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News writing attempts to answer all the basic questions about any particular event—who, what, when, where and why (the Five Ws) and also often how—at the opening of the article. This form of structure is sometimes called the "inverted pyramid", to refer to the decreasing importance of information in subsequent paragraphs.
News stories also contain at least one of the following important characteristics relative to the intended audience: proximity, prominence, timeliness, human interest, oddity, or consequence.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Terms and structure
- 3 Feature style
- 4 Other countries
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Newspapers generally adhere to an expository writing style. Over time and place, journalism ethics and standards have varied in the degree of objectivity or sensationalism they incorporate. Definitions of professionalism differ among news agencies; their reputations, according to professional standards, and depending on what the reader wants, are often tied to the appearance of objectivity. In its most ideal form, news writing strives to be intelligible to the majority of readers, as well as to be engaging and succinct. Within these limits, news stories also aim to be comprehensive. However, other factors are involved, some of which are derived from the media form, and others stylistic.
Among the larger and more respected newspapers, fairness and balance is a major factor in presenting information. Commentary is usually confined to a separate section, though each paper may have a different overall slant. Editorial policy dictates the use of adjectives, euphemisms, and idioms. Newspapers with an international audience, for example, tend to use a more formal style of writing.
The specific choices made by a news outlet's editor or editorial board are often collected in a style guide; common style guides include the AP Stylebook and the US News Style Book. The main goals of news writing can be summarized by the ABCs of journalism: accuracy, brevity, and clarity.
Terms and structure
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Journalistic prose is explicit and precise, and tries not to rely on jargon. As a rule, journalists will not use a long word when a short one will do. They use subject-verb-object construction and vivid, active prose (see Grammar). They offer anecdotes, examples and metaphors, and they rarely depend on colorless generalizations or abstract ideas. News writers try to avoid using the same word more than once in a paragraph (sometimes called an "echo" or "word mirror").
The headline, heading, head or title of a story ("hed" in journalists' jargon) is typically a complete sentence (e.g., "Pilot Flies Below Bridges to Save Divers"), often with auxiliary verbs and articles removed (e.g., "Remains at Colorado camp linked to missing Chicago man"). However, headlines sometimes omit the subject (e.g., "Jumps From Boat, Catches in Wheel") or verb (e.g., "Cat woman lucky").
The subhead is a heading that precedes a few paragraphs of the main text. It informs the reader of the topic in those paragraphs, helping the reader to choose to begin (or continue) reading. Articles should have more than one subhead. Subheads are one type of entry point that help readers make choices.
The '"deck,'" or deck, is a phrase, sentence or several sentences near the title of an article or story such as a quick blurb or article teaser. It is like a subtitle that expands on the hed, again, helping the reader make choices.
Capsule-summary text, often just one sentence, which is put into a sidebar or text-box on the same page to grab the reader's attention as they are flipping through the pages to encourage them to stop and read this article.
The most important structural element of a story is the lead or intro (in the UK) and the story's first, or leading, sentence. Some American English writers use the spelling lede //, from the archaic English, to avoid confusion with the printing press type formerly made from the metal lead or the related typographical term leading.
Charnley states that "an effective lead is a 'brief, sharp statement of the story's essential facts.'" The lead is usually the first sentence, or in some cases the first two sentences, and is ideally 20–25 words in length. The top-loading principle (putting the most important information first—see inverted pyramid section below) applies especially to leads, but the unreadability of long sentences constrains the lead's size. This makes writing a lead an optimization problem, in which the goal is to articulate the most encompassing and interesting statement that a writer can make in one sentence, given the material with which he or she has to work. While a rule of thumb says the lead should answer most or all of the five Ws, few leads can fit all of these.
To "bury the lead" in news style refers to beginning a description with details of secondary importance to the readers, forcing them to read more deeply into an article than they should have to in order to discover the essential point(s).
Article leads are sometimes categorized into hard leads and soft leads. A hard lead aims to provide a comprehensive thesis which tells the reader what the article will cover. A soft lead introduces the topic in a more creative, attention-seeking fashion, and is usually followed by a nut graph (a brief summary of facts).
Media critics[who?] often note that the lead can be the most polarizing subject in the article. Often critics accuse the article of bias based on an editor's choice of headline and/or lead.
Example lead-and-summary design
NASA is proposing another space project. The agency's budget request, announced today, included a plan to send another person to the moon. This time the agency hopes to establish a long-term facility as a jumping-off point for other space adventures. The budget requests approximately ten trillion dollars for the project. ...
Example soft-lead design
Humans will be going to the moon again. The NASA announcement came as the agency requested ten trillion dollars of appropriations for the project. ...
