Writing an obit

May 11, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: reporting, writing.


For generations, the journalism culture demanded that young reporters cut their teeth on obituary stories – “writing obits,” we would say. The thinking was that obituaries were easy to write and possibly not very interesting or important. Today, in many newspapers (except for the larger ones), the obit story has been relegated to a classified advertisement. But writing obits is important work. It always has been. Bert Barnes spent 20 years at the Washington Post writing obituaries before retiring in March 2004.  He has written an article for the Post about his experiences on the obit desk. In it he says:

I loved that work. It taught me that even in the monotony of the daily grind, life could be funny and beautiful, surprising and strange. Death is no big deal if you don’t love life. I only wish I could have met more of the people I wrote about.

One of the first exercises I had in a beginning news writing class in college was to write my own obituary. All of us in the class had to do that, and we had a lot of fun with it. I remember trying to figure out who the pallbearers would be. I still think that’s a good assignment for a beginning student because they have all the information available without having to interview anyone or look anything up. For an example of an obituary story, look on page 186-187 of Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

The standard parts of an obituary story are explained more fully in this JPROF handout and can be downloaded and duplicated for classroom use.

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