NEWS WRITING SERIES #4: Rules For Writing News Stories
In the earlier segments of this series, we have examined the following topics:
It’s important to click on the topics above and read these previous segments if you haven’t done so before proceeding to this one.
As we stated in the segment on what a news story is, it is not written like a regular story. There are professional requirements for writing such a story. This article, therefore, deals with rules to bear in mind while writing news stories.
RULES FOR WRITING NEWS STORIES
1.Use Simple Language:
News stories are written for everyone who can read, hear or perceive the information in them. They are not meant for those with higher education alone. So, it’s important to make them as comprehensible as possible by avoiding difficult words and expressions, hence the expression, “You do not purchase when you can buy in news writing.”
2.Mostly Use the Active Voice:
The active voice produces shorter and more direct sentences. In addition, it does not hide the subject as the passive voice does because it constructs sentences in the S-V-O (subject-verb-object) format.
Will loves Winnie. (Active voice)
Winnie is loved by Will. (Passive voice)
Prof. Michael Ukonu commended the Curriculum Committee members. (Active voice)
The Curriculum Committee members were commended by Prof. Michael Ukonu. (Passive voice)
The lecturer scolded the students for cheating in their continuous assessment assignments. (Active voice)
The students were scolded by the lecturer for cheating in their continuous assessment assignments. (Passive voice)
However, it may not be proper to use the active voice always. For instance, if the news maker (the prominent person the story is about) is the object, we put him or her first by using the passive voice. Otherwise, we would have buried the news by giving more attention to a less known person.
3.Match the Writing Tone to the Mood of the Story:
The tone in which you write a story must align with the mood or nature of the event or issue covered. Exciting events like sports competitions attract a lively tone but sad events like funerals attract a more subdued tone.
4.Draw Human Interest:
Bring out how the event or issue has affected the people concerned. Has it improved or worsened their lives? In what specific ways has it done so? If possible, quote these people directly so that they state their experiences in their own words.
Note how human interest was included in the stories below:
5.Avoid Slangs, Clichés and Euphemisms:
Slangs are fashionable expressions understood and used by specific groups. Since they are not comprehensible to everyone, they are not appropriate in a news story (which is meant for all).
Clichés are overused expressions which can bore and irritate readers. Let your writing be fresh and thoughtful, not sound like something carelessly put together.
Euphemisms are expressions used to reduce the harshness or unpleasantness of what is discussed. Since news should be factual and leave no one in doubt as to what happened, euphemisms should be shunned in news writing.
6.Use Quotations Properly:
There are different types of quotations that can be used in writing. Direct quotations contain the speaker’s exact words and must be enclosed in inverted commas to differentiate them from the writer’s own words. Only use direct quotes for significant statements made in a succinct and striking manner.
Indirect quotations contain the summarised or paraphrased version of the speaker’s words. Since the words have been reconstructed by the writer, they do not need to be within inverted commas. Be sure to capture the essence of what the speaker said while rephrasing it, rather than inputting other ideas into their statements.
Partial quotations are those that are not full sentences. These are used when the writer only wants to highlight some particular words or expressions that the speaker used. Those specific words lifted exactly as the speaker said them should be enclosed in quotation marks.
7.Make Proper Attribution to Sources:
The information from sources should be clearly attributed to them and those sources should be properly identified to prevent the suspicion that the reporter made them and the information quoted up. Proper identification requires adding the source’s full name (that is, first name, an initial [if available] and surname); title; designation(occupation), sex and any other demographical details that are relevant to the story like age, race, ethnicity and residence.
8.Write with Vigorous Verbs:
Some verbs are stronger and more specific than others of the same meaning. They, therefore, tell the story better by painting a clearer picture of what happened in your story.
It is also important to vary the verbs used to describe something in order not to sound monotonous. For example, instead of using “said” in all your attributions, you can be more exact by telling us when the source “argued,” “admitted,” “maintained,” or “criticised.” Also, instead of saying a man “beat” his wife throughout a story, you can tell us he “slapped,” “kicked,” “punched” and “pushed” her if he did any or all of these.
