The editorial function of any publication – whether website, newsletter, newspaper or magazine – has three main elements:
Which can be divided into “reporting”- or writing of news items – feature and comment writing. Understanding the different techniques can be helpful and important.
The checking, editing and improvement of what has been written
- Layout and design
The typefaces to be used; and how the material to be used on a page (words and pictures) is to be displayed.
This page focusses on the first of these: writing
Here we make a distinction between three main types of writing for a publication – reporting, feature and comment writing – but many of the key things to remember are equally important to all three.
- Always be accurate
- Write simply, impartially and with brevity
- Make sure that what you write is grammatical and correctly spelt
- Use short, simple words which usually have greater impact than lesser known ones
- Follow house style or agree on the main elements of this so your publication is consistent eg are collective nouns to be singular or plural as in the school is…or the school are? Is our spelling to be English as in “publicise” or American as in “publicize”? Are numerals to be spelt out from one to ten then numerals for 11 and on?
- Good advice for anything you publish, whether on paper or on the Internet, is “if in doubt, leave out” – or maybe even better: never write anything which you may later regret.
Writing as a reporter
The reporter’s job is to find and write stories which will interest and be understood by readers. But this simple description is to understate a job which can be difficult, exhausting, sometimes exciting – and always carries a great deal of responsibility.
- Responsibility for accuracy is absolute. Errors can be embarrassing, upsetting, misleading and even very expensive if the error has been seen to be damaging to someone.
- Remember that when writing as a reporter, your personal views should be avoided.
- Remember that any story can be reduced to a paragraph of 30 words. And using Rudyard Kipling’s “five little serving men” – who, why, what, where, when and how – is as good a way as any (though not the only way) to start your story, article or even a feature.
- Impartiality is key to good reporting and to being trusted by your reader.
- Traditionally news stories can be cut “from the bottom up” as all the key information is at the top.
Features are designed to be read at more leisure than a news story, hence many magazines consist entirely of features while newspapers focus more on news.
In the online world the distinction may be less marked but the same need is there to capture the reader’s attention and lead them to what is on offer.
- In general a feature can be categorised as topical or entertaining: a topical feature being used to explain something ‘newsy’ with entertainment covering almost anything else such as music, fashion, sport and holidays.
- The construction of a feature differs from that of a news story in that it should be written with a beginning, a middle and an end. The opening, like that of a news story, should grab the attention of the reader, but in a feature the writer may offer personal assessment and offer conclusions – provided it is clear that the opinions are those of the writer. Whether the publication accepts the writer’s opinions as also being its own should be made clear.
- Question and answer features – where the writer’s questions are published along with the interviewee’s answers – sometimes have a place, but are rarely as interesting to read as a well constructed feature.
There is always a place for a good comment – ‘op/ed’ or ‘leader’ – in a publication, with perhaps some emphasis on ‘good’. And good definitely includes being accurate. There is little worse than having to apologise for an opinion based on an error of fact.
The key point here is brevity: assembling facts and comments into a carefully crafted piece of journalism.
Here are a suggested seven stages for comment or leader writing:
- Either read through quickly the brief you have been given or prepare one for yourself: what is the point you want to make?
- Read the brief through very slowly and carefully
- Write down the main facts you want to highlight
- Think – outline in your mind what you are going to write
- Form an opinion – then try out your argument on other people. Does your argument stand up?
- Recheck your facts – one more check never goes amiss
- Write it
– remembering that your reader may not know what you are writing about, therefore the piece must be self-contained in explaining what it is about
– deciding your style of approach: whether to be positive, forceful, “more in sorrow than anger” – but whatever your approach do not leave your reader in doubt about where you stand
– forgetting all that business about being balanced and impartial and instead assembling a well-argued case for what the publication believes.