Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Writing the Freelance Newspaper Article

By Cliff Hightower
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 piece.

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 freelancers make:

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 readers.

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 the newsroom.

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 reason.
Contact Cliff Hightower at