Writing the Freelance Newspaper Article
By Cliff Hightower
The woman walked into the newsroom, handed
the editor her story, gave him a quick smile and left. He laid the story
down and continued typing on an editorial. After he finished, he picked the
story up, gave it a once-over and threw it back down on the desk.
"This story is ..." he said, ending his
sentence with an expletive usually not used for publication, but widely
known in newspaper offices across the country.
Within seconds, the boss rang up the
freelance reporter on the phone, gave her a lecture on the basics of
newspaper reporting and scolded her for not putting the most important
information toward the top of the story.
Yes, this is a true story.
And all that fuss was over a religion
Newspapers across the world publish
freelance material daily, intermixed with the writings of staff writers and
correspondents. But most journalists do not share one dark, tightly held
secret of many newsrooms with the public, and would absolutely not share it
with the freelance writer.
It is one thing to be rejected. It is
another thing for your story to be handed around the newsroom, perused by
editors and reporters and solemnly acknowledged as the joke of the day.
Many mistakes made by starting freelance
reporters can be easily corrected. It takes analyzing the newspaper a bit
and, most importantly, realizing that newspaper writing and reporting are
completely different from writing a school essay. Here are some suggestions
to solve the top mistakes freelancers or those who hope to become
1. As mentioned above, a newspaper story is
not an essay. I've seen stories come in with a lack of attribution and a
lack of sources. Newspaper writing is about what other people say, not about
what the writer says.
2. Dumb down the words and get rid of the
fancy adverbs. It surprises me to this day how many people want to write a
newspaper article filled with flowery images or, even worse, take the
technical jargon of their sources and stick it into the story. While the
lawyer may understand Latin phrasing throughout the story, 95% of the
reading public won't. Write for the reader.
3. The most important rule of all: write
for the reader. This is also the most controversial and problematic, and is
where those in the newsroom often don't see eye to eye with those who are
not. The source says, "You have to put something about Jimmy in the paper
because Jimmy was instrumental in getting this together." Many freelance or
beginning writers say, "Sure; I don't want to make source mad at me or he
might not tell me anything in the future." So, they put it in and an editor
cuts it. The writer is mad. The source is mad. The writer calls the source
and says, I put it in the story, it's the nasty newspaper people who cut it.
First of all, if Jimmy was instrumental in
getting the thing together, go talk to Jimmy and see what he says. If you're
writing for a larger newspaper, the focus of the story is information, not
people. Think of it this way: put your information through a test. Being a
former police reporter, I use the accident test. Ask yourself, when people
pass by a car accident and start rubber necking, what are they looking for?
Do they want to know the name of the cop who's taking the accident report?
Do they want to know the name of the ambulance driver taking the victim to
the hospital? The answer to both questions is no. They want to know the name
of the person in the accident to make sure it's not one of their own loved
ones or someone they know.
4. Beware of the New York Times
lead: the 40- to 50-word lead that keeps going and going and going. It is
the lead written by the avid newspaper reader who fancies his writing is
equal to that of the likes of Rick Bragg and Jenny 8. I turned in a few of
these leads myself during my first news writing class in college. I failed
every time I turned them in. One, the Times has its own style that
doesn't translate well to most other newsrooms. Two, most of those reporters
have been writing newspaper articles for years and know how to turn a
40-word sentence on a dime and make it translate well to most of their
I recommend that you pick up two books: The
AP Stylebook and The Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing.
When starting out in the world of journalism, first write for giving
information. As you progress in your news writing, you'll be able to find
ways to play with the language and develop your own style.
It will keep your stories from being
heavily edited. More importantly, it will keep them from being passed around
Cliff Hightower is a newspaper reporter
with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Chattanooga, Tenn. He is certain
the first news story he ever wrote and tried to freelance to the local paper
ended up passed around the newsroom. Years later, they hired him for some
Contact Cliff Hightower at email@example.com.