One of the most important things to remember about media writing (or good writing in general) is that you aren’t writing for yourself. You are writing for your audience.
What makes for a good understanding of your audience, how best to reach your audience, how audience characteristics change your approach to writing and many other things have been covered thoroughly here before. Rather than rehash them, let’s boil everything down to two simple questions you need to answer for your readers:
- What happened?
- Why do I care?
This might seem overly simplistic, but then again so is the noun-verb-object structure and it works pretty well for most of us. To that end, think of these questions as the “core” of what you’re trying to do for your story, much in the same way that NVO provides the core for a good sentence.
QUESTION 1: WHAT HAPPENED?
To answer this question, you actually will want to start with some noun-verb-object construction to focus on the crucial aspects of the story you want to tell:
Brewers beat Cubs
Mayor blasts city council
University passes budget
The simplicity of each of these starter sentences provides you with the “who did what to whom/what?” content you need to best inform your readers as to the core theme of the story they need to read. Beyond that, you start filling in the additional elements of the 5W’s and 1H to help them see more of what happened (How badly did the Brewers beat the Cubs? Why is the mayor ripping the city council? What is in the university’s budget?) and then you can move them along to the next point in the piece.
When it comes to what you add to this, it’s a lot easier to point out what NOT to do than it is to tell you what you SHOULD do. A few avoid-at-all-cost elements include:
- Soft language: Simplicity is to be rewarded, so value concrete nouns and vigorous verbs. Don’t tell me someone “is no longer alive.” Tell me the person died. Don’t tell me a person “could potentially be found to be the robber.” Tell me “Police said Smith is a robbery suspect.” Direct and clear doesn’t mean cruel. (comedian George Carlin once noted that people should not be deemed “those with severe appearance deficits.” They’re just ugly.) It means being as clear as possible. Think about it this way, do you want your doctor telling you, “Well, it appears that you might have engaged in behavior that led to some significant health issues of the sexual nature which could potentially lead to some negative outcomes if not dealt with accordingly” when you go for an office visit? Or would you prefer: “You got an STI. Take this pill and you’ll be fine. Be more careful next time.”
- Jargon: What makes for jargon is a lot like beauty: It’s often in the eye of the beholder. This is why understanding your audience matters a great deal. Getting “a pair of Hookers” in car speak means a significant upgrade to your exhaust system. Getting “a pair of hookers” in cop speak can mean 30 days in jail to five years in prison. Think about how likely it is your audience will understand a concept before you use it. In many cases, you can find simpler and clearer words that will avoid your need to use the jargon. If you can’t, you probably want to include at least some form of explanation to your readers. If you find yourself doing this more than once or twice per story, reconsider what you’re doing.
- Self importance: Yes, marketing and branding are important elements of everything now, including news coverage. However, the more time you spend patting yourself on the back that you wrote something by including breathless statements like, “In an exclusive interview with the Star-Times” or “told the Herald-Press,” the less time you are spending telling people what they need to know. In many cases, you aren’t as exclusive as you think you are. In other cases, telling people that you guessed right first can really appear tasteless.
QUESTION 2: WHY DO I CARE?
This is the bigger one of the two, given that it’s easy to tell people what happened in most simple media-writing exercises. Why they should care? That involves understanding the audience well, understanding the impact of the topic at hand well and finding a way to pair the two successfully.
The first thing you have to understand is that something “being important” isn’t self-evident. The second thing you have to understand is that not everyone sees things the way you do. These issues came perfectly into focus for me once when a student wanted to write a story the UWO student newspaper about how the U.S. should annex Puerto Rico. Given the audience the paper serves, the lack of a newspeg and the general “WTH” reaction most of the staff had to the topic, I asked why our readers should care about this. The student’s response: “EVERYONE should care!”
Um… That’s not how this works.
While I was an editor at the Columbia Missourian at Mizzou, a colleague used to make students finish the sentence, “This matters because…” before the student could start the lead of the story. The point she wanted to make was: If you don’t know why it matters, you can’t tell me anything useful.
One of my more interesting moments involving the “this matters because” philosophy came here at UW-Oshkosh when our fundraising arm (the UWO Foundation) found itself in some hot water. At the time, the organization was considering bankruptcy and other unpleasant actions to deal with some serious financial problems. I remember asking my reporting students what they thought about the situation and they all stared at me blankly.
A subsequent conversation went something like this:
Student: Why should I care about this?
Me: How many of you get scholarships to attend UWO?
(All hands go up.)
Me: So where do you think most of that money is located?
Student: The foundation? So…
Me: Wait for it…
(Students all furiously start Googling UWO Foundation and Scandal)
As far as they knew, nothing going on over there mattered to them, which was the exact opposite of reality. In the end, things got resolved, but at the time it was worth at least a passing look for those students.
Look at every possible way you can think of to convey specific value to your readers when you are writing a story. Why should they care that the city council is raising property taxes? Maybe that means rents will go up. Why should they care about street construction? Maybe it means parking in their area will change. Why should they care about cuts to the health inspector’s budget? Maybe it means a little less inspection and some awful conditions at their local eateries.
The point is to find ways to relate what you are doing to your readers so they can see that your work has merit. It doesn’t have to come down to the level of a “See Dick and Jane” book, but don’t assume everyone knows what matters and why. Help them understand and care. This will improve their connection to the topic as well as to your media outlet in general.