Writing advice for newbie newsie?
September 11, 2007 4:12 PM   Subscribe

Tips, tricks and pitfalls for someone writing short news items?

I'm about to start a new job, a large part of which will be writing small news items for internal communication purposes. These items will range from timely things like "Bob Jones in accounting has been working here since 1880" to public interest items like "How does the motor pool operate" to informational "How to change your benefits selections" items. Let's say 200 - 400 words. These stories will be produced often and regularly.

The problem is that, although I am a writer, I write fiction. I don't have any background or experience in journalism.

Basically, I am confident that eventually this will all be a breeze, but I'd like to get a head-start. What techniques, tricks, tips or workflows will seem obvious to me in six months, that I don't even know exist now?
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
One great list of tips to read... Writing News: A Quick Primer from MIT.

The key is to keep things clear, unambiguous and succinct. Being able to write in an inverted pyramid style off the cuff would be a significant advantage.
posted by wackybrit at 4:44 PM on September 11, 2007

A nice simple tip when writing news is this: Let the first paragraph contain a summary, or the most important information. "Bob Jones in accounting has been working here since 1880" would be a good start!

The basic idea is that after each paragraph, the article could end and still make sense. Each paragraph should build on the one before.
posted by Ted Maul at 4:44 PM on September 11, 2007

Inverted pyramid. And don't get fancy. These are short items, right? So let the facts speak for themselves.
posted by Airhen at 4:47 PM on September 11, 2007

Yes, wackybrit's inverted pyramid is what I'm getting at. Two years of journalism training and that's all the advice I have to offer, christ almighty...

Although if you need a quick lesson on the history of print I can help there too!

Or could have if I'd paid attention.

posted by Ted Maul at 4:48 PM on September 11, 2007

for a short item, i would in the first sentence or two cover your W's: who, what, where, when, and why. in the next 1-2, a little more detail. wrap up with whatever closing info seems appropriate.

bob jones in accounting is retiring this week after 127 years with cubefarm equities. he began fresh out of yale in 1880, where he majored in basketweaving, and soon spearheaded cubefarm's transition from the abacus to the slide rule. he is known among his colleagues for his grossly inappropriate sexist comments and his unremitting body odor. there will be a send-off party with cupcakes and punch in the 3rd floor conference room at 2 on friday.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:33 PM on September 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

Do you also have to come up with the story ideas? If so, you should spend a lot of your time just walking around talking to people you don't know. Over time you'll have built up a reservoir of people/things/ideas that sound just right for the next story.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:47 PM on September 11, 2007

It's easy. Make sure you include the 5 Ws (and sometimes throw in a "how"). (See thinkingwoman above, except use your shift key!)
Make the item endable after every paragraph (ie: each succeeding graf contains information that is less important than the one before.)
And crucial for a beginning news writer: don't get fancy. This is something it took me a while to learn, but the cuter or more florid you get, the less clear you are. You don't need to use "opined" or "breathed" or "declaimed" when "said" is almost always best. And no adverbs!
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:51 PM on September 11, 2007

small news items for internal communication purposes

I'm assuming you aren't the first person in the company to be doing this job.

Read the past and current articles for good examples of articles. (The retiring employee. The employee involved in the community. The employee with an interesting hobby. The employee with a new patent. Our company in the community. New parking rules. A reminder about a rule people have been breaking. The project success. The layoffs. The site closing. The promotion.) Because these stories have been published, you can be pretty sure these are your approved templates. Save copies or links for all of them, and try printing some so you can take a pencil to them, dissect them, and learn how they work.

Make a checklist of things to include in each type of story. You can even incorporate the samples into the checklists: create a table containing the sample story in the first column, one sentence per table row, and your own notes in the corresponding rows of the second column. Leave the third column empty -- that's where you'll write a clone of the sample article -- and leave the fourth column for "Done" or "TBD" or "Need exact date of project launch" and the like. After some practice, maybe you'll cut the first (sample) column from your templates.

When you go to write your own, get out the checklist and watch the facts. Make sure all the names, titles, places, statements, statement attributions, etc., are exactly as they should be.

In addition to the line-by-line guidelines, the template should have a list of things every story has to have: maybe legal approval, all trademarks checked, story read by a friendly reviewer, story read by subject of story (if it's a people piece), etc.

And it's internal corporate news with an internal PR purpose, right? So make it positive about everybody and everything in the company and out. If you can't think of something nice to write, write nothing. Even the negative news -- layoffs, perhaps -- have to sound positive for the company, good for the people staying behind, good for investors. People are leaving the company, it's unavoidable, but here is how the company is helping them in their transition. Tripe like that.

You need to get business stuff right (trademarks, rules for talking about stocks, etc.), so you need to learn the corporate guidelines and still have your pieces read and approved by someone who is familiar with the legalities involved. Don't put it on the intranet until you know you're safe. If you have a limited set of trademarks and such to learn, learn them, but also print them and put them on the wall over your desk.
posted by pracowity at 12:42 AM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

The advice above is all pretty good.

Before you worry about being interesting, make sure your first priority is to be clear. Avoid jargon or confusing words at all costs. Write small, short sentences. Especially stuff for company policy, you really don't want to be the source of confusion.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:16 AM on September 12, 2007

Kevin, is that you?
posted by klangklangston at 11:29 AM on September 12, 2007

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