Tips on journalistic writing at the
Qualities of a good story
a good story is based not on language but on content.
The writer must gather specific, accurate pieces of
information to include in the story; so basically, you
must actually report, not just write.
There should be a reason for your story. A story should
pass along information, challenge readers' beliefs, or
simply help them go about daily life. Part of the
S&B's job is to find the significance among
those things traditionally thought to be insignificant.
See below for more on
Readers need perspective to understand a story. You
personally might have followed a particular student
group's birth, life and demise, but many have not.
You'll need to fill everyone in on the history in order
for people to understand the present. See here to learn about placing
context in a nut graf.
Ernie Pyle wrote, "If you want to tell the story of a
war, tell the story of one soldier." A broad topic like
"diversity" or "town/gown relations" will not make a
good story. You need to find some piece of that to
cover; a person or a group of people or an event to
show the readers to represent the whole
are writers, but writing is really only half their job.
More difficult is the legwork of actually finding out
what you're going to write about: the reporting. If you
do a good job gathering information, your story will be
easier to write and more interesting to read.
Find out some basic information both about the person
you're interviewing and the topic you're interviewing
the person about. Being at least semi-educated about
the issue will help you establish a semblance of
professionalism and will also help you prepare better
questions. "Non-interview sources" on p. 8 for places
to find this information.
This is entirely up to you. Just keep in mind that if
we want to be taken seriously, we need to act like it
sometimes. That means that if you're meeting with a
trustee to discuss diversity on the faculty, you might
want to dress up a tiny bit.
This depends on what you're working on. If you're
writing a basic news article and you simply need the
facts from a busy administrator, just go to her office.
On the other hand, if you're doing a profile on a
student with an interesting hobby, you'll get better
notes if you actually arrange to go somewhere
with him and have him show you what he does.
conditions: Tell the interviewee about how
much of his or her time you think you'll need. Talk
about recording if you think you'll be using it. Ask
the interviewee for anything you should read to better
prepare yourself for the interview. If you need to talk
to someone off campus on the phone, talk to your
editor: the S&B has a long-distance code,
which is a lot easier to use than to try to get
reimbursed later (though that's also an
questions: There are two basic kinds of
questions you'll use in an interview-open-ended
and closed-ended. Open-ended questions allow the
interviewee to be flexible and non-specific in
answering. They're the "whys" and "hows" and
"explains." Keep in mind that vague questions invite
vague answers. Closed-ended questions pin down details.
You don't often get good quotes from closed-ended
questions, but you need to use them to make sure you
have the correct information. An often-used strategy is
to alternate between closed-ended and open-ended
questions, rephrasing each time in order to get the
kind of answer you need. Looking slightly stupid to the
interviewee is much preferred to being wrong in print
and looking stupid to everyone.
rapport: Think about the relationship you want
to establish with the interviewee. Chances are he or
she will be slightly uncomfortable being interviewed so
it's often best to start off with some sort of
non-threatening (read: boring) small talk. If the
person is busy, however, this can backfire. It's often
good to tell the person why you're talking to him or
her; maybe somebody else you talked to said that this
person would be an important and trustworthy source.
Maybe it's important to get their perspective in order
to get a balanced view of the topic. If you have a
reason for talking to this person that might not be
immediately apparent, get it out on the
Note-taking often makes interviewee nervous, so be
discreet. Learn or create a shorthand of some sort or
at least learn how to write in your notebook without
having to look. There's no real way to learn to take
good notes except by doing it a lot. You might try just
taking notes from NPR or a boring class: writing down
quotes without looking at your page. It'll get easier.
Don't be afraid to use "could you say that again" or
"just a sec" or "could you tell me more about ______"
as stalling mechanisms to buy yourself time to catch up
when writing. These continuations will often provide
you with the greatest information from the interview
because they invite the subject to say it again or to
continue in greater depth.
details: Even if you think you know how to
spell everything and where it is and when and such, ask
anyway. We don't want to be wrong. Get names spelled
slowly, even easy ones (even Smith has been known to be
Smythe, for example), and recheck basic
just listen for quotes: Use all your senses.
