News Writing: Tips and Tricks of the Trade, Part 1 0

You have to have a point of view

If you are writing a hard news story – such as a story about a public event – you are simply reporting the facts as they are but, when you are writing for a publication like Tellus, which isn’t a primary news source, you have to come equipped with opinions, because your job is mostly to analyze the news that other people have already reported on.

In some respects, this is called feature writing. In other respects, it is called “editorializing,” but the advantage to this kind of writing is that first you read about something that has happened, and then  you write about your reactions to that story.

What is interesting about this is that many people do not know what their points of view really are on a variety of subjects:

Here’s an assignment to help you figure this out.  Write an article called, “What I believe” and simply write down a list of things you believe. Then write a second list of things you do not believe.  These are for your own information. No one else is ever going to read them so be honest. You are talking to yourself about yourself. Don’t insult your audience.

Remember Who You Are Writing For

Writing for yourself is all well and good, but if you write only for yourself, you aren’t going to make any money as a writer….and your reader (you) is going to get very, very bored.  Therefore, you have to make sure that you write to the reader when you are writing a story.

The best writing get written when writers keep remembering their audience, the people who are going to read what they are going to write. Whenever you write anything – even a shopping list – you are really having a one-way conversation with a reader. Since the reader can’t ask you questions, you have to anticipate the questions a smart reader would ask about the article you are writing. If you anticipate those questions, and answer them in the order that they will occur to the reader, then you are well on your way toward becoming a good writer.

Make Sure You Write to the Understanding of the Reader

This is one of the secrets of good writing.  Every writer writes to one specific person, who may be a real live human being, or an imaginary projection of the idealized reader, but everyone who writes well, writes to that one person.  In the theater, young actors are taught visualize someone they know, sitting out of sight in the last row of the theater, and to speak in such a way that the person sitting in the back of theater will be able to hear, and understand, what they are saying. In writing, it is much the same: make sure that you are writing to the understanding of the reader.

Know Your Audience and Their Language Level

So, then, know your audience…and that means knowing the language that your audience is comfortable with. Many would-be writers, when they first pick up the trade, develop an artificial vocabulary, using words in their articles that they would never use in their day-to-day conversations….but journalism is really a day-to-day conversation between the writer and the reader. The reader. Just one. The one you are writing to. If you had to look up the word before you used it, don’t use it. It’s really that simple.

It’s All Right to Listen to the Voices in Your Head

The next secret about writing is that good writers do not actually write anything. They take dictation from the voices in their heads, and their objectives as writers is to educate those voices with good information and tune their hearing to what those voices are saying. Writing is an amazing, mostly unconscious, if not subconscious, process.  We writers absorb facts and regurgitate them after thoroughly masticating and digesting those facts so that we can regurgitate them in an orderly manner….

Keep It Simple But Get Your Facts Straight

…which brings us to the next big thing: Get your facts straight. This is harder than it seems to be when you are thinking about it abstractly, but the truth is that we are constantly absorbing data from the world around us, but that data is undigested background noise.  Data is different from information.  Data can be true or false. Information can be misleading. Your job as a reporter is not to be misled. It is your job to keep an open mind, gather data from wherever you can, sort through the data to find facts you need, and then check the facts against a second source, and a third, if there is time.

Keep Track of  Your Sources

Sources are everywhere…and nowhere, because, today, many sources are nothing more than words on a computer screen. Stories are being written more and more frequently without ever speaking to the people the stories are about.  Your sources might be previously published stories by other writers , which you can quote in the process of writing your stories, or they might be people you find on the internet who have a special expertise in a given subject.

One source makes your suppositions into an opinion. You might agree or disagree with that opinion, but it is still just an opinion. Two concurring sources make that opinion a belief, but beliefs are just facts whose contradictions have not yet been revealed.  Three sources substantiate your data and make your findings into this thing we call news.

Better Never Than Late

Then, there is the problem with time.  You’ve done your research and your writing and you are all set to publish your article….only to discover that someone else has beat you to the punch. If – or rather when – this happens to you, we will wait a few hours and then publish your article as a follow-up to the one that beat you to market. Never throw anything away….ever.  If you put effort into it, we will find a way to use it.

Time is always against you when you are a journalist.  First you have to get the story, then you have to write it, and then you have to get it into the publication you are writing for….which means there has to be room for your article in the news budget for that edition.  Speed is essential, because you might lose your slot in the next edition if you don’t get your story into the system in a timely manner, and timeliness is very important because news is a perishable commodity.

(The news “budget” was the itemization of the number of lines of editorial space available in a given edition, and the number of lines assigned to each story that would appear in the next edition. This is now an archaic concept since there is no limit to the number of articles that can be published in an online journal.)

Shelf Life in the 24 Hour News Cycle

In the old days of print journalism, the shelf life of a story was around 12 hours, because that was how long it took for your competitors to catch up with you.  If you published a story in a morning paper, that story would get printed around midnight so that it would be on all the newsstands and on people’s front stoops at 6 AM, and that story would remain fresh until the evening papers hit the newsstands around noon, after being printed at 8 AM.  (Evening papers rarely did well with home deliveries because by the time the evening papers got to the front stoop, the evening news was already on.)

Today, we are living in a 24 hour news cycle where there are no deadlines any more.  Online publications are constantly being updated as new stories break or new information comes to light about a previously published story. You no longer have 12 hours between the morning and evening editions.  If two reporters write the same story at the same time, using the same quotes from the same source, it is possible that the copyright violation software will pick up the story that was published later as plagiarized.  So, speed is of the essence, but so is accuracy and it turns out that it is easier to be speedy than it is to be right. Getting your facts straight is often more difficult than it seems.  Just ask Dan Rather or Brian Williams.

The Best Defense is a STRONG Defense

There’s this old saying that in war and football, the best defense is a strong offense. It’s not true. During the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was a very aggressive offensive general. He lost. Ulysses S. Grant was a defensive oriented general.  Grant won because he knew that all he had to do was not lose. Lee had to win. Their strategies were forced on them by circumstances, not preferences. How does this apply to writing a news story?  Don’t try to win the argument. Just make sure you don’t lose. (The best defense is a strong offense is not true in football either, but that’s another story.)

Don’t Trust Your Sources

First of all, you can’t trust secondary sources, which means anything that is only published online because there is no way to document the provenance of a fact if someone else can change that fact behind your back but that’s what happens with online sources all the time.  People edit their previously published articles, leaving the erstwhile reporter depending on facts turn out to be opinions, while rejecting opinions that turn out to be facts.

Therefore, whenever you are quoting a controversial piece of information, make sure you copy the source material and save it so, in case you are challenged later, you can prove where the information came from.

Ultimately, however, your best defense against errors of fact is to get the information from the horse’s mouth by interviewing a source….but how do you get an interview with a source that lives on the other side of the country, not  to mention the ones who live on the other side of the planet?

The short answer is that you don’t because you can’t.  The best you can do is to quote someone who has quoted the source, and you have to do that very carefully to avoid plagiarism.  Without too much exaggeration, I believe it is safe to say that up to 90% of the stuff you read today comes from secondary sources.  In effect, then, the people in the news business today are increasing interviewing each other to get the news and, by the time they get that done, the news isn’t news any more.  (The longer answer is that there are ways to reach newsmakers. We will teach you that as we go along.)

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