A quick guide to writing compelling pieces
At its heart, the Project for Better Journalism is about, well, journalism. It’s impossible for our organization to achieve goals of transparency and communication without each of our chapters remaining true to its roots as a news and media outlet for its school. This means that our journalists and their ability to put together compelling content form the bulk of our efforts.
This is a brief guide on how to write compelling pieces as a Project journalist.
Here are the key guidelines to writing compelling pieces. If you don’t remember anything else, commit to the following guidelines each time you write:
- Good journalism focuses on specific events, people, or dates – not overviews of organizations.
- Good journalism is impartial and neutral. Don’t inject your own opinion or thoughts.
- Good journalism desires a human touch from those it affects. You should try to interview as many people as you can, and understand the story from all sides.
- Good journalism is visual – if possible, include photographs or other content.
- Good journalism is professional and news-worthy: keep your grammar and language impeccable.
Good journalism focuses on specific events, people, or dates – not overviews of organizations.
Readers are always compelled by something of interest. Therefore, PBJ articles need to focus on something specific. In particular, the focus generally needs to be on a particular event, person, or day. Articles about a sports competition, banquet, specific teacher, or holidays are good.
Avoid articles that broadly describe an organization in general. We don’t want an overview of what a student club does; instead, tell us what that club is doing. Are they holding a fundraiser or sponsoring a volunteer event? When is this event happening? Or perhaps the leadership or faculty adviser has just changed. Approach writing from this angle, and focus on specific occurrences.
It’s okay, even helpful, to provide a brief overview of an organization in context. If club leadership has just changed, tell us that first. Then, in the second or third paragraph, provide a summary of what the club does. Never open an article with an overview.
Good journalism is impartial and neutral. Don’t inject your own opinion or thoughts.
Like all newspapers and magazines, the Project has a reputation to uphold. As a newsworthy organization, it’s not appropriate for our content to take sides, nor is it appropriate for our journalists to inject their own opinion.
Everything in journalism must be attributable. Only state fact and attributed opinion. As a neutral journalist, you can’t say that a club is “great,” or that an event is “worth attending” – but someone else can. “The co-presidents of the club invite all students to attend” is fine; “Come out to have a great time!” is not.
Deliver all statements as fact. Be wary whenever using adjectives or adverbs, as you might unintentionally be taking a stance. If you want to include a piece of opinion, find someone to back the statement up and then attribute them. Usually, organization heads, faculty members, and administrators are good authority sources. You can also express general sentiment without listing names: “the student body seemed to bustle with excitement.”
Good journalism desires a human touch from those it affects. You should try to interview as many people as you can, and understand the story from all sides.
After learning that anything opinionated needs a source, you might be worried. But don’t be – these sources are almost always easy to find in the process of writing the piece. In fact, without them, your story would be rather bland and flat.
When writing an original story, it’s almost always necessary to find people who are either causing something to happen (event organizers, etc.) or people who are affected by what’s happening (students, attendees, etc.). We call the former “authority sources” and the latter “sentiment sources.”
Try to find both authority and sentiment sources in a story – we’ll understand an event better, for example, if you write about what the organizers are doing and what the attendees are expecting. If you can find opposing points of view (“counterpoints”), it will make your piece much better-rounded.
You shouldn’t feel pressure to find people – you can contact them on Facebook or meet them in person – but you should budget time for interviewing these sources. They are very important.
Good journalism is visual – if possible, include photographs or other content.
When you can enhance your writing with visual work, it helps. A photograph is truly worth a thousand words.
When taking pictures of people and events, try not to have your subjects pose. Catch them in action, working or attending an event, and if not possible, fake it. Ask them to pretend they’re working – it works.
Remember to make sure that everyone photographed AND identifiable have given their permission to appear in the photograph. Willingly posing for a photograph is considered implicit permission. Large crowds where faces are not identifiable are also okay.
Good journalism is professional and news-worthy: keep your grammar and language impeccable.
Remember that you represent your chapter, school, and larger organization when you write. Keep your work professional by following the other rules, but be sure to keep your grammar in tip-top shape. Don’t worry about using large words. Staying away from embellishing words (“great”, “exciting”, “fun”), exclamation marks, and useless statements (“Come out and have fun!”) will make your article much more authentic.
Remember that your titles need to be in title case, and need to pertain to a specific event. If a date is known, it should be provided in full form (“September 2”, not “this Friday”).
Remember that the first paragraph of your article needs to be a brief overview of the subject of the story. The first paragraph can be short. It should be no less than two sentences.