feet high is about as tall as the Eiffel Tower
- Sixty square miles is about the size of Washington, D.C. Sixty square kilometers is about the size of Manhattan
- One floor in a skyscraper is generally 10 feet (3 meters). So, a seven-story building is about 70 feet (21 meters).
- The shortest distance between London and Paris is 344 kilometers (214 miles.) So, if something is about 150 kilometers away, it’s about half the distance between London and Paris.
- “More than 126,000 homes in the Houston area were damaged after Hurricane Harvey. Debris from the storm is estimated to fill space equivalent to 25 college football stadiums and take months to haul away.” (NPR)
Identify accurately and completely.
Use the full name of every person or organization the first time they’re mentioned in the story. Use last names on second reference.
Capitalize titles before a name; don’t capitalize after a name:
- London Mayor Sadiq Khan
- Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.
We don’t use Mr., Mrs., Ms., except in a quotation.
Not: Mr. Smith said he was feeling fine.
Instead: Smith said he was feeling fine.
But “’I think Mr. Jones should reconsider his position,’” Smith said.
Use ‘said’. Nothing else.
Smith said. The senator said. Said the woman.
It’s not about you.
A good reporter is invisible to the reader. There’s no need to say things like “told this reporter.”
We name sources whenever possible.
What is said to a reporter is on the record unless otherwise agreed upon ahead of time.
There is no need to ask, “Can I quote you?”
“Off the record” means you cannot publish the information you receive. Avoid agreeing to this.
“On background” [or unattributable] means you agree to shield the identity of a source. Try to avoid agreeing to this.
A named source is always preferable to an unnamed one.
In the rare instance where we agree to use an unnamed source, you are expected to disclose the name of the source to your editors.
When you believe your piece is ready to be looked at by WikiTribune editors change its status from ‘drafts’ to ‘pending review.’ Click ‘OK’, fill in the edit summary and then click the orange ‘Save pending’ button.
As with the rest of WikiTribune you are welcome to EDIT this or suggest changes or discuss in TALK.
Ends/PSY/PGB-October 29, 2017
Thanks, Jimmy Wales