TABLE OF CONTENTS
Section I — Beginnings 6
Chapter 1 — Defining News 7
Chapter 2 — Hard News and Soft News 10
Chapter 3 — The Five Ws 12
Chapter 4 — News Judgment 14
Section II — Writing the Basic News Story 19
Chapter 5 — The Inverted Pyramid News Story 20
Chapter 6 — The Basic Components of a News Story 24
Chapter 7 — Writing Hard News Leads 26
Chapter 8 — The Second-Day Lead 33
Chapter 9 — The Soft News Lead 36
Chapter 10 — Writing ‘Nut Graphs’ 41
Chapter 11 — Attribution 43
Chapter 12 — Using Quotes 47
Chapter 13 — Active Voice vs. Passive Voice 54
Chapter 14 — Using Transitions 56
Chapter 15 — Stories in Chronological Order 59
Chapter 16 — Just Before You File… 63
Section III — Turning in Professional Copy 66
Chapter 17 — The Style Mentality 67
Chapter 18 — Memorization and Style 70
Chapter 19 — Canadian Press Style 72
Chapter 20 — Defamation Law 79
Chapter 21 — Defamation Threats 87
Chapter 22 — Promises to Sources 90
Chapter 23 — Contempt of Court 94
Chapter 24 — Young People in Conflict with the Law 99
Chapter 25 — Plagiarism 101
Chapter 26 — Ethics in Journalism, Fairness and Balance 105
Chapter 27 — Cultural Sensitivity 116
Section IV — Reporting the News 125
Chapter 28 — Interviewing 126
Chapter 29 — Covering Public Meetings 137
Chapter 30 — Covering Elections 142
Chapter 31 — Writing Journalistic Obituaries 144
Section V — Basic Newspaper Editing 151
Chapter 32 — Newspaper Organization 152
Chapter 33 — Basic Newspaper Copy Editing 156
Chapter 34 — Common Pitfalls Faced by Copy Editors 158
Chapter 35 — Editing for Defamation and Contempt 162
Chapter 36 — Editing for Errors 168
Chapter 37 — More Work for Copy Editors 173
Chapter 38 — The Professionally Dirty Mind 180
Chapter 39 — Dealing With Profanity 183
Chapter 40 — Writing Basic Headlines 186
Chapter 41 — Common Headline Practices 192
Chapter 42 — Additional Guidelines for Superior Headlines 196
Chapter 43 — Writing Feature Headlines 207
Chapter 44 — Final Thoughts on Writing Headlines 213
Section VI — Public Relations 217
Chapter 45— Writing News Releases 218
Chapter 46 — A Journalist’s Perspective on News Releases 224
Chapter 47 — Media Conferences, Photo Ops and Other Events 229
Section VII — Glossary of Common Journalistic Terms 233
Introduction, for my King's University College students
Each year for most of the past decade, I have had the privilege of teaching an
introduction to newspaper journalism course to undergraduate students at the Southern
Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary or The King’s University College in
Edmonton. In fulfilling my part-time duties as an instructor (usually while working full
time in journalism or public relations), I have had the opportunity to use a variety of
newspaper journalism textbooks and to read many more. To be blunt, very few of them
are satisfactory, let alone really useful, especially to students who are interested in taking
a general introductory course in newspaper journalism, but not necessarily pursuing a
career in the field.
The faults of these textbooks, as I see it, typically fall into several areas. Many of them
are too specialized, concentrating on one aspect of newspaper journalism — say,
interviewing techniques or feature writing. That's fine if you want to study the field in
depth, not so helpful if your objective is to learn the basics.
A few are just plain bad — their titles and authors will not be mentioned to protect the
guilty. Several of these expend barrels of ink revealing what students don't need to know
— the daily newsroom routine and strongly held opinions of a certain assistant city
editor, say, or the arrangement of the furniture in a well-known metropolitan daily's
offices. Often they have less to say about what students really need to learn. For example,
students do need to know how to write a simple news story with a clear lead. If they learn
that skill, it will benefit them all of their lives, whether or not they decide to make a
living as a journalist! Likewise, no harm will ever come to a student because he or she
has learned about the importance of style, and the basic rules of the wire service style that
prevails in most Canadian newsrooms.
Others textbooks are excellent — but encyclopedically so. Carole Rich’s superb Writing
and Reporting News, A Coaching Method springs to mind. But these books go into much
more depth than is required — or even desirable — for students who want to test the
waters of journalism before making a career decision, who want to learn how to write
effective press releases as a sideline to some other career, or who simply want to write
effectively for the campus newspaper. Moreover, almost without exception, the best
newspaper journalism textbooks, Ms. Rich's included, are written by and for citizens of
the United States and consequently have a strong American bias. To top it off, these
imported textbooks are very expensive — adding to the financial burden borne by 21st
Century Canadian students.
Indeed, all journalism textbooks, even the really bad ones, seem to cost a fortune. It’s my
bias, having worked for newspapers much of my adult life, that journalism isn’t rocket
science, so it offends me when a journalism textbook costs as much as a rocket science
So it was my objective, in writing this book, to create a text that addresses these
My first goal was to write a textbook that covers the basics beginning journalists, and
other students of journalism, really need to know to do the job on Day 1 in the newsroom.
I have, I think, partly succeeded.
My second objective was to keep it short and sweet — a manageable and comprehensible
package for an introductory course. A third was to write it for students who live and work
My final objective was to make it affordable. I will certainly succeed in this last goal with
this edition, because students in CMNA 395, King’s University College's introductory
journalism course, will receive this book for the cost of duplication. The quid pro quo I
ask of you, my students, is that you read it with a critical eye, seeking out for me
illogicalities, material that is missing but needed, things that can be improved, and the
inevitable typographical errors that bedevil all journalists. With your help, this textbook
can be completed, improved and made available to more students.
David J. Climenhaga
St. Albert, Alberta
What is news?
If Biff proposes marriage to Maggie … and Maggie says No! That’s news. If there’s a
cold going around, that's news. If the college cafeteria is serving cream of weenie soup
again tonight, that's news too. In other words, at least on one level, news is information
that affects our lives. It may shock us, amuse us, worry us, or merely irritate us, but if it's
close to home it doesn't take much to become news of interest.
On the other hand, if Biff proposes to Maggie, and you don't know either of them … Who
cares? That's not news.
It's a little different on a daily newspaper or in a broadcast newsroom, but not really so
Most journalists, and especially journalism teachers, carry around in their heads a list of
about a dozen qualities that they think make a story worthy of coverage. All these lists
are similar, because the culture of the news business has been reinforcing itself for
generations. Here’s mine, in what I think is its components’ approximate order of
11) Inspiration/Human Interest
Let's look at each quality:
Timeliness — if it's new, it's news. This may not be the way it works in real life. There’s
nothing particularly new about influenza, and it has a profound impact on a lot of
people's lives each year. But it is the way it works in the news business, because there's a
lot of competition to be the first with a story. So, to most journalists, if not to the man and
woman in the street, timeliness is the most important determining factor in deciding if a
story is news.
Consequences — if it has an impact, it's news. In the most logical of worlds, this one
would probably be No. 1. This is why what governments do is considered so important
by most journalists. If politicians vote to raise taxes, or close a school, it has an obvious
impact on many people in a community. If nuclear war breaks out, it will have an impact
on the lives of people all over the world. No news organization that is doing its job will
fail to report a story that the editor believes will have an impact on its readers.
Proximity — if it’s close to home, it’s more likely to be news. In the great scheme of
things, three days of boiled potatoes in a cafeteria is no big deal. But on some university
campuses, it might just cause a riot. The same is true of any action. The closer it is to
home, the more likely it is to arouse interest and be defined as news. If a school bus
plunges off a cliff in some distant land, the story is likely to be short and relegated to an
inside page. If it happens in your community, it belongs on the front page of your
Conflict — where there's conflict, there's news. This is partly because where there’s
conflict, there's more likely to be an impact on our lives. But it's also because conflict is
dramatic, and exciting, and even entertaining. There's a reason so many works of fiction
are about conflict. So whether it’s a war in a far country, or a noisy spat at city hall,
conflict makes news. Indeed, conflict is so newsworthy that journalists sometimes
succumb to the temptation of trying to generate conflict among the people they're writing
about to make a better story.
Mayhem — violence is news. There’s a nasty and cynical expression in the news
business, “If it bleeds, it leads” Alas, there is more than a little truth to this, and this
tendency by the news media may have a harmful impact on our perception of our society
and the quality of our lives. Be that as it may, car accidents, drive-by shootings and
schoolyard bullying all meet the criteria of news.
Celebrity — if someone is prominent, what they do is more likely to be news. This is
unhappy news to many people, but we all know it’s reality. If a street person assaults
someone, it's not news. If an entertainer, a sports star or a prominent politician does the
same thing, it is news. The more prominent the person, the bigger the news.
Novelty — if something’s bizarre, it may be news. Something doesn’t have to be weird to
be newsworthy, but oddity does often make otherwise inconsequential stories
newsworthy. A pancake is a pancake is a pancake, but who can resist a story about a
miraculous pancake with the image of a beloved religious figure on it?
Humour — if it’s funny enough it’s news. Most everyone enjoys a chuckle, so if an event
or development has a funny aspect, that may interest journalists. Often in journalism,
there’s a cruel side to this notion — the “Darwin Awards,” which make fun of people
who die after doing foolish things, or stories that sniff at scientific research as
inconsequential, are examples. But even gentle humour can be newsworthy — if it can
really generate a laugh.
