Last week, I wrote an article on how to organise a news story and make its structure work well for both the reporter and the reader. A story that is constructed properly under the journalistic norms of storytelling will not only pass the editor’s litmus test, but enables a more pleasant experience for the end-user getting ready to buy their Saturday paper at the newsagents…or browsing the news site for their daily digest of current affairs.
This week, we delve deeper into the art of writing an arresting intro. The word ‘intro‘ in newswriting jargon is a shortened form of the noun ‘introduction’. This is a term commonly used among British journalists. American newshounds and journalism professors prefer the term ‘lede‘ or its alternative spelling ‘lead‘. What all these words mean is the foundation from which you build out a news story, and as you will find out, is actually the most important element of a news story structurally speaking. This article aims to give tips on how to make your intro work for you.
An example of a brief and inviting intro from a London news site.
Your intro is not just a means of getting an angle on a story. It should also grab the reader’s attention. An average newspaper or magazine will have dozens of articles all vying for the attention of a reader’s eyes. On top of that, these articles will have to compete with pictures, advertisements and other functional devices concealed between the pages, such as TV guides, weather updates and the like. Your average newspaper, magazine or website is a very busy place.
Your intention as a journalist is to make the reader spot your headline, become intrigued and begin reading your article. This is more important nowadays as readers can have busy lives, therefore limited time to spend consuming news. For example, I travel to and from work every working day on public transport (bus and train). My total journey takes about an hour, of which 45 minutes are spent commuting on the Underground here in London. I always pick up a free newspaper before boarding the train. On average it takes me about half an hour to read that paper from front page to back. As a reader, I have a finite amount of time to digest everything, and so I skim the pages seeking out articles that attract my attention. If I read everything but the advert for the kitchen sink from B&Q, I would never finish that paper in time. So I cherrypick. I scan the headlines and if a story picks up on my interest radar, I jump in. If the intro keeps me interested, then it is more likely I will spend the next two minutes reading the story. As a journalist you want to get everyone hooked on your story.
The best way to bring in your reader is to place the most important information of your story at the very start. Before you begin writing, ask yourself “So, what is the story?” and then simply get down and write that story.
The main point or crux of the story should inevitably come first. This can be the most interesting, most important or most unusual point of your story. This will be the bait that hooks and reels in the reader.
Moving on from the intro but still relative to it, you want to first start off with what is new to the reader. You cannot spell ‘news’ without ‘new’. Save the history or background for later in the story. If you first start with the background, you risk making the reader think that it is probably a historical article from an encyclopaedia and might cause them to turn the page for their next news hit. Remember, time is everything.
Almost certainly, your intro needs to answer a few key questions. Feature the WHO and WHAT. It is usually rarer that WHEN, WHY, HOW and WHERE form the main questions in an intro. WHEN ? might be good for breaking news, although as readers have come to expect news to always be instant and breaking, it has lost its lustre. Do not forget the HOW MANY and HOW MUCH. Even if you cannot fully answer these sacred questions all in the intro, you can use the next paragraph or two to fill the reader in on those answers.
Helpful guidelines for the effective intro:
1. Aim to keep your intro to twenty words or fewer. Above twenty words, intros become a bit complicated which may put off or put too much effort on the shoulders of the casual reader who is just flipping through. More difficult intros may well explain the story better but may result in fewer pairs of eyes on your article. The easier your intro is to understand, the more people will read it and progress to the rest of your story.
2. Make your intro ACTIVE, not PASSIVE. This gives the intro more ‘here and now’ and makes it more exciting to read. So for example, say “Alan beats the student” not “The student was beaten by Alan” (lecturer’s disclaimer:….beaten at chess of course).
3. Try to write in the present tense, as your story is now and new = news. For stories concerns events happening in the near future, it is of course perfectly fine to use future tense instead. The past tense should ideally be avoided this early in the story. You can use the present perfect to help orient events that happened in the recent past. So you can say “Arsenal has won a reprieve from UEFA” (present tense) as it sounds more inviting (and less formal) than saying “Arsenal was reprieved by UEFA” (past tense).
4. Generally, you should avoid ‘subordinate clauses’ such as “considering” and “despite” in the entire body of the story, but especially in the intro.
5. Do not start a news story with a question. Although in some rare cases, asking a question might add to the readability of a story, under normal circumstances, it is you, the journalist, who is supplying the factual information of course, so making the reader have to do guesswork may just switch them off entirely. You have only a few seconds to catch a reader’s attention, so expecting their brain to have to leap a hurdle with your story as the prize will mean them possibly giving up and turning down the prize. Ultimately, your role is to inform, not ask questions.
6. Avoid negatives. You do not need to tell readers what is not happening. Use words like “refuse”, “deny” and “turn down” rather than “no” or “not”.
7. If your news story involves a professional organisation, governmental department or any sort of official body, do not mention the body’s full title in your intro. So for example, if your story is about the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, do not mention the institute’s name in the intro. You can call them ‘accountants’ in the intro and introduce the full organisation name later on. Including official titles not only stretches your intro’s word count to difficult lengths, but makes it sound dull and bureaucratic as well, which is especially devastating for tabloid stories.
8. Another no-no is beginning your intro with a quote. Quotes work best when we know who is talking and in what context they have said this quote in. Starting with a quote will just confuse the reader and they will have no idea what is going on.
9. As a journalist, you will be aware that your article will be read by many people of many backgrounds, with or without expert knowledge on the subject of the story you are typing up. Unless you are writing for a specialist publication, do not assume that the readers will know what you are talking about. Avoid the overuse of initials and jargon. If you need to use a technical term or unusual acronym then follow it with a one-sentence explanation or spell out the acronym.
10. Take time to read your intro out loud and take the ‘So What?’ test. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and ask yourself “Do I want to read this article?….”Does it pass?”….Is it good?”.
11. Do not insert your opinions, no matter how strongly you feel about the news subject. Keep things impartial and objective. Keep an eye on your spelling and grammar. Be friends with your spellchecker and dictionary and use them often when drafting stories. As your intro has a word count, steer clear of unnecessary words and sentences. Read the intro at least two or three times and prune back any unneeded wording. Lastly avoid using the first person. Save that for your future autobiography on your exceptional career in journalism.
Next weekend, we take a look at house style – a means by which news organisations standardise spelling, grammatical and linguistic output of their journalist’s copy.