MC 102 Lecture 5: Newswriting customs and conventions

May 28, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.
Last week we made the point that news was an important element in holding our society together. News — new information — keeps our economy working and our society functioning.

People who can write news — that is, those who can present it accurately, completely, precisely and efficiently — play a vital role in who we are.

This week we will continue to discuss some of the conventions and customs of writing that you should apply to your MC102 assignments.

What we will do this week is

  • review the inverted pyramid story structure
  • examine sources, attribution, quoting and paraphrasing
  • review some of the writing conventions that you will need to practice as you head for the midterm.

The inverted pyramid, again

By now, through your reading and writing assignments, you should have a good understanding of the inverted pyramid writing structure.

The inverted pyramid asks that a writer put the most important information at the beginning of the story. The information in the story should be ordered from most important to least important. It should not be a chronological narrative.

The lead paragraph in an inverted pyramid news story should be one sentence long; it should be a maximum of 30 to 35 words; it should contain the most important information the writer has to tell the reader; and it should be as specific as possible.

The second paragraph should develop an aspect of the lead paragraph’s information. Do not drop into a chronological narrative in the second paragraph. You MC102 Supplement has a good example of how a second paragraph might be written from several pieces of information int he lead. See page I-15.

Read as many inverted pyramid news stories as you can find. Analyze their structure; ask yourself why the writer put the information together in the way that he or she did. Emulate what you have read; try to do the same things with your writing assignments that professional news writers have done.

Check out this web site’s Checklist for Inverted Pyramid News Stories.

Information, at its source

Newswriting depends on information. The quality of the writing is tied to the quality of the information. The quality of the information depends on its source.

Three types of sources

stored — information that you can look up, in a book, in a library, on the Web. The good news reporter knows sources of information and can find them quickly.

observational — information that you can get from personal experience, by going to a city council meeting, a fire, a press conference, etc.

personal — information that you get from talking to people. Look over the section on interviewing in chapter 4 of Writing for the Mass Media. Most news reporters have to interview people to complete their news stories.

As we have mentioned before, we don’t ask you to gather you own information for your assignments in MC102. But you do need to understand that news comes from sources and something about how you gather information.

News reporters want the best information available; therefore, they will try to gather it from the people who know the most or who are closest to a situation. Not only are these people likely to hav the best information, but they are also likely to be the most credible sources.


One of the conventions of news writing is that you give the reader some idea of what the source of the information is. This is called attribution. Three things you should know about attribution are

  • most important information in a news story should be attributed to some source;
  • information that is well known does not need to be attributed; for instance, you would not write, “The lake is on the north side of town,” the sheriff said;
  • sometimes the source of the information is so obvious that it does not need any direct attribution;
  • different media have different styles of attribution; in writing for print, attribution is often direct and obvious; in broadcast writing, attribution is often implied rather than directly stated.

Quoting and paraphrasing

Because newswriting depends so much on personal sources of information, you will do a lot of quoting and paraphrasing. Both terms refer to attributing information to a personal source.

Quoting (or sometimes we say a direct quotation) means using the exact words that the source used. A direct quote uses quotation marks (“ ”) around the words of the source and then gives the name of the source.

A paraphrase is when you change the words of a direct quotation or when you put what the speaker has said in your own words. This is sometimes called an indirect quotation.

Direct quotation:
“My opponent is distorting my record,” Bradley said.

Bradley said the vice president was distorting his record.

In writing an inverted pyramid news story, you should quote sparingly. There are several reasons for this.

One is that, as a trained news writer, you can generally say things more efficiently that your sources.

Another reason is that as a news writer, you are an interpreter for your readers. Lazy writers just dump a bunch of direct quotations on the reader as if to say, “Here, you figure it out.”

Still, you should use at least some direct quotation in your news stories when it is appropriate. Quoting directly gives your stories life and makes the sources seem more real.

Finally, two things about using direct quotation:

  • Notice how the quotation above is punctuated. Be sure to use the proper punctuation for your direct quotes.
  • The proper sequence for the elements in a direct quotation are direct quote, speaker, verb. Again, look at the example above.

Finally, . . . general tenets of good writing

UNDERSTAND what you are writing about; know your information, not just individual facts but their context and meaning.

UNDERSTAND whom you are writing for; have a picture of the audience and how it uses the medium for which you are writing

USE simple rather than complex language
o simple, familiar words
o direct sentences in rhythmnic structures; in other words, generally shorter sentences

WRITE in concrete terms (this is closely related to knowing what you are writing about)

• give facts rather than abstractions
• give details rather than generalizations
• develp an ear — know when enough is enough

READ and understand the forms and structures that you are using
• above all, READ

AVOID wordiness and the other writing diseases
o wordiness — redundancy and unnecessary repetition

  • clichés
  • jargon
  • bureaucratese

USE active, descriptive verbs
o avoid adjectives and adverbs unless absolutely necessary

EDIT AND REWRITE — these are a natural part of the writing process; build them in to the way you write.

Looking ahead

Next week we will begin talking about writing for the web.

That sometimes calls for a more concise way of writing than what you have been used to.

Still, we will be using the inverted pyramid structure a good bit.

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