Note the vigour and variation in the verbs used in the story below:
9.Avoid Undue Use of Technical Language and Foreign Terms:
To ease understanding of your story, only use technical terms when it is absolutely necessary to do so and explain them in parentheses. Do the same for foreign words. News writing is not an avenue for showing off your repertory of jargon and exotic or obscure coinages.
10.Avoid Gush, Puff and Journalese:
Gush refers to unbridled emotion which may result in shrillness. Control yourself while writing news stories no matter how excited or angry the subject makes you.
Puff is extravagant praise that gives the impression the reporter is selling the subject of his story. Such lofty and varnished presentations should be paid for, not passed off as news.
Journalese comprises the stock expressions of journalists, which they routinely use without regard to their appropriateness. For instance, politicians are always said to “blast” one another and sporting teams “battle” for a trophy. Be more authentic and unique in your writing.
Although this rule has been touched in some of the foregoing numbers, it is worth stating on its own. In order to avoid creating confusion, write in a specific, rather than a general manner. Whether you are referring to the “Who,” “When,” “What” or any other news element, be exact in stating it.
For example, with respect to “When,” vague time references give the day and not the date of an event. They also give a general period without stating the specific time an event happened. Contrast “yesterday morning” with “8:30 a.m. on Monday, May 22, 2023”. When you use terms like “today,” “yesterday,” and “tomorrow,” you may create confusion if there is a delay in completing your writing or in publishing the story. Therefore, be exact in stating the time of an event. Do the same with other news elements.
12.Conform to Your Medium’s Style:
There are several reasons the journalist should write in line with style rules.. For instance, style rules give uniformity to the content of each medium and give them a unique appearance. You must, therefore, learn and regularly consult your medium’s Style Guide as you write to ensure you are adhering to its conventions.
For students of the Department of Mass Communication, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), the rules to follow are in The Record Style Guide, which is available at the footer of the newspaper’s website.
13.Abide by the Ethical Regulations in Journalism:
Like every other profession, journalism has ethical codes for its practitioners to work with. For example, it is unethical to write falsely and indecently. These rules can be violated by using fabricated quotes, doctored images and vulgar language. Constant disregard of ethics causes a journalist and the medium he represents to lose public trust and respect. It can also attract sanctions from professional associations in media practice like the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ).
The article below highlights how press secretaries or media aides in Nigeria, who combine the roles of journalists and public relations officers, often flout ethical guidelines in their dissemination of news.
14.Obey Laws Governing Journalism Practice:
There are laws that journalists are expected to heed while reporting and writing news. Examples include laws on defamation and contempt of court. Disobedience to these laws can attract civil and criminal suits against the reporter and his organisation.
Although these rules seem many, they are interrelated and easy to imbibe. What an aspiring journalist needs is constant practice which makes most of the rules second nature after a while.
This series will continue with guidelines for writing leads as they are the second most important part for drawing the reader into a news story, after the headline. Recall that detailed instruction on the characteristics of a headline and how to write it effectively were provided in the second segment of our earlier series on the basics of news reporting and writing. The third segment briefly showed how to write the lead and body of a news story, particularly hard news. Different orders for writing hard and soft news were also discussed in the immediate past segment of this NEWS WRITING SERIES.
Share your reactions and questions in the Comments below.
YOU MAY ALSO WISH TO SEE THESE RELATED ARTICLES:
Ohaja, E. U., Nwankpa, N. N., & Amadin, R. O. (2022). Reporting the parliament: A Nigerian case study. Brazillian Journalism Research (BJR) 18(2), 230-257.
Ohaja, E. U. (2015). Buttressing the need for ethical guidance for online reporting in Nigeria. New Media and Mass Communication, 38, 13-23.
Ohaja, E. U. (2015). The context and the imperative for ethical coverage of local government elections in Nigeria. Research on Humanities and Social Sciences. 5(12). 176-185.
Ohaja, E. U., & Okujeni, R. (2022). Disinformation, ethics and reality: Appraisal of the duties and functions of press secretaries in Nigeria. Journal of Communication and Media Research. 14(1), 80-90.