writing, journalism

The Intro

The reverse-pyramid method of writing is particular to news stories’ features. This style evolved over the past two centuries, with the advent of technological, fast-moving changes and greater access to world-events making a big impact on how we share and consume news.

From the arrival of Samuel Morse, who sent the first message ‘What hath God wrought?’ across the first US telegraph in 1844, news became a commodity of immediacy that was no longer in danger of being yesterday’s news due the wait of news by horse, boat or pigeon.

News today is big business. Tragedy is re-imagined and re-constructed into an explosive multi-modal package of conflict, sensationalism, suspense and sometimes, resolution. With the rise of mobile-first news media consumption, the news churn cycle has now moved from morning and evening editions, to hourly updates, and the trend of 24/7 news channels stand testament to the insatiable demand of an anxious readership.

So to unpack one of the methods that creates a news-feeding frenzy, let’s take a look at the role of the intro in a news story.

The Reverse-Pyramid

The way we tell stories to each other naturally orientate the audience first, introduce the characters / scenario, lead to a crescendo, followed by a denouement and conclusion. The structure of news stories is completely un-natural. The reverse-pyramid starts with the most sensational punchline first, with the most vital and dramatic facts leading the story first – hence, in the US, they call it ‘the lead’ but in Australia, we call it ‘the intro’.

The structure of a news story therefore, is written backwards.

Bare events come before background information. We begin with the climax and work with the most important information first and end with the least important detail. Knowing this is important because the editor may often need to chop your story in two – so having the most vital details in the first third of your story will ensure the reader will get everything they need to know about the story.  In terms of reader behaviour, often times they will not read past the first three or four paragraphs, which is why getting your intro right is critical to getting your message across very quickly.

Those who do this well are those who excel at re-formulating a scenario into an intro in the briefest, but most impactful way possible.

The intro in a hard news feature is generally the first paragraph – made up of one to three sentences only. Once the writer has distilled the main message into an intro, the rest of the story naturally unpacks itself.  Some news organisations will have a set word limit for intros – but aim for somewhere between thirty to fifty words.

A good tip to help you find the intro is to imagine yourself trying to tell a friend who just asked you what drama happened. Most people would give the most interesting point first, and then re-construct their experience chronologically afterwards. Same would go if you had to report something to the cops. What would be the first thing you would say if someone just stole your wallet and you saw a cop nearby? Would you start by telling the cop that you were on your way to work, stopped for a coffee and then someone stole your wallet or would you start with, “Hey! That guy stole my wallet! Catch him!”.

Another method is to assess all the information you have at hand, and find an angle that gives your story a fresh perspective, and orientate your narrative around this position. Often the best angles are born from a small quirky detail so keep your wit on high alert!

Conventions to keep in mind

Your intro should:

  • Attract attention
  • Highlight the salient point of your story
  • Have an angle / theme
  • Make one to three points
  • Be informative
  • Set the tone and tempo of the story

What to avoid:

  • Intros that have empty rhetoric
  • Hypotheticals and unanswered propositions
  • Exaggeration of sensational incidents
  • Pointless anecdotes that have no bearing on the angle

There is nothing more amateurish than when a writer poses lots of unanswered questions in a news story – so avoid it at all costs.

Try to avoid cramming the intro too. Keep it sharp, with specific details – and as always, on message.

Till next time,

WordSmith Jo

paraphrasing, direct and indirect quotes

A Good Quote

Someone clever once said, that a good quote has the ‘pungency of personal experience’. Most people when interviewed, rarely give a polished quote, and the task of the writer, is to faithfully capture and convey the meaning, and expression of the subject – either through direct or indirect quotations.

Good quotes are the life of any story.  People want to know what was said – and who said it. Quotes give a story authenticity and colour – it is the quickest path to getting a ‘feel’ for the mood, personality and style of the subject being interviewed.

Controlled usage of quotations can also help change the pace of the story to help avoid long tracts of pedestrian prose.

The writer is usually an ‘interpreter’ of quotes – and the challenge is to judiciously strike a balance between paraphrased speech and direct speech.

Direct speech – is where the speech is contained within quotation marks, and is a faithful transcript of the exact words spoken by the subject e.g.

