Learning how to write newspaper articles is one of the most fundamental skills for any writer to have and it lays a foundation for many other formats and allows you to flex your journalistic muscles. Newspaper article writing is unique in that it’s harshly succinct, but learning how to write in this simple “just the facts, ma’am” style carries over wonderfully into other areas of writing and teaches you to write more clearly without bloating your prose- after all one of the golden rules of writing is getting rid of words that you can do without.
Whether you are looking to get a gig on the local rag or just want to expand your arsenal of writing skills this is a great beginners guide on how to write a standard newspaper article.
The inverted pyramid format
The objective of any newspaper article is to grab the reader immediately and keep them interested in your story for as long as possible- think about when you read the newspaper, do you read each and every article all the way through? Of course not, everyone skips past the stuff that doesn’t interest them- And even if they do find something interesting they often don’t stick around for the whole article (how many times have you read up to ‘continued on page 8′ and just put it down?). Our audience is a fickle bunch and we need to grab their attention immediately and keep it as long as we can with our article, so we use a principle called the inverted pyramid.
The inverted pyramid scheme is a very simple way to wrap your head around the structure of a basic newspaper article designed to grab attention. The width of the pyramid represents importance and pertinence, the wider it is the more important and urgent the information should be at that point in the story. As you can see from the image of the inverted pyramid above, our opening should contain the most pressing and important information about the story, and as we go on the information gets less and less important and interesting, consisting of details and explanations. So how do we turn this inverted pyramid idea into an actual article?
Each article starts out as a set of facts, a story that happened in chronological order accompanied by a series of details. However, we aren’t presenting the story in chronological order when we write a newspaper article about it, our very first paragraph (preferably the first sentence) should summarize the entire event while drawing focus to the most interesting dimension of the story. These dimensions are generally seperated into five familiar W’s: Who, What, When, Where, Why. It’s your job to decide which parts of the story are the most interesting and to emphasize these in the lead as much as possible. Let’s take a look at an example:
VIENNA, Austria (AP) — California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is getting a birthday gift in his home country: a stamp in his honor.
The Austrian post office announced on its Web site that the $1.25 stamp will be released on the actor-turned-politician’s birthday, July 30. Schwarzenegger, who will be 57, was born in the Austrian village of Thal near the southern city of Graz.
The stamp — which shows Schwarzenegger in a suit and tie with the American and Austrian flags in the background — is part of a collectors’ series called “Austrians living abroad,” the post office said.
Schwarzenegger moved to the United States in 1968 to pursue a career as a body builder and movie star. He made his first visit to Austria as California governor last weekend, when he represented the United States at the state funeral of President Thomas Klestil.
- Associated Press
Notice how the very first sentence mentions the main interest of the story (who: Arnold Schwarzenegger) and summarized the main events. As the article progresses it expands on these events, adding details in descending order of interest and importance.
Also notice how each paragraph is only a sentence or two, newspaper writing is very segmented and each paragraph should only focus on one specific topic. Your writing should be very tight and concise, don’t embellish or use fluffy descriptive prose- we aren’t writing a novel. Stick to the facts and don’t inject your own opinions or conclusions, just present the story.
Proper use of quotations
Almost every newspaper article uses a quotation at some point to give the story a sense of human credibility, the fact that someone relevant to the situation gave their input is important and should be utilized in the article at some point. However, quotes should be handled responsibly and used in context- many journalists have found themselves in trouble for the improper use of quotations.
It’s important not to present your readers with any big blocks of quotations, most people don’t feel like reading a full transcript of someone else’s exact words and may end up turning the page or just skipping it. It’s best to use fragments from someone’s full quotation throughout your article and fill in the blanks yourself- see the third paragraph in the example article above to see that in action. You want your article to have a fast paced flow so that readers feel compelled to keep reading (which is why small paragraphs are preferred), giving them too big of a quote will interrupt that flow and lose attention.
Also, keep with the theme of minimizing embellishment and unnecessary descriptors- ‘said’ will do just fine in almost every case for newspaper articles, you may misrepresent the person you are quoting by describing their manner of speaking.
Responsible journalism – best reporting practices
It’s your duty as a journalist to present your audience with an objective view of the story. However, in reality it is entirely impossible to be completely free of bias when writing a news story, because the very act of investigation and reporting information means that the story must be put through the filter of your own word choice, your audience will view the story through a lens that you create. This makes your responsibility as a journalist that much more important, you are the one that decides the context in which this story is presented, and that’s something you can’t take lightly.
It’s totally fine and even encouraged to speak your mind when writing opinion pieces and columns, but when it comes to hard news you need to take yourself out of the equation as much as possible. Put aside your political affiliations and emotional responses, take a look at the story from the perspective of the reader and give them what they need to formulate their own educated opinion on the subject. Be aware of the way you word things and always re-read your articles several times before sending it off to the editor or publisher.
Research and information gathering
Before you get anything on paper the facts need to be collected and you need to have a clear picture of the story, and this process varies wildly depending on the publication and your particular beat (or niche). This means you will probably need to conduct interviews, sit in on meetings and events, and talk to people who were involved with your story. This requires a certain amount of sociability and a willingness to hear people out- there’s no room for your ego when gathering facts and quotes.
This may seem obvious, but when you’re out in the field gathering information you need to be prepared with the proper supplies. Carry several pens and a pad of paper at all times, learn to write fast and use some method of shorthand if you plan on taking quotes on paper. Preferably you should have some sort of recording device when doing interviews (with consent of course) so you never accidentally misquote anyone and don’t have to furiously scribble as they talk.
No matter what you need to keep your ear to the ground even when you aren’t actively researching for an article, be aware of what’s going on in your area and in any industries that you write about regularly. Remember that the internet is your friend if you need to brush up on some basic facts, but don’t use it as a crutch if you can use a first-hand account or a professional assessment instead.
Why learn newspaper writing?
After all, everyone seems to be under the concencus that print media is dead and no one reads newspapers anymore. While that simply isn’t true, print media does seem to be on the decline and digital reporting seems to be the next big thing in journalism. However, the skills gained from writing for print newspapers carry over directly to the online world, the same principles hold true and the writing style is very similar.
Being a proficient news writer also gives you some great job opportunities, ask around your local papers and see if they are looking for any new writers and you’d be surprised how many want to grow their team. This is a great way to get your foot in the door in the writing world and to get started with a rewarding career.