Trends — if a trend is developing, it's news. Trends are important. They can have an
impact on our lives. Knowing about them can help us make wise lifestyle or business
decisions. So many editors look for stories about a wide variety of trends. If slightly
overweight people are living longer, as the New York Times recently reported, that’s a
trend that’s significant to a lot of people. If interest rates are climbing, the weather is
getting warmer, fewer people are having children or buying SUVs, or more young people
suffering from depression, all those are trends worthy of attention by journalists.
Sex — sex is news. It may be a serious story about a nation’s policy regarding who gets
to marry whom, or the shenanigans of an entertainer. You may be delighted or
scandalized. But most editors agree — whether they really approve or not — that adding
sex to the brew makes a story more newsworthy.
Inspiration — uplifting stories are news. If a story shows someone’s perseverance, grit,
courage or decency in the face of adversity, it can be news. Note, however, that such
stories generally fall into the area of “human interest” unless they are tied to one or more
of the other qualities generally considered to make news.
Helpfulness — if it helps you, it’s news. Maybe. Need instruction on an easy way to have
a flatter tummy, build a birdhouse, get a university degree while living in jail, raise
happy, well-balanced children while holding down three jobs? These are all legitimate
topics for news stories. But they are not, you'll note, generally stories that belong on the
front pages. How-to stories are often also special interest stories, another category
sometimes included on these lists. How get more rose blossoms from a vine may not
interest every reader, but it's a good topic for the gardening section.
Of course, there’s a kind of multiplier effect at work in many news stories. The more of
these elements they combine, the bigger the story will be.
- News is information that affects our lives.
- Most journalists and students of journalism have about a dozen key categories that
they define as “newsworthy.”
- The more of these elements in a story, the bigger the story will be.
- A dozen elements that qualify as news are as follows: Timeliness, Consequences,
Proximity, Conflict, Mayhem, Celebrity, Novelty, Humour, Trends, Sex,
Inspiration/Human Interest, Helpfulness.
Hard News and Soft News
In the last chapter, we talked about the general qualities journalists generally agree make
a story worthy of being covered.
Before we start to learn how to write a basic news story, we need to pause to consider an
important distinction that professional journalists make between two kinds of news —
“hard news” and “soft news.”
As the old joke says, there are two kinds of people: people who divide things into groups
of two and people who don’t. In all newsrooms, there are two kinds of news: hard news
and soft news. This is part of the way almost all professional journalists have come to
view the world — by inclination and training. If you are to understand the culture of the
people who report the news — either because you want to understand how stories
become news or because you'd like to work in journalism — you need to understand this
Hard news stories are accounts of events that have just happened or are about to happen.
For example, crimes, fires, meetings, court testimony, speeches, protest rallies, acts of
war, traffic accidents and elections are all typical topics of hard news stories. Hard news
stories that have developed overnight or on the same day are often referred to by
journalists as “breaking news.”
Hard news stories emphasize facts, not opinion or analysis. So while hard news stories
may contain “colour” — that is, highly descriptive passages using colourful language
— the emphasis is on the bare, known, provable facts.
Hard news is an account of what's happened (or is about to), why it happened, who was
Soft news, on the other hand, doesn’t depend nearly as much on the time element. Soft
news places less emphasis on the facts — though it would be a terrible mistake to suggest
that soft news must not have a factual foundation. Many journalists define soft news as
news that entertains as it informs, with more emphasis on human interest, novelty and
colourful writing and less of facts and events that have just happened.
Soft news has less immediacy than hard news. Writers of soft news often aim for the
reader’s emotions, not his or her intellect.
Often a reporter has a little more leeway when writing soft news stories — he or she can
write a little longer, use more dramatic language, reach for a laugh, maybe even let a little
opinion creep into the story. Longer soft news stories are often called “features” or
“feature stories.” (In the United Kingdom and Australia, these types of stories are
sometimes called “take-outs.”) Profiles of famous people, descriptions of new diets and
social trends, how-to features that teach how to knit a sweater or build a fence, accounts
to trips to exotic resorts are all typical examples of soft news stories.
Is soft news unimportant? Not really. But it’s not news that happened overnight. The best
soft news stories are based on hard facts, and are derived from hard news. Many soft
news stories contain more information and research than the hard news stories they were
based on. Editors often encourage writers to tie their soft news stories to current hard
news — in the language of the news business, this is known as finding a “news hook” or
a “news angle.”
Sometimes too, soft news is written about some aspect of a hard news story. When you
read that a tsunami has killed thousands around the Indian Ocean, that’s hard news. When
you read about the personal stories of a team of rescuers digging out tsunami victims,
that’s soft news.
Sad to say, the soft news category is also an excuse for a lot of really bad writing. Still,
done well, even news so soft that it's tied to no event or matter of significance can have
merit. If a piece on how to tie a bowtie can make a reader chuckle — or laugh out loud —
its writer has succeeded.
- Journalists typically distinguish between two kinds of news — “hard news” and
- Hard news stories are accounts of events that have just happened or are about to
- Soft news has less immediacy than hard news — writers of soft news often aim
for readers’ emotions, not their intellect.
- The best soft-news stories are based on hard facts.
The Five Ws
Now that we have a working definition for “the news,” and now that we understand the
difference between “hard news” and “soft news,” the next step is to think about the most
basic building blocks of any news story.
These are everywhere called the Five Ws (sometimes modified to the Five Ws and the H)
and are well known to virtually everyone. Nevertheless, just because we all know that
Who? What? When? Where? and Why? (not to mention How?) comprise the Five Ws
(and the H), it’s worth thinking about this idea a little more in the context of writing
professionally about news.
Really, the Five Ws are the questions any reader or listener wants answered when he or
she reads or hears any story — whether it is neighbourhood gossip, a fairy tale, a play by
Shakespeare or a good joke. The difference between telling a joke, say, and writing a
news story is just that we instinctively identify the Five Ws in a joke, while we have to
take the time to identify them in a news story.
So the starting point for writing any news story is understanding that the reader needs to
WHAT … happened?
WHO … did it happen to, or who made it happen?
WHEN … did it happen?
WHERE … did it happen?
WHY … did it happen?
HOW … did it happen?
Unlike other forms of story telling, however, in the traditional news story — which we
will begin to learn how to write in Chapter V — we not only have to make sure that we
identify all Five Ws, we have to think carefully about what order to place them in.
After all, the traditional news lead (that is, the first few lines of the news story), is very
short. There’s usually not enough room to put all five Ws in the lead. Furthermore, unlike
a joke, the style of news story common to English Language newspapers starts with the
punch line! It doesn't build to a natural climax. So we have to exercise out news judgment
— about which we'll learn in the next chapter — to determine which Ws belong at the
start of the story.
So, let’s imagine that your university dormitory roommate runs into the room, red faced
and breathless, and shouts: “You'll never guess what I saw!” Your first question, of
course, will be What? Now, let’s imagine some answers and think about what you’d ask
next, and why.
“There was a fire!” says your roommate. OK, now that you’ve answered what, your next
likely question is going to be Where? (After all, in a situation like this, you want to
determine if you’re in any danger, or if anyone else you know may be.) “In the cafeteria,”
gasps your roommate.
The next thing you’ll likely want to know is When? (This will answer the essential
question, under the circumstances, of “Is it out?” In other words, what's its immediate
impact on me?) So far, you've been exercising something not unlike “news judgment” —
a process we'll read more about in the next chapter — by determining the facts most
likely to have an impact on your own survival.
“Just 10 minutes ago, but it's out now,” your roommate says, starting to calm down a
little. At this point, while you may want to review in your mind the location of the fire
exits just in case, your next questions can be a little calmer: “Anybody hurt? Who started
it?” (In other words, Who?) “I think everyone’s OK,” says your roommate. “The Fire
Department just got here and told everyone they could come back in the building.”
The next questions — in storytelling and news writing both, often the hardest to answer
— are the after-the-fact questions. How? How did it happen? (“Some grease caught fire
in a frying pan.” Why? (“The cook went out for a smoke and forgot to turn off the
At this point, we've answered all the basic questions a university dorm resident would
want answered in these circumstances, and in a primitive sort of way we’ve exercised our
news judgment too.
Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These are the tools used by any inquiring
mind to explain reality. Therefore, these are questions that every news story must answer.
- The key building blocks of every news story are the facts that every reader needs
to have answered.
- The Five Ws — Who? What? When? Where? Why? — are the questions the
reader of any story wants answered.
- The initial problem for the writer of news is determining which of the Five Ws is
the most important.
We have now considered the qualities that are commonly used to define information as
news. In addition, we have divided the news into two categories: hard news and soft news
and learned about the Five Ws. Finally, before we learn how to write a news story, we
need to think about the concept of news judgment.
News judgment is that quality of thinking that journalists (not to mention their critics) use
to determine the relative merits of one story over another, in addition to the relative value
of one part of any given story versus another part of the same story.
In a nutshell, news judgment helps reporters sort out how where a story fits into the other
basic questions we have already discussed. We use news judgment to determine if a hard
news or soft news approach is warranted. We use news judgment to decide which of the
Five Ws to emphasize. We use news judgment to figure out what it is about the story that
makes it news.
News judgment is very important because a lot of time and energy is spent in the news
business filling a limited space (or limited period of broadcast time) with a virtually
unlimited amount of news. Think about it: Once the advertisements are factored in, and
regular features such as columns, letters to the editor and the crossword puzzle are
included, only a limited amount of space remains for news.