“I ate hotdogs for days. I was too lazy to cook anything else”.

The best times to use direct speech are:

  • when your subject is expressing a strong opinion
  • they have made a bold, descriptive, humorous or figurative statement
  • when your subject is expressing emotion
  • When the subject uses the pronoun ‘I’; and
  • to personalise the story for authenticity.

Indirect speech – is reported, or third-person speech and is paraphrased remarks from what was said directly by the subject e.g.

He said that he was too lazy to cook, so he ate hot dogs for days.

Use indirect speech when:

  • You are giving factual, biographical or statistical information. This can be done far more efficiently through paraphrasing than direct speech
  • You are setting the scene, especially in an introduction to a story, direct quotes are rarely used; and
  • When you are providing background information on the subject.

It’s important to note, that when we use direct speech, the verbs must be used in the same tense as the speaker.  However, when we paraphrase a quote to indirect speech, many verbs change, and, the tense moves to past tense – as a general rule.

While it is much easier to write a direct quote than to paraphrase a quote into indirect speech, too many direct quotes makes for a boring read. The best feature stories have a balanced combination of background information, facts, direct quotes and paraphrasing to add colour, tempo and personality to a story. To this end, the general convention is to never use more than three pars of direct speech in one sequence. The best approach is to always vary the construction between direct and indirect speech.  This is especially pertinent for when the writer needs to break up long statements. Look for ‘natural’ breaks in the speech and use objective transitions between the direct quote and your paraphrasing of sections of the quote.

Lastly, always remember to attribute your subject correctly. Introduce the person’s title and name first before you quote, and thereafter, last name only. When you change speaker, do the same, so the reader has a clear orientation of who said what.

Till next time,

WordSmith Jo

News Stories All Sorts

News Stories All-Sorts

There are plenty of subtle differences between types of news stories – and as a discerning reader, or professional writer – knowing these subtleties helps the writer to maintain high standards and offers a better reading experience for the audience…

With New Journalism blurring the lines between ‘hard news’ and ‘personal opinion’ it can be difficult to work out where the facts end and the fiction begins – particularly when our front page headline stories now share primary real estate with opinion pieces.

Here’s a quick list to differentiate types of news stories to help the ready stay savvy, and the writer stay professional –

  • Soft News – has a strong news element which is prominent at the beginning of the story, but is treated in a lighter way, based on factual information and direct quotes. There is however, more descriptive language, which often features humour in the introduction.
  • News Features – are usually longer than a straight news story, the news angle is dominant and topical, and features plenty of direct quotes, descriptions, background historical information and eye-witness reports.
  • Timeless Features – does not have a specific news angle, with the special interest being on the subject, object or an event.
  • Background Preview Features – sets the scenes for an event that is about to happen.
  • Colour Features – are long form articles up to 2,000 words, that don’t have a strong news angle, and primarily focus on description, eye-witness reporting, quotes and factual details.
  • Eye-witness observational features – are written in first person – from the journalists POV – which will include descriptions, conversations, interviews, personal opinion and jokes.
  • Sketch Features – are generally very opinionated, highly colourful language, usually reserved for Parliamentary reporting.
  • Opinion and/or Blog Pieces – have a strong emphasis on the journalist’s private views and experiences. It is often idiosyncratic, controversial and is often the convention used by gossip columnists.
  • Diary items – are very short, light-hearted gossip news items grouped together under a single by-line.
  • Feature Profiles – can either be subjective or objective, long-form stories about individuals, usually based from an interview of a subject, and of associated peoples of the subject being written about.
  • Vox pop – is a collection of quotes from the general public on topical issues – quotes are usually accompanied with headshots to add ‘legitimacy’ to the quote.
  • Reviews – often include descriptions and critical assessments of another’s work (i.e. film art, TV, products etc).
  • Lifestyle Features – are essentially ‘advice columns’, which generally includes indirect and direct quotes from ‘qualified’ sources on various subjects (e.g. health, education, dieting, fashion etc).
  • Editorials – are commentary written on behalf of the ‘masthead publication’. It is usually presented in different font, with no by-line and is written by the Editor.

Happy news consumption, and production folks!

WordSmith Jo