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Newspaper Writing - The Story Proper

( Originally Published 1911 )

There are numbers of people whose ideal paper is one in which the editorials shall be written by an Addison, a Lamb, or a Swift; the art criticism by a Ruskin; while the financial editor shall be an Adam Smith. It is a fairly safe guess that a newspaper with such a staff would have a life about as long as the ministry of all the talents. Imagine Mrs.. Battle's views on whist . . . written in an hour at midnight. Good writing really consists of clearness of expression mingled with true literary form. And these are qualities not unobtainable even in a daily paper, as Mr. Strachey (editor of the London Spectator) himself admitted. From an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor, Boston.

I have always cared much for style and have endeavored to improve my own by reading a great deal of the best English and French prose. In writing, as in music, much of the perfection of style is a question of ear, but much also depends on the ideal the writer sets before himself. He ought, I think, to aim at the greatest possible simplicity and accuracy of expression, at vividness and force, at condensation. The last two heads will usually be found to blend; for condensation, when it is not attained at the sacrifice of clearness, is the great secret of force. I should say, from my own experience, that most improvements of style are of the nature either of condensation or of increased accuracy and delicacy of distinction. From the Memoirs of W. E. H. LECKY.

Most news stories, as already pointed out, work backward from effect to cause. In the story of a fire, for example, the writer first sets forth the most important results of the fire. If there were no features of obvious news interest, such as the loss of life or heavy property loss, he may cast about for picturesque details that will enable him to give a novel turn to his story. In either event he begins with the effect. The lead written, containing perhaps a suggestion of the cause, he proceeds to tell the story in detail. Usually the facts are put down in the order of their importance, unessential details being reserved for the last paragraph.

This method may be departed from, of course, if the most striking fact about the fire was not the result but the manner of its starting. If the fire, in itself unimportant, was one of a series started by an incendiary, the feature of the story manifestly is found in the cause and not in the effect. The lead in that case would be built on the cause, which is the reason for printing the story.


In any case the story begins with the main fact and moves toward the contributory incidents. Keeping his lead in mind, to avoid needless repetition, the writer expands his story to the required length by the addition of details. What he shall tell is determined partly by his judgment of news values and partly by the space limit the editor has set. Told to write half a column, he is expected to fill that space and no more. The correspondent who wires, in reply to an order for 300 words, that he can't tell his story in less than 1,000, is certain to call down the wrath of the telegraph editor. The city reporter who cannot or will not compress his story into the space allotted him is not likely to remain long on the payroll. No matter what your personal opinion of the news value of your story, remember that the editor is the judge.

Another phase of " writing to space " presents itself, and this has more to do with the gathering than with the writing of news. The writer needs the ability to compress his story; he needs, too, to learn the art of expansion. The order to write half a column may find him unprepared if he has failed, as a news gatherer, to collect sufficient details to fill that space. The problem now is not one of cutting down the facts, but of telling all the facts he can muster. Ordered to write a certain number of words, the reporter is assumed to have the necessary information about his story. He is expected to tell the story without padding and without faking.

It may be said here incidentally, since the subject is one of perennial discussion outside of newspaper offices, that faking is not tolerated by any reputable newspaper. A reporter who manufactures news may succeed in deceiving his office a few times, but eventually he will be found out and dismissed. Harmless exaggeration in giving a story local color is often permitted, but no self-respecting city editor will publish a story that a reporter tells him is untrue. There remains but one solution to the problem of expansion and that is to get more facts. The reporter should bear this in mind in covering his story. To be on the safe side, he should get all the details possible in the time avail-able. Then, when he returns to his office, he will be prepared if the city editor calls for a longer story than he had expected to write.

Even though the reporter is ordered to write only a few lines, the labor spent in covering a story thoroughly is not wasted. Having a complete knowledge of his subject, he is better able to determine what are the main facts and to present them in right proportion. Incomplete investigation leaves a re-porter with the fear that he may have overlooked something essential which a rival news gatherer has found. The good reporter and he is the one who is most likely to be a good news writer spares no effort in running down every smallest clew that may help him to understand his story. Persistent investigation, even when the story on the surface appears commonplace, may uncover an important feature and enable the reporter to score a notable beat for his paper.

What the newspaper demands is that the writer shall tell his story so that every sentence adds something new to it. The order to expand a story, viewed in this light, does not contradict what has been said of the need of brevity. In adding to your story to bring it to the prescribed length, avoid senseless repetition of details. Don't repeat an idea in different words simply to fill space. Try to make every sentence count. Bear in mind what you have told in the lead and strive to set forth the details in relation to the main facts. If your lead is built on the rescue of a woman by firemen, tell the details so they will contribute to the effect of the opening statement; don't switch your attention to the man who turned in the alarm and forget the rescue. The turning in of the alarm is probably a trivial detail and, if mentioned at all, should not be allowed to clog the movement of the story. " Don't worry about who called the ambulance or who turned in the alarm " is one of the rules in the New York Herald's pamphlet of instructions to reporters.

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