News Writing and Reporting: A Writer's Guide
News Writing and Reporting: A Writer's Guide

News Writing and Reporting: A Writer's Guide

Lead Author(s): John Kroll

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The purpose of this text is to practice writing for professional communications.

Why This Course Matters

Have you posted a tweet? Written a paper with footnotes for a college class? Constructed a poem? All of those are forms of writing with their own characteristics. In this course, you will practice writing for professional communications. This is not like other forms you may have used.

Writing for interpersonal communication includes emails and letters sent through snail mail, as well as tweets and other social media posts that you put up mostly to talk with your friends.

Academic writing includes term papers as well as shorter pieces you may have written for classes, such as the “five-paragraph essay” format.

Creative writing can be fiction or poetry.

Writing for journalism or public relations can appear in print, on websites or in social media.

All these have some things in common. For example, they all impose certain formats (more or less). Tweets are limited to 280 characters; academic writing may require you to use MLA or APA style. Even in creative writing, certain poetic forms set rules for which syllables are stressed or how many syllables are in a line.

Each has stylistic elements (more or less). When you email a friend, you probably use informal language; you may use words, acronyms or abbreviations only you and your friends understand. When you write a term paper, you probably tend to use longer words and sentences.

You’ve been writing in one or more of those other forms for many years. You’re used to them. You may not be aware  you’re following certain styles, or you may be so familiar with them that you don’t have to think about them; you just write.

Warning: To do well in this course, you will have to break many of those habits. Let us repeat: To do well in this course, you will have to break many of those habits. 

Style: You may have worked and worked to learn APA style for previous classes. In this course, you will use a different set of rules, from the Associated Press Stylebook (also known as AP style). The AP Stylebook is a mix of rules -- some about grammar and punctuation, some about preferred spellings, some about topics such as how to refer to someone who’s been accused of a crime.

The stylebook is stuffed with such rules -- and the printed book (or e-book) doesn’t even contain all of them. More are listed in the online version of the book, and even more are not listed but instead are mentioned in a question-and-answer section of the site. Here’s some good news: This book includes a boiled-down set of AP style rules, covering the most common issues.

Grammar: In addition to AP style, this book will provide other grammar rules. Some of these may differ from things you’ve learned (or thought you learned) in other classes. That can be confusing, but this course’s rules are designed to prepare you for the type of writing expected by most employers in journalism or public relations.

Tone: Professional writing has its own tone. When you email your friends, you may not even use complete sentences. When you write term papers, you may write sentences several lines long, with multiple clauses, in paragraphs that stretch on for a third of a page or more. In professional writing, we use standard grammar and punctuation. We write mostly short, simple sentences. In basic news stories and news releases, paragraphs are usually short -- one to three sentences. Our words are short, too, when possible, and we use as few as we can.

Truthfulness: Unlike creative writing, professional writing must be based on facts. Opinion has a role in journalism -- movie or music reviews, for example -- but not in this book. Here, we will not teach you to express your opinion in your writing. You will not praise or criticize. You may quote others who do so, but you won’t do it on your own.

Ego-stroking: First-person writing (I did this, I saw that, he told me) has a role in professional writing, too -- but not in this book. You will keep yourself out of your stories. You can describe what you saw, but without mentioning yourself.

Who you’re writing for: The most important difference between professional writing and other forms is how you think about your audience.

Journalists write for large audiences. Some of the style rules and such were crafted specifically because of that. When you write in this course, you will have to think about whom you’re writing for.  You will have to remind yourself your audience doesn’t know everything you know. You will have to explain and provide context.

Chapter 1 Question 1

Which of these characterize professional communication as outlined in this book? (Click as many as apply)

A

AP style

B

APA style

C

Fiction

D

Fact

E

Complex sentences

F

Short¸ simple sentences

Chapter 1 Question 2

Here are some statements about writing. Which ones are most applicable to journalism and other professional communication? (Click as many as apply)

A

"But my way of writing is rather to think aloud¸and follow my own humours¸ than much to consider who is listening to me; and¸if I stop to consider what is proper to be said to this or that person¸ I shall soon come to doubt whether any part at all is proper." (Thomas de Quincey)

B

"Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." (Elmore Leonard)

C

"Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures." (Jessamyn West)

D

"Important information has always been best conveyed with grandiloquence." (Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani )

E

"There can be no higher law ... than to tell the truth and to shame the devil." (Walter Lippman)

F

"Simple sentence structures and transparent paragraph structure lead the reader to continue reading." (Lynette Sheridan Burns)

On top of all those differences, there’s more complexity. AP style rules apply to writing for print and websites. Professional communicators use social media, too, so you need to know special rules for tweeting and such. Finally, the news release -- a standard tool in public relations -- has its own quirks, and you will learn a basic format for that. (Broadcast has its own styles and tone, but this book doesn't address them.)

Let us repeat one more time:

To do well in this course, you will have to break many of your writing habits.

We understand this is difficult. Grammar, punctuation and similar issues are only a part of this course. You will also learn what makes a story worth writing, how to structure stories and how to find facts. Let’s get started.