Sarah Beth Costello
March 1, 2009
While this advice is helpful to some, it is illogical for journalists. The details, quotes, ledes, conclusions and content (the small stuff) makes a story more than words on a page. The “small stuff” can bring an article to life, give it a personal touch and captivate an audience.
Organizing details, creating outlines, choosing pertinent quotes and story substance is not easy and requires work and practice. The goal of a journalist should be to attract and pull in an audience. Rather than bore readers with a plethora of statistics and detailed information, tell a story and make your article personal.
TELL THE STORY
Consider the following ledes from two separate articles concerning the toy company, Magnetix:
“Federal regulators recalled about 1 million cribs Friday because the drop rail on some of the nation’s best-selling models can detach from the crib’s frame, creating a dangerous gap that has led to the deaths of at least three children.”
“Sharon Grigsby pleaded with the operator at the federal safety hot line…”
Both articles won Pulitzer Prizes in 2008 yet the reporters chose to tackle the issues with Magnetix using different approaches. The first lede is from the article, “Deaths Spur Huge Crib Recalls,” by Chicago Tribune staff reporter, Maurice Possley. Possley’s lede immediately presents some of the most relevant information in the first sentence. Rather than involving the audience and telling a story, Possley chose to stick to the facts, sources, problems and the data.
The second article, “Not Until a Boy Died,” is immediately presented as a human-interest piece. The first sentence is full of emotion, trauma and struggle. The staff reporter, Patricia Callahan, tells a story, but also presents facts, quotes and information about an important issue.
TIPS FROM BRANT HOUSTON
Brant Houston devoted an entire chapter of “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” to writing a “compelling” article. Houston discusses the importance of leads and immediately involving your readers in what they are reading. Callahan succeeded at telling a story while also presenting a well-written and well-researched investigative piece.
Possley’s article was also well written (which is not only evident in his work, but also in the prizes he received). Possley, however, did not engage readers as Callahan did. An anecdotal or descriptive lede might have been more successful.
Writing a good article can be stressful. Houston explained that some reporters are better at reporting, while some are better at writing. It is important to be good at both in order to excel as a reporter.
When writing an investigative article, always “keep the outrage in sight.” It is not rare to discover that you have strayed far from the topic at hand. But do not lose track of the main aspect or point of your article. For instance, if you are writing about a local drug dealer that has been charged with first-degree murder, don’t concentrate your article on his drug-dealing operation. Your focus should be on the key players.
Another important point to remember is that people should always be in the “foreground.” Readers are most interested about the human aspect of a story. You may have stumbled upon a good story that does not appear directly involve people, but there is usually always an angle. It might require some digging, but a good investigative journalist is willing to get his hands dirty.
When writing your article, remember that your readers are real human beings that do not want to be lectured. Readers do not enjoy being fed sentences, upon sentences of detailed information and jargon.
There is a common misconception that simplification is dummying down. This is not the case. Simplifying information not only makes an article more readable, it can also make it more enjoyable.
Always be courteous as a writer. It is important to remember that your readers are just as busy or busier than you are. The readers have jobs, families and responsibilities and often do not have a lot of time to devote to newspaper reading. Remember to focus on the “small stuff.” Include details and important information. But at the same time, keep it simple, only include the necessary information and avoid fluff.
IT’S A WRAP
Concluding an article can be a stressful chore. Sometimes the conclusion leads to another paragraph, which leads to another and before you know it, you’ve written 300 more words that should be condensed to 35.
Houston explains that the conclusion should provoke thought and emotion in your readers. Some reporters choose to conclude with a wrap-up quote. Some prefer an element of surprise (which can backfire).
Don’t settle for the cute or cliché. Remember to keep it simple and conclude your article in a way to make the ending more than a jumble of words in a half-hearted attempt at an end to a good story.