Shelley Widhalm

News Writing 101

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 23, 2012 at 11:00 am

As a journalist by day and starving artist the rest of the time, I can’t leave out news writing from my little black list.

The list covers poetry, short stories, personal essays, novels and memoirs, or the few types of writing I’ve tried. I call the list “little,” well, because it’s short, and “black,” because it grabs attention.

The lead of a news or feature article needs to give the most important information first, while engaging readers to read on to the second and third paragraphs to find out the details. The lead answers some or all of the W and H questions, or who, what, where, when, why and how.

As the article unfolds, one paragraph leads to the next with the most important information at the top and the least at the bottom, following the inverted pyramid format.

In other words, blah, blah, blah.

That’s what I learned in the four journalism classes I took while earning my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. But after 15 or so years working at newspapers and popping out news and features articles, I’ve developed my own theories about journalism writing.

First, it can be poetic, magical and heart-quickening, or it can be standard issue, something you would see in any newspaper, anywhere.

It can be stylistic and have a strong voice, or it can be weighted with clichés and journalese, those phrases that journalists find to be clever but, really, aren’t. I hate to see boards, councils and commissions engage in a collective sigh, hold marathon debates and hammer out decisions, especially 11th-hour decisions.

Journalese is hyperbolic, sensational and a lazy way to sound authoritative; it isn’t jargon to a special field or a cliché, because who else would use these phrases?

I like journalism writing that makes me jealous of how the writer constructs sentences, uses descriptions, provides an unexpected detail and tells a story.

I like writing that has personality and is original and engaging.

I want to see that each paragraph has a clear purpose. The quotes aren’t excessive but give readers a glimpse of the different speech patterns, perspectives and experiences of those involved in the story. There are transitions, so that two unrelated paragraphs aren’t jammed together without a sentence explaining how the ideas in each relate.

I like writing that doesn’t echo words within the same paragraph or from one paragraph to the next.

And I like writing that is a bit poetic, uses literary devices and sets the scene with plot, character and setting, giving readers the sense that they are part of the unfolding story. This is my little black book of journalism that adds the elements of fiction (while, of course, being truthful, accurate, concise and clear) into writing that, otherwise, would be straightforward, without any kind of voice.

In other words, I want to have fun when I sit down to write about the Five W’s and H. I want my journalism writing to carry the mark of me.

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  1. Excellent and informative! Also, I’ve read yr journalism and yr personality always comes through.

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