Writing news — watch a story as it “breaks”

All —

The best way to learn how to write news is to watch how it is written as it breaks. Below is a news alert that moved from CNN (all rights belong to CNN). It is about Egypt. You see it follows the basic story format — a hard news lead that is basically subject, verb, object … A second paragraph that supports the lead … A third paragraph that offers context … And a fourth paragraph of news that did not make it into the lead.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said today that events in Egypt “are deplorable and they run counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion and genuine democracy.”

The United States strongly opposes a return to state of emergency law in Egypt and calls on the Egyptian government “to respect basic human rights,” Kerry said.

Clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy made it the country’s bloodiest single day since the 2011 revolution that ousted the previous president, longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak.

At least 149 people were killed and more than 1,400 were wounded, state TV reported.

A personal note

If you are new to news writing, and the format seems really weird, don’t panic — yet.

When I was in graduate school — here at AU — a zillion years ago, I was unable to craft a lead for quite some time. I couldn’t get it! Not until I kept writing, writing, writing, and after I worked at the radio station, did the rhythm of a story settle into my brain. The best thing to do is practice. And to read very clear news writing by others.

I would suggest you read news stories on CNN, BBC and NPR. Journalists in those organizations write for broad audiences, and must be crisp and clear. Not that it is necessarily fun, but focus on breaking news about weather, crime, war, accidents, trials and more. They usually follow the same format: A news lead; a second paragraph that supports the lead; a third paragraph that offers context or a quote; a fourth paragraph that offers context or a quote, and so on.

Read the stories aloud until you hear the beat of a news story. I promise it will kick in.

Professor Eisman


Avoid common writing errors by doing the following:

1. Write in active voice, not passive voice. (Check out Grammar Girl for tips)

2. Put punctuation inside quotations. We are not in GB.

3. Use quotes as gems. If a quote is not special — conveying emotion, or important information from someone important — then paraphrase it. Quotes slow down stories, but used correctly, can propel your article forward.

4. It is the web. Be interactive, have archives, add links. But do not have a “sea of blue.” Link key words.

5. Check AP Style. It is very goofy and sometimes confusing. But most news organizations — online and not — follow some style format. AP is common. You have access to AP style online. Use it.

6. Please don’t err on the big ones: who/whom; which/that; its/it’s; there/their.

7. Organizations are not “they.” Officials, spokesmen, leaders … all are “they.” The FDA is an “it.” If you want to use “they,” say, “Officials at FDA today said … ”

8. Avoid most acronyms anyway. Some are OK, like CIA. But not the made-up acronyms of groups formed just to fight Washington.

9. Check your spelling.

10. Use one thought per paragraph.

11. Be consistent in tense. USUALLY news stories are written in past tense while feature stories are written in present tense.

12. Remember that you attend the School of Communication, not the School of Communications.

More later …

Professor Eisman