Even a large metropolitan daily newspaper can have very limited room for certain
categories of news. I was the night city editor of a large Canadian daily for several years,
and it was my responsibility to fill the city pages with local news provided by a large
staff of reporters. On many weeknights there was enough space for fewer than a dozen
short locally produced stories! Often we had two or three times as many stories. That
meant many good stories got "spiked" — that is, set aside and forgotten about. Others had
to be trimmed by the Desk, as copy editors are collectively known. (This, in the parlance
of reporters, is called "butchering.")
The situation is essentially the same in broadcasting, except that the capacity for news
stories is limited by the number of minutes in the newscast instead of available newsprint
This means that a lot of good stories — or stories that might be considered good
somewhere else — simply don't make the cut. Or, they may make the cut, but in the
process get cut themselves to little more than a brief. This naturally leads to lots of
vociferous arguments about whether a story deserves to run, how long it should be, and
where it should be placed on the page. (It’s not just journalists who think about this. Lots
of people, for a variety of reasons, feel strongly that journalists — "the mainstream
media" — give certain kinds of stories more and better play than they deserve while
ignoring other more important stories. Sometimes they are right. Sometimes they are out
This also contributes to the competitive working atmosphere of the typical newsroom, in
which journalists fight hard, with editors and with each other, to get the best possible play
for their stories.
A reporter working by herself writing a story must also exercise her news judgment to
determine which facts get to stay and which facts get thrown out. Needless to say, if you
are that reporter, and you have been told by your editor that your story can be no longer
than 200 or 300 words, you are going to be tossing a lot of facts over the side.
Finally, the reporter needs to decide which facts are placed in a prominent position in the
story, and which facts go farther down. We'll discuss the format of the basic news story
in much more detail in the next section, but it's no secret that in the conventional hard-
news story, the most important facts are placed at the top and less important facts lower
in the story.
Since the generally accepted style of news writing prevalent on most Canadian
newspapers calls for very short lead sentences, there will seldom be enough room to get
all Five Ws and the H into that sentence. When Pope John Paul II died in the spring of
2005, for example, nobody wrote the story this way:
An 84-year-old Polish man who lived in Rome died yesterday after a long decline and a
Yes, the facts are essentially correct, but we all understand instantly and intuitively what
is wrong with this approach. Who and what are more important to this story than any of
the other Ws. Here's how the BBC wrote it:
Pope John Paul II, the third longest serving pontiff in history, has died at the age of 84.
Naturally, this is a somewhat unscientific process. But is remarkable how different news
organizations around the English-speaking world take the same approach to the same
story — even though reporters write their stories in relative seclusion from one another.
They have all, however, developed their news judgment along similar lines. One would
only have to read the lead sentences from 100 different newspapers on the morning after
the Pope's death to see the truth of this assertion.
Because "good news judgment" is valued in the culture of news reporting organizations,
it is worth thinking a little about how this process works.
Lots of reporters — especially new ones — are accused of "burying the news" — that is,
placing less important facts high in the story and burying important facts under mounds
of copy. Reporters who recognize those gems of news are valued for their ability to
recognize the real story. A crude example might be a politician who gave the same
speech about his party's economic policy in a dozen towns. Some of the politician's points
might have been "news" on Day 1, but they're getting pretty stale by Day 12.
But imagine that, in his 12th
speech that politician revealed that, at 16, he'd robbed a bank!
Now that's news! Naturally, if a young reporter were to stick to the economic details of
the speech, he would risk being accused of exercising poor news judgment. On the other
hand, if he put the bank robbery story in the lead, you can bet that the politician and his
supporters would accuse the reporter taking something "out of context." (This may seem
to some an excessively cynical view, but after many years reporting news, I have
concluded that "I was quoted out of context" usually means, "I wish I hadn't said that.")
Let's cast our minds back to the common definitions of news and work through an
imaginary but plausible set of circumstances to learn about how journalists use their news
Let's say you're working on the city desk of a daily newspaper in a major Canadian city.
Let's also imagine that you've just moved to that city to take this job. One morning, the
city editor hears on the police scanner that there has been a serious automobile accident
downtown. She sends you to the address mentioned on the police radio and you are able
to determine the following facts:
1. A man named Stephen Koerner has been killed.
2. Koerner was the driver of a car involved in a single-vehicle accident.
3. The accident took place at 100th
Street and 100th
4. The accident took place at 7:30 a.m.
5. Police say the accident happened when the man’s car lost control and hit a light
standard at high speed.
6. Police also say they believe the man lost control after suffering a seizure, and that
his foot then depressed his car's gas pedal.
7. A large crowd gathered at the accident scene.
8. Several people in the crowd said they felt bad that the man died.
You return to the office and prepare to exercise your news judgment to write an
acceptably short news lead. Some interesting facts must go over the side. Some will be
kept. Many reporters would come up with something like this:
A man died during the morning rush hour after he lost control of his car and plowed into
a lamp standard at a busy downtown corner.
Police at the scene said they believe Stephen Koerner suffered a seizure just before the
accident, causing him to press down on his car's accelerator pedal. He was alone in the
But imagine that upon your return to the newsroom with this lead already blocked out in
your mind, you're informed by a senior copy editor that Stephen Koerner was a well-
known businessman who once served a term as mayor. Because it added the element of
celebrity, that would change the lead most reporters would write to something like this:
Former mayor Stephen Koerner was killed during this morning's rush hour in a single-
vehicle accident downtown.
Police said they believe Koerner, who was alone in the car, suffered a seizure before his
car plowed into a lamp standard.
On the other hand, if you didn't know Koerner had been mayor, but had learned from
police that this was the third consecutive day that someone had been killed at that
intersection. Suddenly, because it adds the element of something extremely unusual,
precisely where the accident took place would be of paramount importance. Resisting a
powerful urge to refer to the address as “the death corner,” many reporters would write
something like this.
A man died during the morning rush hour after he lost control of his car and plowed into
a lamp standard at the corner of 100th
Street and 100th
Avenue downtown — the third
fatality in as many days at the busy intersection.
Of course, if it turned out that both new facts were true, you'd need to use your news
judgment to sort out which one was the most important and how to place them both
appropriately in the story. Maybe you would come up with something like this:
Former city mayor Stephen Koerner died this morning after his car plowed into a lamp
standard at the corner of 100th
Street and 100th
Avenue downtown — the third fatality in
as many days at the busy intersection.
Sometimes all that stands between an insignificant announcement and a much better story
is someone's memory of an important fact and the exercise of a little news judgment. If
you worked for the newspaper in a town near an Armed Forces base and you'd received a
press release about a routine appointment, you'd probably write a routine story. But if you
remembered a fact or two, as someone did not so long ago, and used your news
judgment, you might come up with a much better story, like this:
A general who came under fire for a ceremony that cost taxpayers an estimated $250,000
has been hired to “guide” a leadership and ethics course for senior military officers.
Retired major-general John Archibald MacInnes will be paid from $45,000 to $50,000 to
act as mentor and guide for three months in a new course on conflict leadership and
ethics at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.
So, before you write a story, you first need to think about three things:
1. Is it hard news or soft news?
2. What is it about these facts that makes them news?
3. What are the Five Ws and the H in this story?
Then you need to use your news judgment to figure out what's important and what's now.
And then you need to start writing…
- News judgment is that quality of thinking that journalists use to determine the
relative merits of one story over another.
- News judgment is very important because a lot of time and energy is spent in the
news business filling a limited space with a virtually unlimited amount of news.
- A reporter needs to decide which facts are placed in a prominent position in the
story, and which facts go farther down.
- Good “news judgment” is valued in the culture of the newsroom.
The Inverted Pyramid News Story
In the previous section, we defined the idea of “news.” Now we will learn how to write
the news for newspapers.
Journalists term this activity “news writing.” They almost always call the individual
articles they write “stories.” However, “news stories” are not like traditional literary
stories in a very important way.
A traditional story begins slowly with some scene setting (“once upon a time…”),
provides background information, rises to a climax, and often ends with additional
information about what happened after the climax (an epilogue).
A basic news story, however, begins with the climax and records all additional
information in order of declining importance. If jokes were told like news stories, they’d
start with the punch line!
This is commonly known as the “Inverted Pyramid” story structure, because the order of
precedence of facts can be illustrated as an upside-down pyramid.
The most important facts are placed where the pyramid is fattest.
The Five Ws and the H, obviously, should be found in the first few paragraphs of such a
These important facts are followed by less essential information.
The style of writing is also known as the “wire service style,” because it was early wire
services — which transmitted accounts of breaking news from remote locations by wire
— that pioneered this method of writing.
Like any form of communications, the inverted pyramid news story has certain
limitations. For example, it can sometimes be more confusing than a chronological
account of an event — it’s the reporter’s job to ensure it makes sense. In addition, it is
most certainly more difficult to write a clear Inverted Pyramid story than it is to write a
However, the form also provided solutions to several problems faced by people who want
to communicate news:
- It provided a format to convey information in a quick and efficient way.
- It served as an aid to readers who wanted to use the newspaper as an index of the
day’s news — that is, by scanning the lead sentence, readers could determine if
they wanted to learn more or skip to something they found more relevant.
- It allowed, at least on the face of it, a format for providing a dispassionate and
unbiased account of events. (One commercial reason for the adoption of this
approach was that this allowed wire services to sell the same story to variety of
publications with strongly differing editorial positions on the issues of the day.)
- It permitted different publications that might assign differing importance to a
given story to conveniently edit any story to a length that suited its priorities.
(Hence, in the newspaper business, the widespread use of the verb “to cut” to
mean “to edit.”)
For these reasons, the Inverted Pyramid news story has become the basic form of
newspaper writing. It is also common in many other kinds of publication, including Web
Because it is so common, it is the form that must first be mastered by any student with a
serious interest in journalism.
