/script>j Writing news stories

The Shortest short-course in the history of college journalism

A one-day seminar done at Mid-America Nazarene University

Part 1: What makes news?

News is information about anything that is interesting or significant. News is also a highly perishable commodity. Nothing is deader than yesterday's newspaper, last night's newscast, or the previous online news cycle. That's why we throw old newspapers away or use them in the bottom of birdcages or in the house-training of puppies.

If readers want to know something, that means it has become newsworthy.

If something has happened or is going to happen in which people would be interested, that happening is news.

The alphabet soup of news stories:

Part 2: Writing the story

Now that you have the idea, how do you write the story?

What is a college newspaper?

I believe that a newspaper is supposed to tell the members of its community what is happening in that community. For a college student newspaper, that means more than just covering scheduled events like Homecoming and Fine Arts recitals. It means getting beneath the surface and finding out what administrators and faculty are discussing and what student leaders are planning.

I believe that when something is wrong, we must write about the problem. We must try to make an issue of it so that students, faculty, and administrators will talk about it and perhaps something will be done. We do some of that on the editorial page. We also do it in the news columns since that is part of telling people what's happening.

I believe a newspaper's ultimate responsibility is to its readers, not to any amorphous and undefined "student opinion" or anyone's plans to accomplish some goal. It's our job to tell our readers what is going on.

  -- Howard Culbertson in an editorial in SNU's student newspaper, The Echo

Once you have a story with the right elements, how do you go about writing it?

Basic structure
of American newspaper stories:
facts appear
in descending order
of importance
pyramid diagram of news
story construction

Some A to Z basic rules

A is for Accuracy. Get complete information, complete identification, and complete names. "Almost right" is not enough.

Z is for zeroing in immediately on the story you have to tell. Your article must sustain interest from beginning to end. If it doesn't, cut it down and change it until it does.

Four don'ts
  1. Don't write fancy prose.
  2. Don't pad your story to make it longer than necessary. Keep it short.
  3. Don't write unsupported opinions or claims. Stick to facts.
  4. Don't be surprised if an editor rewrites your story. Think of it as "improving" your story.
The five W's and H

A news story should answer:

If any of these elements are missing, it usually means the reporter has not dug out the complete story. In short, the reporter failed to get the complete picture.

Lead sentences

A long, overloaded lead sentence can be as objectionable as missing the main point entirely. Do not try to answer all 5 W's and the H in the first sentence of your story. Determine which of the W's and H is most important. Emphasize that one element in your lead sentence.


Make paragraphs terse, but not interdependent. Write so that whole paragraphs can be removed without destroying the sense of the article.

Do not let paragraphs run on and on. Short paragraphs open up copy. That makes the story easier to read.

Follow the inverted triangle principle and arrange paragraphs in the order of their importance.

Avoid starting paragraphs with "the," "a," "it," or "there."


Do not pack too many ideas into any one sentence. Be especially careful of the lead.

Do not start a sentence with the same word with which the preceding sentence ended.

Keep sentences short while also varying their length.


Use precise words. Make wording compact. Select each word for maximum effect. Why use a quarter word when a nickel one will do?

Use adjectives sparingly. Think three times before using an adjective. Strong nouns and active verbs seldom need qualifiers. Adjectives are cheap.


In news stories, avoid both "fine writing" and trite expressions.

Do not use an important or unusual word twice in the same sentence or too closely in the same paragraph.

Keeping your ducks all lined up
Give your source. Every story has a source.
Check copy: accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.
Names (double-check spelling)
Numbers (cross-check your figures)
Refrain from editorializing
Keep "I" and "we" out of the story
Avoid inadvertent comment
Don't use loaded words
Closing moral or exhortation--quote your source instead
Put in details that readers need to know
Don't assume your readers know something. Go ahead and tell them.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

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