Story guidelines and checklist

Writing tips

1. Writing checklist
Recommended by: Avi Bass, Northern Illinois University

Good writing has:
- Accurate information
- Interesting phrasing
- Appropriate word choices
- Clear transitions
- No misplaced modifiers
- Parallel construction
- Proper sequence of tensesCorrect grammar
- Correct spelling and punctuation

2. The great lede test
Recommended by: Kathy Norton, Poughkeepsie Journal

Read the lede (the first paragraph of your story) for your article. Now ask, does this sentence make you want to read the next sentence and the rest of the story?

3. Finding the focus
Recommended by: Chip Scanlan, Poynter Institute

Every story is about something. The best stories have a focus and a point. Try asking these questions:
- What's the news?
- What's the story?
- What information surprised me the most? What will surprise my reader?
- What one thing does my reader need to know?

4. Active language
Recommended by: Denny Wilkins, St. Bonaventure University

Everyone tells you to write using an "active voice." Anyone ever tell you how to do that? Here's one suggestion: try going through your story and highlighting every "are," "is," "were," and "was." Now find a way to rewrite the sentence using a stronger verb.

5. Edit your own copy
Recommended by: Denny Wilkins, St. Bonaventure University

It's almost impossible to edit your own copy. But try this out. Print out a copy of your article and read it backwards. This should help you see your copy through fresh eyes. Find any errors or awkward phrases?

6. Circling problem areas
Recommended by: Denny Wilkins, St. Bonaventure University

Go through your article and circle every period using a bright highlighter. Now look at the pattern of periods – looking for areas where you see longer sentences. See if this helps you identify sentences that may be too long.

Typically, longer sentences are where you find grammatical errors, needless prepositions and other impediments to good writing. See if the story has a good balance of long and short sentences.

7. Show me the details
Recommended by: Rene Kaluza, St. Cloud Times

Show, don't tell. (However, you have to have reported the details well to be able to do that.) Go through your article and see where it can benefit from using details to show the reader something rather than just telling them about it.

8. Finding the nutgraf
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, Assistant News Editor, IDG News Service

Highlight the nutgraf (the paragraph that explains the story’s news value) or put it in bold and go back to it as you write to make certain that the story supports it.

9. Quote alert
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, IDG News Service

Go on quote alert. Make sure every quote you use is worth using. Otherwise paraphrase.

10. Omit needless words
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, IDG News Service

Be on guard for words you don't need. Watch for phrases like "in order to" and others that add words without saying more.

11. What's the story worth?
Recommended by: Antoni M. Piqué, Mediaccion Consultores / Universidad de Navarra

Would you pay the price of your paper for THIS piece you are writing?

12. Are your lips moving?
Recommended by: Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Read your story out loud. You will hear awkward phrases and know if a sentence is too long or difficult to read.

13. Search and destroy
Recommended by: Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune

After your first draft do a computer search on weak words (there, it, etc.) or weak verbs (in my case) or adverbs (do a search on LY) or any other phrases or words you tend to use as a crutch, and then change them to something stronger.

14. Making a positive out of a negative
Recommended by: Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Convert negatives to positives – figure out a way to say what is, instead of what isn't. Saying what is usually shorter, clearer and more direct. (Obviously, there are times when for various writerly reasons you want to break this rule.)

Look for "not" and "wasn't" (or "isn't") or "no" and see if it makes sense to rewrite.

Examples: 
"The movie wasn't engaging and most people didn't stay for the end." 
Change to: "The movie was dull and people left early." or,
"The City Council vote was not unanimous."
Change to: "The council's vote was divided."

15. Toddler with a butcher knife
Recommended by: Lex Alexander, Greensboro News & Record

Trust yourself with adjectives the way you would trust a toddler with a butcher knife. Adjectives often imply subjective value judgments that your reporting might or might not support (and that readers will interpret as bias in either case).

Find objective terms for what you're trying to convey. Don't call the city council member "ineffective." Say he has set a record for missed meetings, was on the winning side of only two disputed votes in the past year and hasn't gotten a single motion or resolution enacted since taking office.

16. Who's the story about?
Recommended by: Carolyn Bower, Tampa Tribune

Never assume that the official view is the peg of the story. When I teach about writing, one of the points I urge reporters to consider is whose story is this.

One example:
"City commissioner John Higgins will apologise to the woman he ejected from a public meeting to settle her long and costly lawsuit against him, the city attorney's office said." (This is a classic case of the reporter forgetting he/she gathers information and then determines the direction of the story.)
Rewritten: "After two years of fighting city hall, Rita Moore, 72, is getting what she wanted: a formal apology from ex-mayor John Higgins."

Not perfect, but much, much better.

17. Read!
Recommended by: Lynn Kalber, The Palm Beach Post

My best tip is: read good writers. Actually, the basic is "Just READ!" – it's surprising how many reporters don't.

18. Tell that story in one word
Recommended by: Michelle Hiskey, Atlanta Journal Constitution

Attach a ONE WORD theme to your story – i.e. greed, monopoly, trust, hunger, etc. – to keep you focused.

Go through your article and see if you can apply one word to it – a theme as identified above. Then look back over your article and see if there are places in the story that deviate from this theme and therefore don't belong.

19. Details, details
Recommended by: John Hatcher, Center for Community Journalism

It's been said that great writing is rich with detail and lean on fluff. Go through your article and make sure the details show you were paying attention, not just to what people were saying, but to where they were saying it, how they were saying it, and what was going on around them as it was being said.

20. The great jargon hunt
Recommended by: Unknown

Highlight all jargon words – words used by public officials, police officers and sports writers that may not make any sense to the average readers. See if you can find a way to translate them for the reader.

21. Steve's favorites
Recommended by: Steve Buttry, Omaha World-Herald

Write as you report. Don't wait until you've gathered all your information to start telling the story. Don't insist on writing the lede first. Sometimes the process of writing the story will bring out the best lede.

Write without notes. Notes can be a distraction. The story should be in your head and your heart. Go back to the notes for fact-checking.

22. Before you write
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, IDG News Service

Organise notes and information, developing a system that works for you. Different color inks, stars, whatever. Use story wheels or write down key points of the story before you write so that you don't forget any of the elements you want to include.

23. Walk away
Recommended by: Nancy Weil, IDG News Service

Provided you aren't on right-this-second deadline, get up and move around when you're working on long stories or stories with difficult topics.

Go to your favorite store and immerse yourself in the tactile pleasures of shopping for 15 or 20 minutes, relax and let your mind go where it wants with the story.

Breaking news

During breaking news situations, unverified information, rumors, fake photos and outright lies are unfortunately part of the process in social media. As a fact-checker, you don’t want to spread false information or spend time chasing a rumour. But how can you tell?

Here’s a “red flag” checklist to consult during a breaking news event:
- “Answers” given too soon
- Anonymous sources
- News sources cite other news sources
- Language like “We are getting reports ... ” or “We are seeking confirmation ... ”
- Talk of “second shooter” or other speculation
- Verify suspicious images or photos using reverse image searches or other photo-checking techniques

Source: http://www.poynter.org/