Because in some ways it is not a natural way to tell a story, it takes some work to write
this way with ease and fluency. The problem, of course, is that while it’s easy in theory to
state that the most important facts should be put at the top of the story, it’s not always so
easy to determine what facts are most important. This, of course, is where “news
judgment” comes in.
If the Prime Minister has been shot by an assassin, it’s pretty obvious what the most
important fact in the story will be.
If, on the other hand, the only potshots are being taken by opposition politicians, and the
issues of the day is the appointment of a new Cabinet with 30 ministers, it’s not nearly so
clear what is “most important.”
The two best ways to develop this skill are:
1) Read a lot of newspaper stories.
2) Write a lot of newspaper stories.
The first thing you should do when you sit down at your computer to write an inverted
pyramid news story is ask yourself this key question: What is this story about?
If you don’t ask that question, and really think about the answer, the risk is high that you
will wander away from the main point of the story. This happens more easily than you
might think. It can happen even in a simple, very short news story.
However, if you can force yourself to condense the basic idea of your story into a single
sentence, your story is likely to be greatly improved. Many writers call this concept
writing a focus statement or focus sentence.
One good way to come up with a one-sentence focus statement is to write or imagine a
headline for your story. Another was is to imagine you are phoning a friend to tell her
about the story, but she’s out and you have to leave a one-sentence message on her
If you think of how you’d do this with only 15 or 20 seconds available, you are on your
way to writing a workable focus statement to keep you on track as you write your story.
- A basic news story begins with the climax and records all additional information
in order of declining importance.
- This is known as an Inverted Pyramid news story.
- Inverted Pyramid stories provide a format to convey information in a quick and
- They also serve as an aid to readers who wanted to use the newspaper as an index
of the day’s news.
- Because it is so common, it is the form that must first be mastered by any student
with a serious interest in journalism.
- The first thing the writer of a basic Inverted Pyramid news story should do is ask:
What is this story about?
- Writers should then compose a one-sentence “focus statement” to keep them from
going astray as they write their story.
The Basic Components of a News Story
All well-written new stories have most of the parts listed below. Competent journalists
know how to write each of these components into a cohesive whole.
Most basic news stories should have:
- A headline
- A lead (sometimes written lede)
- A backup quote
- A “nut graph”
- An ending
The Headline. The headline is seldom more than a one or two line summary of the
contents of the news story, in larger type, that tells readers what the story is about and
whether (for a particular reader) it is worth reading. Headlines have a telegraphic style
and, because they must fit a particular and very limited space that is usually not known at
the time the news story is being written, they are not usually written by the reporter.
Headlines act as an index of the contents of the newspaper, and a summary of the
information in its stories.
The Lead. The lead is usually defined as the first sentence of a news story, sometimes as
the first few sentences. If news stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, the lead is
the beginning. The lead on a hard news story is often called a summary lead. Lots of
journalists have their own definition of the ideal lead. Virtually all agree that a good hard-
news lead should contain the most important facts of the story — at least some of the
Five Ws. Most agree that the ideal lead is short — no more than 25 or 30 words. Leads
should be “tight” — that is, written with economy. Leads need to be interesting — their
job is to entice readers into reading the rest of the story. A news story with a strong lead
is more likely to be read.
The Backup Quote. Most news stories, except the briefest of briefs, should have a
backup quote placed soon after the lead. Ideally, the backup quote — attributed to
someone with knowledge of the story — will sum up the claim made in the lead in a
pithy, comprehensible and entertaining way. The problem from the reporter’s point of
view, of course, is that he must accurately transcribe a genuinely illustrative quote. Not
every interview subject can or will provide a good backup quote. A good backup quote
pithily explains what’s going on and keeps the reader reading.
Attribution. All hard news stories require attribution, and even the softest of news
stories require some. Attribution is the explanation of the source of the information in the
news story. It is also the identification of who made the statements contained in quotes or
paraphrases of quotes. Attribution allows the reader to judge for herself whether the facts
set out in the story have merit. The best stories contain lots of quotes — and all quotes
have attribution. A news story without attribution is worthless.
Reaction. Most hard news stories, and all news stories that contain controversial
statements, should have reaction — the comments of someone who is familiar with the
situation written about, or of someone with an alternative view of the main thesis of the
story. If there has been a natural disaster in Ruritania, reaction should be sought from the
local Ruritanian community. If your community’s MP, a member of the opposition, slams
the government, a representative of the government should have the opportunity to
respond. Fairness requires reaction.
The Nut Graph. A nut graph informs readers of the focus of the story. It is usually
located in the top third of the story — near the beginning of the middle — and it states
the main point of the story. Lots of news stories must deal with complex topics and a
variety of ideas, but all good stories should focus on one key theme. Not every story
requires a nut graph — in a short, hard news story, the lead will serve the same purpose
as the nut graph. In a feature story with a softer lead, a nut graph is essential to set out
for the reader what is going on.
Background. Most stories need some background for the reader to understand what’s
going on. The history leading up to an event, the cast of characters, the value of the local
currency, the physical properties of water — all are examples of background. The more
complicated the story, the more pressing the need for background. Background helps
explain the action.
The Ending. Notwithstanding the notion of the Inverted Pyramid story — which in
theory can be cut anywhere — the most elegantly written stories come to a clear
conclusion that somehow ties the story up with a neat little bow. Sometimes writers end a
story with a reference to future action that is expected. (“The trial continues Monday.”)
Sometimes stories end with a new quote that summarizes what has happened. Good
endings often fall victim to heavy-handed editing. Still, they are worth the effort: Good
endings leave the reader with a feeling of satisfaction.
- All well-written stories have a beginning middle and an end.
- The beginning is known as the “lead,” pronounced lede.
- Well-written news stories typically contain such components as attribution,
reaction, background and an entertaining summation.
- Many news stories — especially those with a soft lead — require a “nut graph” to
sum up the point of the story.
Writing Hard News Leads
The opening of a news story — usually the first paragraph — is termed “the lead.”
In some places, this is spelled lede to differentiate it from lead, the metal from which
newspaper type used to be made. Despite the potential for confusion with base metal,
good leads are golden!
The lead is the most important part of any newspaper story, because the reader usually
decides whether to continue reading based on the lead. As a writer, you have only a few
precious keystrokes, and a few seconds of the reader’s time, to persuade her to stick with
you. As a result, newspaper writers naturally struggle with their leads.
If you fail to engage the reader because your prose is pedestrian or you presentation is
boring, you are not long for the newspaper business, in which success is based as much
on your ability to entertain readers as to inform them. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.
Hard-news leads — which are also often called summary leads or direct leads — must
achieve two goals to succeed:
1) They must accurately summarize the most important facts in the story.
2) They must be interesting enough that the reader wants to continue reading.
If a hard-news lead fails to summarize the facts contained in the story, the reader will not
have a clear understanding of what is being reported and may not continue reading.
If the facts are not accurately summarized, the writer will have misled the reader about
the contents of the story. This is a surprisingly common sin among news writers. Because
reporters work in a competitive environment, the temptation is great for them to
exaggerate aspects of their stories to make them seem more newsworthy and hence
worthy of better play. (This kind of exaggeration is disdainfully known in the trade as
hype or torque.)
The best way to achieve Goal No. 1, obviously, is for a hard news lead to provide the
reader with as many as possible of the Five Ws. After all, the Five Ws are always the key
questions the reader of any news story needs to have answered.
Normally however, it’s not wise to try to include all five Ws — so the first task faced by
the writer of effective newspaper leads is to try to select which of the Five Ws belongs in
the lead, and which can be placed a little lower in the story. In other words, the writer
must determine what is the most important information he wishes to convey in the story.
If you try to stuff too many of the answers to these basic questions into your lead, it will
be awkward and difficult to understand, and the reader may give up. (Some writers call
this a portmanteau lead, as it resembles a traveling bag stuffed full. Others call it
Consider the following example:
Albert Wells Jr., 18, a Grade 12 student at Bellrose Composite High School in the
Edmonton bedroom community of St. Albert and the son of Mr. And Mrs. Albert Wells of
1406 Ryan Street, died at about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday when his dark red late-model
Chrysler sports car went out of control and struck a telephone pole near the intersection
of Highway 16 and Highway 2A just east of the neighbouring City of Spruce Grove.
The author of this passage is trying to cram in too many of the Five Ws in hopes of
seducing the reader into continuing. Interestingly, 50 or more years ago a lead like this
would not necessarily have been seen as overloaded. But like everything else, fashions in
news writing are always changing, and one key change over the past half century has
been a move toward shorter, tighter leads.
To satisfy modern conventions, the lead above needs to be recast to tell only the essential
An 18-year-old St. Albert high school student was killed late Wednesday when his car
struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton.
The second example tells the reader enough to know what’s going on in the story.
Additional details should be added later.
This modern convention exacerbates a problem faced by all writers of hard news leads:
determining the order of information in the story. Let’s analyze the story of the
unfortunate Albert Wells Jr. to see how this process might work.
First, what are the Five Ws in this story?
Who: Albert Wells Jr.
What: Killed in a single-vehicle accident.
When: 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Intersection of Highway 16 and Highway 2A.
Why: Car struck telephone pole.
How: Car went out of control.
In the suggested recast lead, the writer has chosen to name five of the six key points, but
in more general fashion that allows for economy of words. How, and the remaining
details, will be filled in later.
The order used here, which emphasizes the WHO, seems defensible given the questions
the readers of a local newspaper would most likely want answered. Here’s the lead again:
WHO: An 18-year-old St. Albert high school student was killed late Wednesday when his
car struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton.
