Posted on March 17, 2016
How to structure a news story
Anything to report? If you’ve got an announcement to make about your business, you need to stick to the point. Here are
5 ways to structure a news story to get your message across
Photograph via Damsel in Dior
I trained as a journalist in the olden days – so long ago that we were taught the rules of basic typesetting so we could mark up hard copy (to specify typeface, style, point size, leading, measure and justification), as it would have been done before desktop publishing software came along. This harked back to the days when articles were either printed using hot metal type or, more cheaply, were set into galleys on long sheets of paper, which were literally cut and pasted onto layout sheets, before being photographed and turned into print-ready film. I hasten to add that I never had to use that particular skill and that the computer age was well and truly established when I started work (although email and the internet were still novelties and I spent much of my working life speaking to people on the phone – CRAZY times).
Articles in those days fell into one of two camps – news or features. There were no such things as blog or Facebook posts, tweets, or email newsletters. We were taught fundamental writing skills – what made a subject worth writing about, how to find an angle or hook, how to conduct research and interviews, and how to structure, edit and proofread our copy. We didn’t have to worry about SEO keywords, clickbait headlines, bounce rates, or marketing our work on social media. The assumption was that if someone bought a newspaper or magazine they would read what was in it – our responsibility was to ensure that our copy was clearly written, comprehensive, easy to follow and factually correct.
Although it all sounds very old-fashioned in the digital age, many of those fundamental skills still apply. If you’re writing a news piece on your blog – about, say, a new development or direction for your company, an upcoming event, a new member of staff, or an industry talking point – then the old rules still stand. It doesn’t have to be a formal piece of writing, but it still needs to be clear, logical and to-the-point.
Here are five ways to structure a news story so you get your message across to your readers:
1. Use the inverted pyramid
The essential structure of a news story follows this format: crucial information should be stated in your very first sentence, followed by the facts in descending order of importance, and ending with background info. So, start with an intro of 18-30 words that sums up the entire piece. Next should come the most important facts, followed by slightly less important facts, other relevant but non-essential facts, and then background. OK, so sorting the facts into order of importance is a bit of skill in itself, but keep relating them back to the intro – the nub of the story. How closely do they tie into your main statement? The more relevant they are, the more important they are.
2. Introduce the six serving men
As mentioned above, the opening sentence of your piece should be able to stand on its own as an overview of the whole story. Imagine you were summing it up as a tweet – what is your main point? An old trick is to employ the six serving men from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child”: “I keep six honest serving-men/They taught me all I knew/Their names are What and Why and When/And How and Where and Who.” Your intro, or at least your first paragraph, should contain that information: What happened, why did it happen, when did it happen, how and where did it happen and who did it/did it happen to? Answer all those questions and you should have your first paragraph and the bones of your story.
3. Put each new measure of thought into a new paragraph
Unlike a feature, a news story sets out the facts point by point, without opinions, colour, scene setting or non-linear narrative. Every time you make a new point, start a new paragraph and don’t feel the need to link it to the previous one. Although they all relate to the same story, the paragraphs don’t have to flow into each other as they would with a feature, which means that any paragraph can be cut without affecting the piece as a whole and necessitating a rewrite. If you have followed the inverted pyramid structure and put the less important stuff at the end, you should be able to cut from the bottom, one paragraph at a time.
4. Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them
This advice is as old as the hills (well, as Aristotle, apparently), but it’s certainly worth heeding when you’re trying to structure a news story. You set out the gist of your report in the first sentence. Then you elaborate and add substance, fleshing out the story with quotes and details that back up your assertion. Finally, you can sum up by reiterating your main point again with some less important supplementary information – on the basis that this part could be cut without anything crucial being lost. It’s really just another variation of the inverted pyramid, but some people find it easier to think about it this way.
5. Check for holes in your story (and double check your facts)
Finally, ask yourself if there is anything missing that your readers need to know – not so much in terms of detail, but of the context required for the reader to make sense of it. If you quote someone, have you explained who they are? Is the timeline clear? If you’re highlighting an upcoming event, have you explained when and where it’s happening, and if/how readers can buy tickets? And although this isn’t a structural thing, it’s also worth double checking your facts – are names of people and places spelt correctly? Have you given the right dates? Are URLs correct and do links click through to the right places?
A blog post or e-newsletter isn’t a newspaper report and doesn’t have to be so straight and serious. But if you have news to share and you want to ensure that your readers come away with a clear idea of the story and its facts, it’s worth spending a bit of time structuring your writing the old-fashioned way.