Not long ago, if you wanted to be a writer, there was one thing you inevitably wound up doing at the outset of your career: you became a journalist.
Charles Dickens, Maya Angelou, H.P. Lovecraft, Frank Herbert, Ernest Hemingway, George Sand, Dorothy Parker, Margaret Mitchell, Ian Fleming, Joan Didion, Jack London, Neil Gaiman — you’re almost better off asking which writers didn’t spend their formative years working as a journalist. You can even add me to the list; I got my start as a professional writer working at a newspaper in Seattle. I loved it so much I wrote a thriller, False Memoir: Based on an Untrue Story, inspired by my experiences.
The number one job of a journalist is to tell stories — compelling, relevant, truthful stories. To do this, journalists use writing techniques they’ve been perfecting for decades. And the good news is, these techniques are helpful for all writers. Whether you’re a poet, novelist, blogger, copywriter or aspiring reporter, learning how to write like a journalist is guaranteed to make you a better writer and storyteller.
What is a journalist?
You’ve seen them in movies and read about them in books: reporters ranging from merely ambitious to zealously aggressive who dodge bullets, shout intrusive questions, and jockey with rivals from other news agencies to get “the scoop” before deadline.
The reality is a bit more complicated and a lot less melodramatic.
As the American Press Institute defines it, journalism is simply “the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities.”
The product can be an article, photo, video, broadcast, or even a tweet.
Unlike medicine or law, you don’t need formal training or special licensing to write like a journalist. A journalist’s goal is to “find not just the facts, but also the ‘truth about the facts’” explains the American Press Institute. For that reason, “journalism can be produced by anyone.”
The truth about the facts is what every writer seeks to uncover, whether they’re writing a haiku, an essay, a one-shot, or a journal entry. Even in the most fanciful fiction, clearly presenting an accurate picture of the world as the author envisions it is the key to producing great work.
How to write like a journalist
You don’t need to get a degree in journalism or work as a reporter to write like a journalist. These five tips will help you grasp the ins and outs of the style, and give you ideas for how you can incorporate it into your writing.
1. Gather information
What are you going to write about? What’s the story you want to tell? A journalist builds a story by collecting a set of information known as the Five Ws.
Who: Who is this story about?
What: What did they do? What happened to them?
Where: Where did the story take place?
When: When did the events occur?
Why: Why did it happen?
And the bonus H …
How: How was it done?
When gathering the information that answers these questions, the main objective of the journalist is accuracy. Direct quotes, either recorded or written down during an interview, careful observation, and lots of research are the building blocks of that accuracy. Journalism organizations like Poynter, NPR and The Society of Professional Journalists have tons of free resources and online trainings that can teach you how to gather and confirm facts, accurately and legally record interviews, do intensive research, correctly attribute information, and more.
Remember: trust, but verify. This includes what other people tell you, what you (think) you saw and heard, data you found on Wikipedia, and even your own memory. To paraphrase the advice of a heavy metal guitarist I once listened to, eloquent writing is a byproduct of accuracy.
2. Identify an angle
The angle can make or break a story. It’s sometimes called the sixth W, as in, “Why are you telling me this?” Or, if you like your Ws a little more blunt, “Who cares?”
The way you answer the question is your angle. Why are you telling me that there was a forest fire six hundred miles from where I live? Because it caused air pollution to skyrocket in your town and health officials are recommending that everyone stay indoors. Who cares that the governor signed a bill I’ve never heard of? You do, because that bill just increased your taxes by 30%.
Your angle will depend on your audience. By knowing what they care about, you’ll be able to find the most interesting and relevant angle for your story.
Whether it’s a business email, a short story, or a social media post, if you ask yourself “Why am I telling people this?” and if you give them a reason to care about what you’re telling them, your writing will be stronger.
3. Structure your story
Remember when I mentioned the writing techniques that journalists have been perfecting for decades? The Five Ws is one of these techniques. Another is the formula journalists use to structure their stories. It’s called the inverted pyramid.
The inverted pyramid is a reliable, flexible, one-size-fits all template for telling stories like a journalist. It was developed during the early days of journalism when newspapers were the dominant form of media.
Some say it was popularized by the introduction of the telegraph for use in war reporting; in case the telegraph signal was interrupted, reporters relayed the essential details of their news story first and left less critical information for the end of the transmission.
Others believe it’s a hold-over from the era before word processors, when the amount of space that could be devoted to each story wasn’t certain until the entire newspaper was laid out for the printing press. If there wasn’t enough room for the entire article, the less important parts at the end could be cut, leaving the bulk of the story unchanged.
As you can see, the story elements at the bottom of the pyramid that are considered omittable include things like the conclusion, extra details about what happened, and quotes from sources involved in the story. More important are the background of the story (events in the past that caused the story to take place or influenced how it occurred) and the Five Ws.
At the top of the inverted pyramid is the most important part of the story: the lede. This isn’t a typo, though it’s pronounced (and sometimes spelled) “lead.” The lede, as NPR explains, is “the introduction — the first sentences — that should pique your readers’ interest and curiosity. … It sets the tone and pace and direction for everything that follows.”
In a traditional news story, the lede typically includes as many of the Five Ws as possible. This is the lede of a news story I wrote for Reuters:
Four people were killed in two separate avalanches near Washington state ski resorts on Sunday, but eight others initially said to be missing were found alive, authorities said.
Who: Four people
What: Were killed
Where: Near Washington state ski resorts
Why and How (they’re the same thing in this case): Two avalanches
Ledes aren’t just for news. In everything from ads and memoirs to blog posts and case studies they hook the reader and keep them reading.
In the lede for The Virgin Suicides, for example, Jeffrey Eugenides gives his readers everything they need to know about the backstory of his novel, as well as a killer hook:
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
Edgar Allen Poe does the same in his open lines to the poem “Annabel Lee”
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
Writing a good lede takes practice. Which brings us to …
4. Write for your readers, not yourself
When you write like a journalist, your job is to write clear, concise, simple prose that’s unambiguous and unopinionated. You might love a flowery, intricately constructed sentence filled with commas, semi-colons and ellipses, but your reader probably doesn’t. Jargon, archaic words you found in the thesaurus, and dense compound sentences are best avoided.
Use simple words and short sentences. Never assume the reader “knows what you mean.” Spell it out for them, and that includes background information that “everyone knows.” And keep the story focused on the facts. Speculation and personal judgement aren’t relevant — leave it to your readers to form their own opinions.
5. Be curious
Don’t just write like a journalist, think like a journalist.
The thing I loved most about being a journalist was the fact that I was allowed to be nosy. I got to ask people all kinds of questions and nobody was offended. They knew I was just doing my job. They expected, and often wanted, to be asked, in fact.
As you write, be curious and don’t be afraid to ask questions. They call it “news” for a reason — ask the people you meet “What’s new?”
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.