Still, journalism is an art, not a science, so another writer might try to emphasize another
W. Let’s try the alternatives.
WHAT: A single-vehicle crash west of Edmonton took the life of an 18-year-old high
school student late Wednesday.
WHEN: At 10:30 p.m. Wednesday an 18-year-old St. Albert high school student lost his
life in a single-vehicle accident.
WHERE: The intersection of Highway 16 and Highway 2A west of Edmonton was the
scene of a fatal one-car crash Wednesday night.
WHY: A car crashed into a telephone pole late Wednesday, resulting in the death of the
vehicle’s lone occupant, an 18-year-old student from St. Albert.
We can see more clearly when we try each of these approaches why the Who lead, in this
case, works best.
Still, as we saw in our discussion of news judgment in Chapter IV, an additional fact can
change our decision about which W to emphasize. Imagine that the same intersection had
been the scene of several fatal accidents in the preceding couple of years. Suddenly,
Where becomes the most compelling fact:
A deadly intersection west of Edmonton took another life late Wednesday when an 18-
year-old St. Albert high school student lost control of his car and struck a telephone pole.
Many city editors and newspaper writing coaches advise young newspaper writers to
“keep it tight” or words to that effect. As a general rule, most newspaper editors would
today agree that a good lead should be no more than about 25 to 30 words in length.
Given contemporary sensibilities, this 30-word rule is good advice — especially when
the story is so momentous that it speaks for itself. Consider these three leads from
different news organizations all covering the same story on July 20, 1969:
American Neil Armstrong has become the first man to walk on the Moon.
So said the British Broadcasting Corporation, summing up one of the great stories of the
century in 13 words. The Associated Press was even more economical:
Man landed on the moon this day, Sunday, July 20, 1969.
But the AP’s 11 words were by no means the least spent on this topic. The New York
Times lead summed up the story in a mere eight:
Men have landed and walked on the moon.
Sometimes, of course, a less momentous story requires more words in the lead in order
for the reader to understand what is going on. Even when the lead is packed with all Five
Ws, though, economy with words is an aid to clarity.
So, as my first city editor used to say, repeatedly: “Write tight!” Inexperienced
journalists, however, should strive to avoid the fault of writing so tightly that their
sentences turn into incomprehensible telegraphs.
One good rule for writing good leads and avoiding this fault is to write in complete
sentences. (A sentence, for those of you who have forgotten, or who were never taught, is
a group of words that expresses a complete thought. “Jesus wept” is a sentence. “A
bumpy road” is not.)
While economical use of words will almost always help a news story, however, it is not
necessarily enough. When a story is as dramatic as men landing on the moon, or political
leaders assassinated, the facts will speak for themselves and a compelling story will
result. When the facts are a little less momentous — a fire with no injuries in a still-
unoccupied suburban house, a minor robbery, a development permit granted by city
council, for example — something in addition to brevity is called for.
In the competitive atmosphere of the newsroom, journalists need to market their stories to
editors for good play (that is, favourable location in the paper), not to mention better
assignments in the future.
The lead, of course, is the best advertisement for a journalist struggling to win the
attention of the editors who make the decisions in the newsroom. One way to write a
good lead on an otherwise remarkable story is to include a telling detail — some fact,
possibly quite minor, that sets the story apart.
Imagine, for example, that a man has robbed a credit union of a small sum of money
(inevitably “undisclosed,” because police rarely reveal such information). Also imagine
that the man said he had a gun, but never showed it, and that he escaped in a car driven
by a confederate. Not much grist here for the daily mill! This story’s unlikely to amount
to much more than a three-paragraph brief in the back of the city section.
Given this material, the journalist could opt for a bare recitation of the facts:
A small sum of money was taken when a man who said he was armed with a firearm held
up the City Credit Union on Railway Avenue just before closing time Monday.
Or he could try to add a little value by spinning out a reference to the obvious aftermath
of such an event.
Police are searching for a man who robbed the City Credit Union on Railway Avenue of
a small sum of money just before closing time Monday.
But imagine that the robber escaped in a bright pink Cadillac bearing the name of a
cosmetics company, or that he was wearing the uniform of a group of religious farm folk,
or that his gun was revealed to be a rubber hammer! Any of these facts adds up to a
striking detail that sets the story apart from all the other petty robberies that plague a big
city on any day. Any one of them, incidentally, would make the story considerably more
entertaining to write. Consider just one example:
Police are looking for a man who robbed the City Credit Union just before closing time
Monday, then escaped down Railway Avenue in a lipstick pink Cadillac.
Because they set the story apart, such small facts belong in the lead.
Another common way to add a little value — and a little interest — to the hard news lead
is what journalists call the “impact lead.” An impact lead, as the name implies, explains
the impact of a development being reported on the reader. So, a reporter might write:
A fungal infection that can cause death has extended its range from Vancouver Island to
the British Columbia Mainland — a development that could further depress the West
Coast’s already lagging tourist industry.
Once the writer has decided the most important information to put in the lead, perhaps
including some telling fact, and presented it as a complete sentence, he should keep these
additional common-sense lead-writing guidelines in mind.
Keep it tight — use no more than about 30 words.
Avoid distractions — strive to write a coherent lead that contains no capital letters other
than the first one, no numerals, no commas and no formal titles. Remember, though, this
is a goal, not a requirement. It is hard to do.
Set the right tone — the tone of the lead should be appropriate for the event being
reported on. A flippant, colloquial lead may be fine for a description of a spring festival
or a soapbox derby. It is not appropriate for a report of a funeral, an airplane crash or an
incident of domestic violence. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Don’t bury the lead — don’t make readers wallow through insignificant facts to get the
point of the story. Usually, for example, it’s the city council decision that belongs in the
lead, not who on council voted for it. Cut to the chase!
Highlight differences — find the fact, like the lipstick pink Cadillac, that makes the
Speak clearly — jargon, acronyms, foreign phrases, abstract concepts, general and vague
language all make it hard to understand what a story is about. Say what you mean and say
it clearly and directly— your readers will thank you for it. Don’t mumble!
Use active words — describe the action. Where possible use the active voice. Robbers
held up the gas station is superior to the gas station was held up. Union members
approved the contract not the contract was approved by the union.
Be visual — help the reader “see” what’s happening. Jason Kenney looks exhausted. His
complexion is chalky, his five-o’clock shadow positively Nixonian, his smart blue suit
rumpled, and his tummy, a victim of too many quick and greasy restaurant meals,
creeping over his belt.
Put people first — don’t leave them in the background while favouring facts or technical
material. Better to report that It is difficult to measure how many Ontario workers have
lost their jobs because of U.S. trade sanctions, than to say It is difficult to measure the
impact of recent U.S. trade sanctions on job losses in Ontario.
Don’t start with subsidiary clauses — in other words, don’t put the cart before the
horse. Despite an unusually dry spring, Saskatoon waterworks officials are confident that
water rationing will not be needed this summer. Nope! Drop the dry spring for now. Use
it later in the story. Saskatoon waterworks officials are confident that water rationing will
not be needed this summer.
Beware double-decker leads — don’t repeat the first paragraph in the second. This is a
common error, as reporters strive to back up their leads with a telling quote and end up
restating the obvious. A Victoria alderman is shocked and appalled that provincial
transportation grants have been cut again. “I’m shocked and appalled that provincial
transportation grants have been cut again,” Ald. John Thomson said Thursday. The
quote should provide new information or be eliminated.
Place the time element with care — strive for grace and clarity. The position of the
time element in a lead is a potential problem. It should be placed so that it would sound
natural if read aloud, but not at the risk of making the story confusing or unintentionally
amusing. Normally, it’s better to put the time element after the verb: Union President
Buck O’Dell and City Hospital Labour Relations Director Bob Clarke signed a new
collective agreement Wednesday for the facility’s approximately 800 support employees.
This sounds more natural than Union President Biff O’Dell and City Hospital Labour
Relations Director Bob Clarke Wednesday signed a new collective agreement for the
facility’s approximately 800 support employees. But not always: The Prime Minister said
Wednesday… Now why did he say that?
Avoid the insultingly obvious — let the facts speak for themselves. There’s no need to
tell readers that the death of a small child is tragic. There’s something wrong with them if
they can’t figure that out for themselves. Yet “tragedy” is probably the most overworked
word in Canadian tabloid journalism.
Avoid clichés — don’t let something go terribly wrong. Yes, that motorcycle rider is
lucky to be alive. He may not be so pleased about losing his right leg. This rule applies to
more than leads, of course. Clichés like these anywhere in your story will have readers
choking back tears.
- Journalists call the opening of a news story “the lead.”
- The lead is the most important part of any newspaper story, because it is based on
the lead that most readers decide whether to continue reading.
- The lead must accurately summarize the facts of the story.
- The lead must be interesting enough to command and keep the reader’s attention.
- The modern preference is to keep leads short.
- Economical use of words will benefit any news lead.
- A telling detail that sets a story apart from the others belongs in the lead.
- Lead writers should speak clearly and use the active voice.
The Second-Day Lead and Other Variations
Some journalists describe their job as writing history as it happens. That means that
reporters often cover stories that will continue developing over days, weeks or longer
periods. This creates the need for what is known in the trade as the “second-day lead.”
The basic hard news lead assumes the reader is hearing about the story for the first time.
The second-day lead tries to “advance” the story, or take it another step forward. Some
journalists term this giving a story “forward spin.” In other words, the second-day lead
can give a sense of immediacy to a story that is growing old — or that will be old by the
time it appears.
The notion of advancing a story is particularly important to newspaper journalists who
know that many readers will read their story after they’ve already been alerted to the
breaking news on their morning drive-to-work radio program.