You should have notes other than just what the person
said in your notebook. What was the person doing?
looking at? What expressions were on his face? What's
the setting? Were there sounds in the background? Even
touch and smell can be useful. If you need to take your
reader to a setting, there's nothing like the smell of
fresh cut grass or hot asphalt.
questions: Don't be afraid to stray from your
list of prepared questions. The interview should not
proceed exactly as you expected, so follow it where it
(and the interviewee) leads. Just make sure that you
have covered everything you knew you needed to cover
before you leave.
your notes: If you tried not to look at your
notebook while writing, it's probably a mess. As soon
as you leave an interview, sit down, look at your notes
and copy over what you think will be the important
quotes. It's no fun to look at them the next day or
whenever you want to write and find that you have no
idea what any of it says.
back: Don't be afraid of returning to your
source via phone, email or even another interview if
you have some holes that need to be filled or a later
source brings up some issue you didn't cover. Some
profile writers, in fact, swear by follow-up
interviews: it's often the only way to find the right
facts to bring a broad-ranging story into a coherent
narrative. And again, it's better to look dumb to your
source than to the whole campus when the paper comes
interview is not the only tool available to journalists.
Interviews can provide quotes and some information, but
unless you have infinite time and patience to schmooze
and track down professors all day long, you'll need more
in-depth information for some stories. Also, interviews
are not the best place to find specific facts and
numbers, especially about broad (national or
international) trends. You can get numbers from
interviewees, but always ask for citations. It's a lot
more credible to cite the Center for Disease Control than
a biology professor.
research can be invaluable in providing background
information, as well as specific data to include in your
finished story. Look in old issues of the S&B
(in the publications building for recent years, in
Burling Library back to the 1800s), other newspapers,
magazines or journals. The internet can be useful as
well, but as always, be careful what you believe. You
should usually cite online sources rather than simply
treating them as fact.
observation can be useful too. If you're writing an
in-depth story on a sports team or a play, ask if you can
sit around on the sidelines or in the back row during
practice. People will become comfortable with your
presence, making interviews easier later; you'll have
more to talk about in those interviews; and you'll see
interactions between the players that you can use in your
story. Dialogue is a good technique to steal from
2.4. Leads and conclusions
the hardest parts of stories. They determine whether
readers will commit to a story, and how readers feel when
they put a story down.
The key to a
lead-whether it's for reportage, feature, review or
whatever-is identifying the news peg; that is, why
are you writing the story in the first place? Why should
readers care? And more than that, what parts of the story
will the readers care about the most? Often there are
side issues, or questions you'll eventually need to
answer in order to keep readers from finding the story
incomplete. Tackle these things later in the
first get the story, figure out what the story's news peg
is (maybe with the help of the editor who assigned it to
you), and keep it in the back of your mind all the time
when you're gathering information. List the questions
that readers might ask and make sure you answer them as
you go along.
the news peg will be very abstract, and the lead will
follow in kind: "Grinnell students can expect to pay
higher tuition next year" does very well as a first
paragraph. But in feature, account, review and opinion
stories-that is, everything but hard news-you should find
a more creative way to present the news peg.
and feature leads, therefore, turn to concrete: they
select an anecdote that somehow illustrates a central
idea in the story. Here's the beginning of a profile that
focused on its subject's application of the
student-at-Grinnell experience to the prof-at-Grinnell
about her experience going from being a student to a
professor at Grinnell, Sarah Purcell '92, History, is
Any embarrassing first-day moments? No, the first day
was surprisingly quiet, Purcell said.
Any big surprises? No, she said, life is pretty much
opinion pieces can be harder to make concrete, but they
should be no less engaging. Sometimes you can achieve
this with an appealingly concise abstraction:
"Credibility can bite my ass" was the first line of a CD
review discussing Grinnell's natural deficiency of
musical indie cred. Other times, you can turn to a
surprising fact. A column exposing the source of ARH's
institution is an especially good client of a company,
the institution is often recognized through discounts,
partnerships, and even a branded line of merchandise.
Grinnell College must be an excellent client of Iowa
Prison Industries, because we got an entire suite of
furniture named after us.
note about leads: honesty is more important in a lead
than anywhere else. A whiff of artificiality in a lead is
enough to contaminate an entire story. Often, writers are
tempted to open a story with a sweeping generalization or
a zealous endorsement. Such cheerleading only interferes
with the story. There is no need to open a feature story
about an upcoming dance concert by praising the dancers'
skill; judgments aren't facts, and they don't make for
interesting stories. Find the news peg, and let your
readers make judgments for themselves when they attend
these aren't as hard as leads. The most important thing
to remember is that, unlike academic papers, newspaper
articles have conclusions without having
summaries. Do all your summarizing in your lead
and your nut graf. Instead, use the conclusion to bring a
story into a circle-for example, by referring again to a
character from your lead-or to open up a new perspective
or synthesis. Often, a good quote can do the job: look
especially for someone who has something relatively
unexpected and insightful to say about the "big picture"
of a story.
whether it's abstract or concrete, can't do everything on
its own. You need to describe the entire situation behind
the news peg, including the lurking facts that people may
not be talking about very often. Feature leads, in fact,
usually avoid mentioning the news peg explicitly; feature
writers draw readers in with their creativity and then
let readers know why the story is interesting several
work should be done by a nut graf. Nut grafs add
context and background to a story, and usually set up a
frame for the story to work within. A nut graf in a story
about two major changes to the college's alcohol policy
would mention them both and quickly explain any recent
trends in alcohol consumption or policy
its name, a nut graf can be two or even three paragraphs
long if it needs to be. A nut graf is usually very dry,
so the sooner you can get it over with, the better.