One or more brief paragraphs that summarise the news value of the story, sometimes bullet-pointed and/or set off in a box. The various spellings are contractions of the expression nutshell paragraph. Nut graphs are used particularly in feature stories (see below).
Graf is journalists' jargon for "paragraph".
A closing paragraph of the story which summarizes the key point and may contain a call-to-action.
Inverted pyramid structure
Journalists usually describe the organization or structure of a news story as an inverted pyramid. The essential and most interesting elements of a story are put at the beginning, with supporting information following in order of diminishing importance.
This structure enables readers to stop reading at any point and still come away with the essence of a story. It allows people to explore a topic to only the depth that their curiosity takes them, and without the imposition of details or nuances that they could consider irrelevant, but still making that information available to more interested readers.
The inverted pyramid structure also enables articles to be trimmed to any arbitrary length during layout, to fit in the space available.
Writers are often admonished "Don't bury the lead!" to ensure that they present the most important facts first, rather than requiring the reader to go through several paragraphs to find them.
Some writers start their stories with the "1-2-3 lead", yet there are many kinds of lead available. This format invariably starts with a "Five Ws" opening paragraph (as described above), followed by an indirect quote that serves to support a major element of the first paragraph, and then a direct quote to support the indirect quote.
News stories aren't the only type of material that appear in newspapers and magazines. Longer articles, such as magazine cover articles and the pieces that lead the inside sections of a newspaper, are known as features. Feature stories differ from straight news in several ways. Foremost is the absence of a straight-news lead, most of the time. Instead of offering the essence of a story up front, feature writers may attempt to lure readers in.
While straight news stories always stay in third person point of view, it's not uncommon for a feature article to slip into first person. The journalist will often detail his or her interactions with interview subjects, making the piece more personal.
A feature's first paragraphs often relate an intriguing moment or event, as in an "anecdotal lead". From the particulars of a person or episode, its view quickly broadens to generalities about the story's subject.
The section that signals what a feature is about is called the nut graph or billboard. Billboards appear as the third or fourth paragraph from the top, and may be up to two paragraphs long. Unlike a lede, a billboard rarely gives everything away. This reflects the fact that feature writers aim to hold their readers' attention to the end, which requires engendering curiosity and offering a "payoff." Feature paragraphs tend to be longer than those of news stories, with smoother transitions between them. Feature writers use the active-verb construction and concrete explanations of straight news, but often put more personality in their prose.
Feature stories often close with a "kicker" rather than simply petering out.
Due to common concerns of limited space and reader attention, there are broadly similar formats in other cultures, with some characteristics particular to individual countries.
Written Japanese in general, and news writing in particular, places a strong emphasis on brevity, and features heavy use of Sino-Japanese vocabulary and omission of grammar that would be used in speech. Most frequently, two-character kanji compounds are used to concisely express concepts that would otherwise require a lengthy clause if using spoken language. Nominalization is also common, often compacting a phrase into a string of kanji. Abbreviations are also common, abbreviating a term or kanji compound to just initial characters (as in acronyms); these abbreviated terms might not be used in spoken language, but are understandable from looking at the characters and context. Further, headlines are written in telegram style, yielding clipped phrases that are not grammatical sentences. Larger articles, especially front-page articles, also often have a one-paragraph summary at the beginning.
- Bill Parks. "Basic News Writing" (PDF). Retrieved 2009-07-29.
- "What the Heck Is a Hed/Dek? Learning the Lingo in Periodical Publishing By Janene Mascarella". Writersweekly.com. 2005-07-20. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
- Morrison, Daniel. "How to Write Heds and Deks". InfoTruck.
- "The Mavens' Word of the Day". Randomhouse.com. 2000-11-28. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
- Charney 1966
- Charney 1966:166
- Unzipped! Newswriting by Chris Kensler
- Linda Jorgensen. Real-World Newsletters (1999)
- Mark Levin. The Reporter's Notebook : Writing Tools for Student Journalists (2000)
- Buck Ryan and Michael O'Donnell. The Editor's Toolbox: A Reference Guide for Beginners and Professionals, (2001)
- Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: The Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the World's Most Authoritative Newspaper, (2002)
- M. L. Stein, Susan Paterno, and R. Christopher Burnett, The Newswriter's Handbook Introduction to Journalism (2006)
- Bryan A. Garner. The Winning Brief: 100 Tips for Persuasive Briefing in Trial and Appellate Court (1999)
- Philip Gerard, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life (1998)
- Steve Peha and Margot Carmichael Lester, Be a Writer: Your Guide to the Writing Life (2006)
- Andrea Sutcliffe. New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage, (1994)
- Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English (2004)
|Look up lead or lede in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|