So, instead of writing a basic lead, say:
A bearded man in black wielding a rubber mallet, who witnesses said resembled a
member of a religious farming commune, held up a downtown service station late
… a journalist might try to add a little forward spin:
Police are still seeking a bearded man in the black garb of a religious farming commune
who held up a downtown service station with a rubber hammer late yesterday.
Here’s a second-day lead from the June 2, 2005, edition of the Toronto Star:
Police chief William Blair said today that yesterday afternoon’s shooting that wounded
two innocent women at the Yorkdale subway station was believed to be drug-related and
he said police are stepping up plans to take down the “small number of gangsters” still
operating in Toronto.
The news is that two innocent women were injured in a shooting. But given the vagaries
of newspaper publishing, the Star’s editors knew the story would be getting long in the
tooth by the time it appeared on the streets in the wee hours of the next morning. So they
gave it some forward spin, to wit, police plans to nab Toronto’s remaining gangsters.
Sometimes second-day leads are entirely justifiable. It’s legitimately news, for example,
to tell readers that police have not yet caught the bearded robber clad in black. It’s
professional to phrase that important information as forward spin.
Sometimes, speaking realistically, there can be a certain amount of fakery involved. This
is the case with the Toronto Star lead. Is it really news that the Toronto police are
stepping up plans to take down crooks? Or was this just a reporter’s response to a demand
from management for a second-day lead?
Since the police always intend to round up crooks, I say this second-day lead is a
contrived one. But that, folks, is how the game is played!
Novice newspaper writers should always be able to write a second-day lead when asked
to by their editors.
New journalists should also be familiar with a couple of other variations on the standard
The delayed-identification lead is useful when the Who element of your lead is not as
important as the What element. The story of poor Albert Wells in the previous chapter
contained an example of the delayed identification lead:
An 18-year-old St. Albert high school student was killed late Wednesday when his car
struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton.
Albert Wells Jr., 18, of St. Albert was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident near
Spruce Grove at about 11:45 p.m., police said.
The writer identifies the accident victim by more newsworthy qualities in the lead, but
doesn’t actually provide the details of his name until a later paragraph, delaying the
Another useful common variant is the impact lead, which attempts to explain in the lead
how readers will be affected by the news being reported. Here’s one:
The one-per-cent increase in interest rates announced by the Bank of Canada Thursday
is expected to exert significant downward pressure on residential housing prices
nationwide, bank economists agree.
- When covering stories that develop over a period of time, reporters need to write
leads that take this into account.
- When covering stories that may have been reported on broadcast media by the
time they appear in the paper, journalists need a way to “move the story forward.”
- One common way to deal with this problem is called the second-day lead.
- The second-day lead tries to give immediacy to the story by describing what’s
happening at the next stage of the story.
- Delayed identification leads are useful when the identity of a person in a news
story is less important than what has happened to them.
- Impact leads attempt to explain the impact of the news reported in the lead on the
The soft-news lead
If the hard-news lead is the essential skill that must be learned by all aspiring news
writers, sooner or later they will all be asked to write a soft news story. What should a
writer do when hard news goes soft?
For starters, of course, a different kind of lead is required.
Indeed, the key difference between hard news and soft news is the approach taken in the
Soft-news leads are often referred to as “feature leads” or “delayed leads.” These terms
both give important clues about the fundamental problems faced by writers of soft-news
First, soft-news leads are generally found atop “feature stories” — that is, stories that in
the terminology of the trade are a little longer, more reflective, use more colourful
language, or perhaps probe a little deeper. They are stories that, at least in theory, give
more scope to a writer’s creativity.
In attempting to begin such a story — which may aim for the heart rather than the head
— the writer ought not to hammer the reader with the most important facts. Indeed, with
the approach typical of soft-news leads, the writer goes nowhere near the Five Ws in the
opening of the story. Instead, she can take a little time to set the tone, paint the scene,
introduce the reader to the atmosphere that surrounds the story — hence the notion of a
The writer of soft news is allowed to tease the reader at the start of the story, and to use a
more traditional storytelling structure of beginning, build-up, climax and conclusion.
Thus the writer of a story about riding in a freight train locomotive through the Rocky
Mountains, say, need not start with the most important facts — whatever they may be.
(Maybe, The new General Electric AC4400 heavy haul locomotive can use its 4,500
horsepower diesel engine to haul…) Rather, she can write something like:
This ain’t the Orient Express, but it’s still murder!
With a soft-news lead like that, readers will get the point, and will more than likely stick
around to get the story.
In theory, with soft news leads, almost anything goes. But with one important caveat: It
must work! The scope given soft news writers gives us some of the best writing in the
newspaper. Alas, this artistic license also gives us some of the worst.
Typically, however, most successful delayed leads have one thing in common: they move
from the specific to the general.
So, for example, a feature story might start by describing Farmer John out standing in his
field. The aim, of course, would be to illustrate why John’s outstanding in his field.
While writers of soft-news leads are permitted — expected even — to take longer to get
to the point of the story, they need to remember that readers nevertheless want to get to
the point fairly quickly. After all, their objective is the same as that of a writer of a hard-
news lead: to hook the reader, and to reel him in!
In an era when tight leads and short stories are in fashion, a key piece of advice to novice
news writers is to keep their soft news fairly hard. A delayed lead is fine, but not to the
point the story becomes tedious.
Moreover, this delayed approach requires the placement of a “nut graph” — a paragraph
that sums up the focus of the story — high in the story. The nut graph, which we will
discuss in more detail in a subsequent chapter, should appear by the fourth or fifth
paragraph of the story.
Writers should also remember that soft news, done properly, still requires plenty of hard
facts. Soft or not, we are writing journalism, not poetry!
Finally, writers need to remember that because of the fashion of the day, their soft news
stories — like hard news stories — will be short and may grow even shorter. In short, as
it were, the scope for delay in a delayed lead is shrinking.
Now, as we noted above, the most common form of the delayed lead moves from the
specific (an example) to the general (a principle). So, for example, on June 4, 2005, a
Toronto Star reporter wrote:
Most Palestinians think Khaled Kasab Mahameed has lost his mind. Two months ago, the
Muslim lawyer from the biblical town of Nazareth took it upon himself to do what no
Arab has ever before dared — he launched a museum dedicated to the memory of the
A specific example of the action of one person is designed to illustrate the point, as the
Star’s reporter put it a few lines later, that “as symbols go, Mahameed's efforts have been
hailed as a watershed moment in Israeli-Arab relations.”
In addition to moving from specific examples to general principles, most soft-news leads
also tend to be anecdotal, or narrative, in nature. That is, they tell a story rather that set
out a statement of important facts. Here’s an example of a storytelling lead, used atop a
personality profile of an Ontario politician who attended the 1983 Conservative
Claude Bennett is working the floor, pressing the flesh, touching elbows. He’s cool. All
around him — pandemonium.
There are almost 10,000 souls crammed into the Ottawa Civic Centre Arena this hot
spring night, come to watch the destruction of some political careers, the flowering of
others. Everyone is here for the show: pinstriped lawyers from unprestigious firms,
bulging and purple-faced but still hungry; lean, shrewd-eyed, sunburned farmers from
Elk’s Knuckle, with their plump, honest, ladies’ auxiliary wives; unwholesomely svelte
young men in silk suits, $60 haircuts and wraparound sunglasses; tight-faced college
keeners shadowing jobs as executive assistants; incredibly beautifully women, clad in
gowns as colourful and splendid as Joseph’s coat. …
Naturally, journalism professors (having no need to write to deadline), love to classify
this stuff. Since there are plenty of things a writer can do with a soft-news lead that could
never be contemplated in the hard news pages, there’s lots of scope for creating lists of
categories of soft news leads.
Of course, there’s really no end to the number of great ideas — or lame ones — that can
be used for leading soft news stories. Here are just a few:
Teaser leads try to tease the reader to tickle her fancy. Determined to live long and
prosper, a drought-ridden Vulcan, Alta., started the 1990s with a bold move to put itself
on the intergalactic map. And it worked … sort of. The writer hoped readers would stick
with the story to find out that the Southern Alberta town had gone boldly where no other
dust-blown Prairie town had gone before by bringing itself to the attention of North
America’s legions of Star Trek fans.
Ironic leads try to use the humour in irony to grab readers’ attention. Here’s one from a
how-to story, a common type of feature, which tried to teach readers how to tie a bowtie.
It takes a real man to wear a bowtie. Any sissy can strap on a long tie or wear no tie at
all. But try walking into a room full of grease monkeys in stained coveralls and asking
directions to the foreman’s office — if you’re wearing a nice polka-dot bow-tie, they’ll
know right off who’s boss!
Question-mark leads ask a question. They top most journalists’ leads-to-avoid list.
Why? Because they usually ask questions readers don’t want answered. Still, done right,
they can work. Is cowboy poetry keeping up with the times? Most of the more than 90
poets lariat who rode into Pincher Creek from across Western Canada and the United
States this weekend for their seventh annual Canadian gathering say No. More to the
point, they practically shout it: “NO!”
List leads reinforce evidence of a trend. General Motors boasts that it makes the most
fuel-efficient large cars on the market. Toyota’s hybrid cars sell so well that buyers
usually aren’t able to arrange a test drive. Mercedes is building a two-seater that gets
more than 75 miles per gallon. Suddenly, good mileage is important again.
Great-quote leads build on a quote. Passenger Charlie Powell knew something was
wrong when he heard the bang and felt the wing of the elderly Grumman Goose seaplane
dip. “I thought, ‘We’re all gonna die!’ … And most of us did.”
