How can I acquire newswriting skills?
September 25, 2007 8:33 PM   Subscribe

How can I acquire newswriting skills?

Currently I am working as a 'Scientific Associate', and I occasionally write reports for physicians and specialists.

I would really like to learn to write well. More specifically, write like a journalist and write short news pieces that can engage the average person on the street.

My work schedule is unpredictable so I cannot commit to a class (set in a physical classroom at a preset time). I also frequently work more than 40 hours a week so will not have time to write for a newspaper (although on my own, I will try to acquire 'clips').

So, hive mind, can anyone recommend an online
introductory news writing class? One that frequently provides individual feedback? Or a really good textbook for the journalism basics? Any outside the box suggestions?

posted by Wolfster to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I've just completed a course in professional writing as part of my multimedia degree and the textbook they used Public Relations Writing by Doug Newsom and Jim Haynes. The biggest aspects of this seem to be using active voice instead of passive, introducing a "talent" correctly, and covering the who, what, where, how, why, when, which I would assume you would do anyway.

Unfortunately, I think from my wordy response, I have not learnt enough but on the upside I recently wrote a press release that was picked up by the state media.
posted by b33j at 8:38 PM on September 25, 2007

Get familiar with the Inverted Pyramid.

Check out the folks from Poynter.

Read a few books.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:51 PM on September 25, 2007

On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a good start.
posted by nitsuj at 8:58 PM on September 25, 2007

few things will teach you about writing as effectively as writing frequently—start a blog and commit to posting at least one short piece a day in the style you're aiming for. after a few months, compare your current output to what you started out doing and to how you would like it to be. you can read every book on writing out there, take every writing class, but there really is nothing like just plugging away. if you're honest with yourself about what you want and what your strengths and weaknesses are, you will learn to write how you want to.
posted by lia at 10:33 PM on September 25, 2007

You'll want a copy of the AP Stylebook too (which is fun to read even if you don't have journalistic aspirations.)

I know you said you don't have time for a class, but if and when the time comes a journalism class at a community college will not only teach you much of what you need to know but also allow you to get some experience (and clips) writing for the school paper (just make sure they have one before you sign up.)

Dig around your community for free press style papers - they often are looking for talent and though they probably won't pay you it'll be another chance to get experience and clips.

Really, the most important part of writing like a professional journalist is reading news copy extensively every day. If you're not picking through one or two daily papers each day then you're doing it wrong. If you were wanting to write a novel, then I'd advise otherwise, but news writing isn't supposed to be original - only communicative, thus the "rules" are largely universal from one outlet to the next.
posted by wfrgms at 10:37 PM on September 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Rather than jump straight in to one-on-one, cold journalistic interviews, why not try writing about things that are close to home?

Interview your friends about their professions/quirks/obsessions, etc., or go to a local gathering/city hall meeting/ author talk. Cover it to the best of your ability, taking and incorporating notes. Then go to the store and buy an AP style guide (which is NOT fun to read, no offense wfrgms) and go to town on yourself.

After you feel confident with a product, share it with folks at local alternative newspapers. If you have any good ones in your area, they should be open to critical response.
posted by macrowave at 11:14 PM on September 25, 2007

I found this book to be very easy to read and understand.

Don't limit yourself to alternative papers -- small town dailies are usually limited in their hiring/freelancer pool and may have the time/resources to coach you, as well.
posted by lemoncello at 11:56 PM on September 25, 2007

Online you could check out News U. They have lots of interactive tutorials. Maybe have a hunt around Media Bistro - they offer online classes that, I think, will give you individual feedback from a tutor.

For books, can you order from Amazon? Donald M Murray's Writing to a Deadline is a great introduction. (Sorry, no link, slow dialup connection just now.) Or if your local college has a library that you can access, just go there and plug 'news writing' into the catalogue. You're bound to hit something that will give you the basics.

But really, the best and most plentiful resource is, well, the news. Start reading, listening to, and watching journalism as a producer, rather than a consumer, of news.

Grab the paper, or listen to the six o'clock bulletin, or pick up your favourite science magazine with a pen in your hand.

Start thinking about what the writers have done to make the journalism you're reading.

Ask yourself how they've led into the story - with an anecdote? A summary of who, what, when, where, why, whatever? A tease? A pun? A question?

What questions would they have had to ask to gather the quotes and background in the story?

How have they attributed their quotes? Used dialogue to move things along? Linked their pars?

What did you like about the piece? What did you hate? How did it end?

In short: read as much journalism as you can, think about what you're reading and start working to replicate that.
posted by t0astie at 2:29 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Writing well for news almost always means the result can be read aloud clearly, with no ambiguity about meaning. I sharpened these skills by writing public service announcements and news items for a local radio station. If there is a college or public access station near you, try to volunteer one hour a week with them. In my experience, continuity, production and news departments are almost always short of people who want to write copy. You will also get editorial feedback and the pleasure of hearing something you wrote on-air.
posted by methylsalicylate at 2:52 AM on September 26, 2007

In addition to lemoncello's book I'd suggest this one. Other than that, read news until your eyes hurt and practice.
posted by starman at 6:46 AM on September 26, 2007

seconding starman's suggestion of the jack hart book. i'd've made it myself. its excellent.
posted by letahl at 7:56 AM on September 26, 2007

Basic news writing is really easy, once you get it down.

Learn the inverted pyramid. Put the most important news first. Think of it this way: if you see something awful happen and you run to tell them, what will you tell them first? That goes first. What will you be wondering about three days later? That goes last.

When you have that mastered, the next trick is to consider your audience. What are people actually going to care about? A lot of news is boring, and if you can find a hood or a relevant angle people are much more likely to read it.

Once you have figured out how to write interesting, relevant inverted pyramid stories, go out and buy a book about narrative.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:13 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think Lia has a good answer. Writing for blogs can be an excellent way to hone your skills. You might consider starting your own, but you may also find it useful to simply offer to guest post at existing blogs. It seems strange to be recommending this as an actual outlet for writing, but the fact is it's a perfectly valid option.
posted by jdroth at 8:16 AM on September 26, 2007

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