I currently write for the New Statesman – here’s a recent supplement I edited – the Guardian, and edit Professional Outsourcing Magazine, just entering my third year, as well as a lot of freelance writing. One of the things I found most difficult when I started up as a full-time journalist was news writing.
I just couldn’t get it. Snappy intros, finishing with a brilliant quote – and then the subs would turn it into what I perceived as mush, and in my view spoil it. Except, of course, they weren’t – they were improving it drastically, and here’s what they were doing.
The first rule I had to learn was that all of my thoughts about becoming a brilliant, erudite writer, were in themselves a load of mush. If I wanted to become a news journalist I had to keep it simple. That’s even truer now than it was then as we live in an increasingly global environment. Simple phrasing is easier to understand.
Some of the advice was poor, mind you. Always stick to short sentences, they said. Short is better. People won’t read longer stuff. They like brevity. But you can’t develop an idea. Only when you allow yourself a bit of length can you really explore something and open out, as long as you ensure the sentence itself is comprehensible. (See what I did there?)
The big lesson, though, was to consider how people read news stories. Only very rarely will they read right to the end. So the important stuff has to go at the beginning. It’s like a pyramid (see that picture at the top of this post?); if you cut the bottom layer off, it’s still a complete pyramid. People reading a story and not finishing it still need to take away the salient facts. People reading a story that’s been cut for length – and sub-editors will always cut from the bottom in a news setting – still need to understand what’s gone on.
That image has stayed with me for years, even as people’s tendency to read to the end has diminished with the increasing distractions of the Internet. It still works and probably always will. It’s also something to bear in mind if you’re in PR rather than journalism. Adopt that pyramid structure for a press release and a journalist, no matter how subconsciously, will identify that the release has been written in his/her language.
So have a look at your own news output. Could you take off the last few lines and leave the sense of it intact? And if not, should you be fixing it?
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