Person-centred leads, like the one about the Nazareth lawyer above, try to use a story
about an individual to illustrate a broader situation involving lots of people.
Contrast leads highlight an ironic contrast to make a point. The mild mannered office
clerk who turns out to be a mass murderer and the millionaire pilot who squired around
movie stars then and hides in a hotel room now are all fodder for this approach.
Play-on-word leads can be sublime, but they carry a high risk. After all, it’s said the pun
is both the highest and lowest form of humour. A description of a boy and his grill might
work on a summertime story about outdoor cookery. But if you’re thinking of linking
petunia sales to the sweet smell of success, well, just forget it!
Situational leads describe a situation in hopes of illuminating a bigger point. Ralph Plotz
is exhausted. His complexion is chalky, his five-o`clock shadow positively Nixonian, his
smart blue suit rumpled, and his tummy, a victim of too many quick and greasy
restaurant meals, creeping over his belt. Still, you can sense the little tremor of
anticipation when Plotz — suddenly the “enfant terrible” of Western Canada’s small-c
conservative scene — eases his squat frame up to the podium. But the risk is high that
they can descend into untended hilarity. The old journalist sits at his desk, staring at his
computer, without an idea in his head. As more than one observer has pointed out, if the
most exciting thing someone can do is sit, it’s time for another subject!
Nightmare leads — It was a nightmare come to life… — and poetic leads are right up
there on most folks’ Don’t-Do lists. Still, as in most creative matters, never say never.
Done right, almost anything can work! Consider:
They'll be ridin’
From Lubbock, Texas,
Has set out
For Pincher Creek.
It's those drat-blamed
81 of ’em
their yearly readin',
roundup, tea party
And ball. …
- Soft news requires a different approach to lead writing.
- Soft-news leads are also often called delayed leads because they start by telling a
story before getting to the key facts.
- Delayed leads require the use of a “nut graph” — which explains the thesis, or the
main point, of the story.
- The nut graph should be placed high in the story so that the reader does not have
to wait for long to find out what the story is about.
- Most successful delayed leads move from the specific to the general.
- Most soft-news leads tend to be anecdotal, or narrative, in nature — telling a
story rather that setting out a statement of important facts.
Writing ‘Nut Graphs’
Feature stories need nut graphs for the same reason hard-news stories need summary
A nut graph is a common newspaper industry term of a paragraph near the top of a story
with a delayed, soft-news lead that sums up the focus, or the main point, of the story. In
other words, it does the same job as the summary lead. It explains the main point of the
Virtually everyone in the newspaper industry, by the way, abbreviates paragraph to
graph. We’re not talking her about the graphs used to illustrate statistical stories. Like
lead and lead, you’ll just have to get used to it!
Nut graphs are also sometimes called focus graphs or focus statements, because they set
out the focus or thesis of the story, or bridge paragraphs, because they bridge the
colourful illustrative lead with the rest of the story.
If the soft lead engages the reader’s imagination or emotion, the nut graph tells him why
it’s worth continuing to read. Done well, the transition from the lead section to the meat
of the story will be smooth and natural.
Here’s one example. First the soft-news lead — which described a car accident
experienced years earlier by Alberta’s premier:
Ralph Klein may have been an inch from death, but at least he wasn't far from an
The time was 2 p.m., Nov. 5, 1981. The place was a busy downtown intersection in
Calgary. Then-mayor Klein and his faithful sidekick Rod Love were returning from, of all
things, a Calgary General Hospital Board meeting.
Near-disaster for the pair came in the form of a hurtling half-ton pickup, piloted by a
young man from Olds who apparently didn’t see a light turn red. When the dust settled,
Love's car was a write-off, the young man faced charges, and Klein was on his way to the
nearby Holy Cross emergency ward.
That’s followed by the nut graph, which puts the story in context — that was then, this is
now — and explains why the situation 13 years before was ironic, if not significant:
Thirteen years later, Klein had a new job in Edmonton, and inner-city emergency wards
in Calgary — including the one at the Holy Cross — were on their way into history as a
result of budget cutbacks.
The story then could move naturally to describing the debate over the cutbacks, and their
Here’s another example:
Don't ever try to tell Karen and Bob Lyons word-of-mouth advertising doesn't work.
They’d tell you about the gentleman from Japan who rented a car in New York City and
drove across the continent to Pincher Creek to buy about $100 worth of their prize-
When he got there, he was surprised by how far it was, recalls Bob. But he never gave up
and turned back.
Then the nut graph:
The Lyons’ visitors’ book is filled with the names of honey lovers from Japan, Europe,
Australia and almost every corner of Canada and the U.S. The advertising effort that
attracts these sojourners to this community about 150 kilometres south of Calgary is
simple yet effective: word of mouth.
- Feature stories need nut graphs for the same reason hard-news stories need
- A nut graph is a paragraph near the top of a story with a delayed, soft-news lead
that sums up the focus, or the main point, of the story.
- Nut graphs are also sometimes called focus graphs or focus statements, because
they set out the focus or thesis of the story.
The concept of attribution is the fundamental building block of the concept of modern
Without attribution, we all now sense, a story is nothing. Or, to put that another way,
without attribution, a story is just your opinion, and who cares what you think? At least,
if you have an opinion, as far as the world of journalism is occurred, you’d better be in a
position that makes it worth reporting what your opinion is.
Attribution, in other words, is where you tell your reader where you got your information.
It can be as simple as the words “he said.”
The idea of attribution in modern newspaper writing comes from the idea that a reporter’s
job is not to write his own opinions, but is to provide readers with an unbiased — or at
least a balanced — description of the facts of a story.
Needless to say, inhabiting a real world as we do, it is never really true that a journalist
can provide a strictly objective account of anything. Of course we all bring our opinions,
our faith, our cultural perspective to anything we write about. But that discussion is for
philosophy class, or maybe sociology.
Certainly our personal ambition and our cultural biases may affect the stories we choose
to report, and to some degree the assumptions we bring to reporting them, but the game
of journalism as it has been played in North America for most of the past century has
been at least to write our stories as if we were presenting an unbiased accounting of the
That means attribution is essential in a news story, hard or soft, because it is important to
show readers where statements come from, who made them, why they made them, and
why readers ought to consider their views.
In other words, it is a basic assumption of modern journalism that readers are entitled to
know the source of the facts, quoted statements and opinions in your story.
Where to place attribution in a story can be trickier. Normally, reporters are expected to
provide the source of the source of the information in their lead.
This can be phrased specifically: It’s time for federal legislation to outlaw the practice of
hiring replacement workers during strikes, says Buzz Hargrove, President of the
Canadian Auto Workers union.
Or it can be put more generally: The body of a man found near Fernie, B.C., has been
identified as that of a missing hunter, police say.
Being too detailed and specific with attribution can make a lead cluttered and hard to
follow and should be avoided. That detailed information can come deeper in the story.
Nevertheless, regardless of where it is positioned in the story, every person quoted and
most people referred to in a news story should be fully identified by name, job and (if
only by implication) the reason they are quoted. This is known as setting up the quote. A
quote in which the speaker has not been completely identified has not been properly set
Sometimes attribution may be eliminated from a lead because it is common knowledge.
Canadians are to vote today in a general election. But be careful, one man’s common
knowledge is another man’s opinion. It is usually best to err on the side of providing
Likewise, sometimes attribution may be skipped because it is implied. A man was in
custody today in Yorkton, Sask., after an armed standoff following a police chase. It’s
pretty clear the source of this information was the police, so the “police said” is implied.
Further, most reporters know by experience that the police may be trusted to provide
trustworthy information on some topics, and perhaps less so on others.
We can be confident, for example, that if the police say they have arrested John Smith,
suspected of a string of bank robberies, that they have done so. Our stories can safely
reflect that. We should be more careful, however, when they imply (as they often do in
such circumstances) that Mr. Smith is obviously guilty of the crime with which he has
But even in this case, attribution is soon required. Yorkton RCMP said a man armed with
a shotgun held officers at bay Monday night in a trailer court and threatened to kill
If we write that the weather tomorrow is expected to be sunny and warm, it’s pretty
obvious that the source of the information was the weather office. Still, in such an
example, there would be little harm to the lead is saying so.
Attribution can also be skipped in the lead if the facts are easily verified.
An 18-year-old St. Albert high school student was killed late Wednesday when his car
struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton. No attribution required in the lead — although
you’ll want it lower in the story regardless, even if it’s only a “police said.”
But attribution must be placed in the lead is someone is making an accusation, or if
opinion or speculation is involved. Consider this lead:
Mechanical failure may have been involved in the death of an 18-year-old St. Albert high
school student killed late Wednesday when his car struck a telephone pole west of
Edmonton, police said today.
This lead requires attribution because someone (the police) is speculating about the cause
of the crash. Now, look at this one:
Alcohol use is suspected in the death of an 18-year-old St. Albert high school student
killed late Wednesday when his car struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton, police say.
This lead requires attribution even more urgently, because it contains an accusation about
the conduct of the crash victim. Even though the victim is dead, fairness obliges to point
out the source of the accusation. If the person accused were still alive, practical legal
considerations — the presumption of innocence, the right of an accused person to a fair
trial — make the need for attribution more pressing.
The next lead would be fine, because it is factual and verifiable:
A seriously injured St. Albert high school student has been charged with driving drunk
after the car he was driving struck a telephone pole west of Edmonton late Wednesday.
