Writing News: a Quick Primer

If you wish to submit news for the UT Dallas News Center, the guidelines below will help you get started.

The lead

Every news article starts with a lead – the first paragraph that summarizes the most interesting point of the article. The lead should be brief yet catchy, giving the reader an instant sense of what the article is about and should make him or her want to read more.

Who, what, where, when and why

News articles always include the essentials – who, what, where, when and why.

  • Who is involved? Who made a scientific discovery? Who’s speaking at a forum? Who made the donation? Who organized the new staff group? (Not just names, but titles and brief backgrounds if necessary.)
  • What is the nature of the news story or event? Is it a scientific discovery, a student activity, an appointment to a professorship, an award, a talk given at UT Dallas, a new employee benefit?
  • Where is the news or event taking place?
  • When will (or did) the event take place? What time and date is the event, or when will someone be available for an interview if needed?
  • Why is the story newsworthy? Tell readers why they should care. Who will be affected by this news and how? (For example, state what people or programs at UT Dallas will benefit from a big donation, or exactly who is eligible for a new training program.) Just how unusual is your sports achievement or hobby? In other words, what distinguishes the story or event from others like it?

Write for a reader who’s intelligent but unfamiliar with your topic

Use a minimum of technical terms and jargon. When you need to use a term that’s unfamiliar to an intelligent person, explain it clearly and succinctly.

Use the “inverse pyramid” structure

Go from the most important material to the least important, and from general points to specific details. Telling a story in chronological order usually isn’t the best way to inform readers. Many people read only the first few paragraphs of a story, so it’s important to start with the most vital information and add details farther down.

Chronological:

A faculty meeting was held on Monday in the University Theatre at 3 p.m. There were about 150 people in attendance. The meeting opened with a welcome by Professor John Sibert. Professor Inga Musselman then read the minutes of the May meeting. Following that, University President Dr. David E. Daniel announced that all UT Dallas employees will receive a new car on reaching their 20th anniversary of employment.

 

'Inverse pyramid' (preferable):

All UT Dallas employees will receive a new car on reaching their 20th anniversary of employment, University President Dr. David E. Daniel told a startled faculty during their 3 p.m. meeting on Monday. Daniel made the surprise announcement before 150 faculty members in the University Theatre.


Another common mistake is including too much information. The purpose of a news article is to give an overview and highlights, not a full account -- something that tells the reader what he or she needs to know without a lot of unnecessary detail. You will probably end up cutting or editing specific things a person says, or elements of an event you’re writing about. Just keep asking yourself what’s interesting and necessary for a reader who’s new to your topic, and what can be left out. If you think readers will want more information, feel free to include a website they can visit.

Use direct quotations

When a speaker says something that clearly summarizes a point, write down the exact words and use them in quotation marks. It’s obviously impossible to write down everything verbatim when you’re listening to a lecture or interviewing someone. Writers usually take notes and paraphrase most of what a speaker says. But try to train your ear to pick up on isolated sentences that stand out; often they succinctly illustrate a point, offer an opinion or add a touch of humor. If you’re not sure whether you wrote the words down accurately, check with the speaker afterward.

Keep it clear and simple

  • Write in short, simple sentences.
  • Avoid using clichés, such as “cutting-edge” or “major breakthrough.” Instead, focus on what is unique about your topic.
  • Avoid jargon understood only by experts in your business or academic field.
  • Don’t use a long word when a short one will do. It doesn’t make the article look any “smarter” and only confuses the reader.
  • When you have to introduce an unfamiliar term or idea, use smaller words, give concrete examples and even similes to clarify (“fibrillation occurs when the heart quivers instead of pumping rhythmically, like a fist opening and closing.”)
  • Use the active voice (“the president announced,” rather than the passive voice “it was announced by the president”).

Be objective

People in your article can express enthusiasm, state opinions or make claims – but only in direct quotes. The bulk of the article should be factual and written in the third person ("he," "she" or "it" rather than "I" or "you"). An article has more credibility if it’s not trying to “sell” something.

Check your facts

If necessary, have a knowledgeable person (probably someone you interviewed) review your article for accuracy before you submit it for publication. However, be aware that Office of Media Relations always edits articles. An editor might rearrange the entire article or just fix spelling errors. If something is unclear or incomplete, or the article seems to need extensive editing or rewriting, an editor will contact you and may send it back to you for reworking.

Keep it short

An article about an upcoming event has a limit of about 150 words; an after-the-fact article covering a lecture or forum discussion should not exceed 500 words.

Adapted with permission from the MIT News Office

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Saturday,
April 19, 2014