Still, the best nut grafs include vibrant verbs or
metaphors that burn a structure for the story into the
reader's consciousness. Once this is done, readers can
easily stack all the information you're about to provide
into the neat framework that you've built for
pyramids vs. hourglasses
style of newswriting, with the 'most important' facts at
the top, followed by less and less important facts in
descending order is called the inverted pyramid.
Inverted pyramid leads begin with who, what, when, where,
why, and how, all in a few sentences. Then comes the nut
graf, and so on.
was developed by the first national newspapers in the
mid-19th century, and at the time it was
ideal. Because news from across the country was so hard
to come by, newspapers were often the only source for
hard facts, and readers could get those efficiently from
inverted-pyramid leads. Moreover, when newspapers were
laid out on printing presses, the process of arranging
stories on the page was devilishly complicated, and
inverted-pyramid style let editors chop off the bottom of
the story-the narrow "point" of the pyramid-without
having to worry about losing the most important
the inverted pyramid has disadvantages. Its artificiality
can seem distant and dispassionate, and the decreasing
order of importance gives readers little motivation to
read a story beyond the first few paragraphs, causing
them to miss important complexities or powerful details.
Arranging facts into order of importance, rather than
chronological order, breaks up the narrative flow of a
story and can make it more confusing. Finally, news
analysts have increasingly realized that facts don't have
objective 'importance'; that's a subjective, and
therefore unreliable, value judgment.
problems are mitigated in first-rate inverted-pyramid
stories: reportorial prose need not be boring, and
putting the important facts up front is certainly
convenient for the reader. The best reportage crackles
sharply enough, without distracting from the subject
matter, to give the reader a reason to read on, if only
to enjoy the writer's skill. All the same, many of these
problems are solved by a newer structure for news
stories: the hourglass.
refers to a modified inverted pyramid; hourglass stories
start with some important facts, move into minutiae for a
while, and then set up an important conclusion at the
end. But good hourglass stories aren't just inverted
pyramids that have been rearranged: they advertise their
nature with a more creative feature lead (see above) and move naturally from one
area of inquiry to another before drawing the reader up
to the conclusion. To do this, they often employ
narrative techniques like chronology, dialogue, and
characterization to drive the story forward.
S&B sometimes runs inverted pyramid stories,
for harder news pieces where the facts tend to speak for
themselves, but most of our content is more
should flow intuitively from one area of inquiry to the
next: after you present a given piece of information,
anticipate the questions your reader will ask, and answer
them in the next section. Use a sentence or two of your
own prose to bridge one area of inquiry to another:
"faculty members thought otherwise" or "meanwhile, the
city council was debating the same issue."
especially with very long or complicated stories, you
simply can't include everything without a sudden jolt at
some point. That's all right. You or your editor can
insert a subhead within the text of the article,
signifying that a new topic will be brought
2.6. Relevance and depth
remember that a newspaper stops being useful when its
audience stops finding it relevant. All articles, and all
information in those articles, should be selected with an
ear to what the S&B's readership will find
interesting and applicable to their lives.
this becomes particularly challenging in leads: a lead,
with its news peg, should almost always be the most
interesting part of a story. If, for example,
administrators have decided on a significant change to
the college's diversity policy, the article should
probably not begin with a description of the meeting at
which the decision was made-even if the administrators
you talked to described that meeting in great
start with a concise big-picture summary of what matters
the most to students' lives: "Next month Grinnell College
will officially declare its commitment to bringing
students and faculty of all political stripes to its
campus." Or maybe use a specific anecdote that
illustrates why administrators decided the change was
necessary: "Nancy Garbo '08 has received three separate
threatening messages on her whiteboard in the two weeks
since she posted a sticker above her door that opposed
flipside of this concern, articles should avoid
sensationalizing or oversimplifying complicated issues,
and should frequently expose readers to the unfamiliar.
Oversimplified information can be worse than no
information, because-especially on hot-button issues like
race, sexuality, class, gender-readers often bring whole
buckets of assumptions to the table. Writers should be
aware of complexities inherent in their articles, and
should take care not to gloss them over. Instead, talk to
lots of people until you unearth unexpected aspects of an
issue. This will keep your news fresh and your articles