But imagine, instead, that the story went something like this:
Albert Wells Jr. of St. Albert smelled of alcohol and slurred his words as he was cut from
the wreck of his car by rescue workers… Obviously, in this case, attribution would be
essential. …a Spruce Grove fire-rescue specialist testified Tuesday in a Court of Queen’s
Whenever you site an accusation in a story, whether it is the police, a neighbour or a
politician making the accusation, you owe a debt of fairness to both the accused person
and the reader to explain who is making the accusation — and possibly to provide
context that could explain their motive for doing so.
Whenever a statement is placed inside quotation marks, implying that that the statement
is someone’s exact spoken or written words, attribution must be provided.
Finally, attribution is normally placed after the statement for which it is provided,
especially if the information attributed is not earth shaking, or is perhaps not certain to be
If taxes are not raised, the town of Duckville may have to curtail some essential services
by the end of the year, says Town Councillor Ignatius Jones.
The city has no business putting fluoride in Calgarians’ water, says Ald. Pearl
Flugmann, a candidate for mayor in the Oct. 19 civic election.
But sometimes, the identity or position of the person making the statement is so
newsworthy, that the attribution belongs in front of the information being attributed.
Premier Ralph Klein says he will use the Notwithstanding Clause of the Constitution to
prevent same-sex marriages becoming legal in Alberta.
The appointed head of the Metro Health Region says board members – including himself
-- should be elected.
- Attribution is a fundamental building block of the concept of modern journalism.
- Attribution is where you tell your reader where you got your information.
- It can be as simple as the words “he said.”
- It is a basic assumption of modern journalism that readers are entitled to know the
source of the facts, quoted statements and opinions in a story.
- Some leads that contain obviously factual information known by most people do
not require attribution.
- Leads that contain accusations, speculation or opinion always require attribution
in the lead.
- Attribution is normally placed after the statement for which it is provided.
- But if the identity of the speaker is highly newsworthy in its own right, attribution
may be placed before the statement.
Using Quotes in News Stories
Quotes are indispensable to journalism as practiced today. This is because, more often
than not, news is what people say.
Naturally, we all understand that Who says something, and What they say, makes news.
But remember too that news is often also How they say it, When and Where they say it,
and Why they say it.
Quotes are important because they are the key mechanism of establishing attribution in
journalism. So quotes and attribution go together like fish and water — it’s important to
establish who said something (attribution), and it’s important to accurately establish what
was said (quotes).
Quotes lend authenticity to journalistic reports. They put readers in touch with what
people in the news actually said. At least in theory, they allow readers to judge for
themselves the merits of a speaker’s arguments. They are used as evidence to back up the
statement you have written in your lead.
For these reasons, whoever is being quoted must be identified clearly. It’s important that
the reader of a news story is always be able to tell exactly where the information he is
reading comes from. He should never have to guess if it’s the prime minister speaking,
say, or just the reporter.
In standard journalistic practice, there are two types of quotes: direct quotes and indirect
A direct quote is the exact words that were spoken by somebody. Direct quotes are
identified by the use of quotation marks.
Everything inside the quotation marks should be exactly (or very nearly exactly) what the
speaker said. The quotation marks mark off the words actually spoken from all the other
material in the story.
The value of direct quotes is that — again, at least in theory — they tell the reader
precisely what someone said, in their own words. They allow the reader to make her own
judgment about the merits of what the speaker had to say. They provide evidence that the
statement in the lead can be backed up by documentation of something someone said.
Moreover, direct quotes lend drama to a well-written story. A strong quote, accurately
reported, can be the key to an effective story. The best quotes are entertaining and
The problem, of course, is that not all quotes are strong, or even make much sense. Some
direct quotes are pretty blah. Others are confusing. In such cases, an indirect quote is
So, newspaper writers should not fall prey to the common temptation to quote at any cost.
More often than not, this arises more from the need to show their editors they are doing a
good job than from the actual requirements of their story.
Nevertheless, a direct quote should always be used when the speaker is saying something
controversial, or when he is accusing someone of something.
An indirect quote is a paraphrase — that is, the writer’s version of what someone said.
The advantage of indirect quotes is that they can cut through excess verbiage to express
what a speaker means succinctly. They can make a dull quote more lively, and a
confusing quote clear.
The principal difficulty with indirect quotes is that writers don’t always understand or
interpret correctly what a speaker is saying. So if you’re going to quote someone
indirectly, you need to be certain that you really understand what they meant when they
spoke and ensure that you paraphrase them accurately
Usually, well-written news stories use a mixture a direct quotes and indirect quotes.
Let’s consider a couple of examples. Imagine that you’re covering a civic election in a
big Canadian city. You interview the mayor, and she tells you:
"I believe that I have done a good job and I am confident the citizens of our city share my
view and will return me to office."
This is a quote that’s on the borderline between being suitable for direct quotation or
indirect quotation. Practically speaking, you might want to use it if it’s the best you’ve
got and your story needs to demonstrate that you heard the mayor talking.
Now, you would definitely want to use an indirect quote if the mayor had said something
“Speaking confidence-wise, regarding my electibility, notwithstanding the volatility of
the electorate mediated by the popular perception of my past and ongoing administrative
successes, I think it’s overwhelmingly clear that the citizenry shares my perception of a
positive work-service continuum while in office and the probability is high that I will be
returned with an increased plurality after the cessation of balloting.”
A succinct paraphrase along these lines would work better:
The mayor said she was confident the public agrees she has done a good job and will
return her to office on election day.
On the other hand, if the mayor said of her chief challenger in the election, “I’ll kick
Bobby’s ass!” you’d definitely want to put that in direct quotes. There’s just no way to
effectively paraphrase such a sentiment!
Using the same yardstick, in this example the direct quote is clearly superior to the
Direct quote: “That jerk is the worst referee I’ve ever seen! He must be blind!”
Indirect quote: He criticized the referee’s abilities.
Returning to the first example, while new reporters are frequently told that editing quotes
is completely unacceptable, it would be permissible to make a few minor editing changes
if she had said:
"I believe, uh, that I have done a, a, a good job and I am, er, confident the citizens of our
city share my view and, uh, will return me to office."
Random ums, uhs, ers and meaningless repetitions may come out of a quote without
harming its integrity or the ethics of the writer. But again, you must be certain that what
you’re taking out really is only a meaningless sound.
Now, let’s consider some guidelines for when to quote, and when not to, in news stories:
If you quote directly, you must quote accurately. Inside quotation marks, you are
pretty much stuck with what the speaker said. There’s an obvious ethical problem with
revising a direct quote in hopes of improving it. Fixing a minor grammatical error or
editing out a meaningless repetition may be acceptable in many journalistic circles — but
in this age of tape recorders and ever-present microphones, it is dangerous. Changing
words outright or even reorganizing them a little is not appropriate. When quoting
directly, you must strive for technical accuracy.
If you quote directly, you should strive to quote elegantly. Beware the temptation to
break the flow of the quote to include explanatory notes in brackets. Too many of these
stage whispers ruin the quote and disrupt the flow of the story. If you must use
explanations in parentheses, consider a paraphrase instead. Good quotes shouldn’t require
a lot of explanation.
Ellipses in quotes should be used with care. Ellipses — three dots used to delete wordy
passages from otherwise coherent quotes — can be useful. Say someone said: “I’m
certain because I’ve been around Parliament for a long time and really, really know
what’s going on that we can defeat the government on Tuesday.” This could be usefully
shortened to: “I’m certain … we can defeat the government on Tuesday.” But take care
not to change the speaker’s meaning. Never combine ellipses with notes, such as
explanations in brackets.
Always fully identify the speaker when you quote directly. If a statement is within
quotation marks in a news story, the person who made the statement must be identified.
In journalism, this is termed setting up the quote. A quote that suddenly refers to Smith,
instead of Sr. John Smith, Chief of Dentistry at the Nanaimo Clinic, for example, has not
been properly set up.
Usually, when a quote falls below a reasonable standard of pithiness, use a
paraphrase. There is little value in directly quoting the mayor saying something like
“over the past six months, the spouses of city council members have only taken taxpayer-
financed trips on 16 occasions.” Better simply to say, The mayor said spouses of city
council members have only taken taxpayer-financed trips 16 times in the past six months.
But very important statements require direct quotation, even if they are dull. If the
Prime Minister is giving a speech on, say, the results of Quebec's next independence
referendum, it's advisable to quote him in his own words, even if they're tedious.
Use fragmentary or one-word quotes sparingly. Fragments and one word quotes are
OK to express doubt — he called the party’s actions “criminal.” Likewise, they are
acceptable to show someone used a highly charged word — he accused the chief
executive of behaving like a “Nazi.” They can also indicate cultural or ideological
disagreement. However, one-word quotes are not an appropriate remedy for sloppy note
The context of the quote should always be clear to the reader. Without more
information, this quote is not particularly helpful: “It’s all politics,” the Liberal
candidate said of the NDP campaign. Say what? Some writers try to solve this problem
by adding afterthoughts: “It’s junk,” he said of the new Korean-built sedan. Recast when
faced with the need to add afterthoughts.
Quotes should back up the lead, not repeat it. Avoid double attribution. The story’s
first quote should provide additional information or insight and move the story forward.
Avoid leads like this. The prime minister was shocked and appalled by the opposition’s
accusations of corruption. “I’m shocked and appalled by the opposition’s accusations or
corruption,” the prime minister said.
Avoid quotes that the speaker didn’t say. This is a common sin of headline writers. If
you’re going to say, The critic called it a ‘wonderful’ movie, make sure she used that
Partial quotes must fit the grammatical structure of the sentence. Avoid
ungrammatical use of partial quotes: The driver admitted he “don’t have a chance” in
Tuesday’s race. But also avoid partial quotes that would never have been spoken by the