Reflections from a Student Journalist

Journalism is alive at Wesleyan—in the Argus, within smaller publications, on Wesleying and other student blogs, and, most recently, in the curriculum, in the form of Forward Editor Jane Eisner’s course, “The Journalist as Citizen.”

Innumerable books and websites are dedicated to explaining the precepts of journalistic writing, and countless universities offer undergraduate and/or graduate programs in the field. Accordingly, this post will not attempt to do any more than to cover the very basics of writing an article. Yet on a campus and in a culture alive with active citizenship, it seems worthwhile to open this form up to a general readership, so as to encourage engagement and participation with this indispensable medium.

Journalism is about stories and information—investigating, reporting, and spreading news and ideas. Good journalistic writing is concise, incisive, informative, entertaining, poignant, revelatory, and easy to consume and to comprehend.

The power of journalistic writing extends far beyond both the basic civic necessity of information gathering as well as the basic consumer demand for news, entertainment, and gossip. The “Portraits of Grief,” published in the New York Times after the September 11 attacks, are an example of this transcendent quality.i The portraits began as a natural response to the events of that day, but they have become what the New York Times calls a “national shrine”—impressionistic sketches of the deceased, almost all shorter than 200 words—that give us glimpses of the love and loss that is etched into our national memory.

These short portraits are a perfect example of the power of journalism. They are also instructive. After reading hundreds of these short articles, I am convinced that one can articulate the essence of any story—however vast and emotional—in a few hundred words, with a few well-chosen statements and evocative quotes.

Not all stories carry the power and the emotional weight of the “Portraits of Grief,” but there is no reason why all stories should not be written just as well.

Traditional news stories should begin with a lead, or “lede.” This sentence is the most important one in the article. Its goal is to draw the reader in and to answer four questions: Who? What? When? Where? The lede and the first paragraph must be original and compelling, informative and entertaining—both a logical and evocative starting point.ii

Keep this in mind when you read the front page of your favorite newspapers—consider the impact that these opening lines have on you. When you read a news story, what pulled you in?

Use your real-life experience to help inform your own great writing. When you write a piece for a general readership, be aware that the reader might stop reading at any point; the most important information should have priority. The most compelling aspects should be introduced early on in the narrative.

Use short sentences and short paragraphs. When in doubt, hit enter. A news story is meant to convey many pieces of information quickly, not one piece of information lengthily.

Earnest Hemingway, who began his career at the Kansas City Star, said that the paper’s style guide offered the “the best rules [he] had ever learned” for writing: “use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English.” These principles remain essential to news journalism.iii

Unlike other types of writing, the heart of a news article is its quotes. Let the quotes tell the story. The bulk of reporting often lies in finding subjects to interview, interviewing them properly, and organizing their responses into a cogent and cohesive product.iv

Reporting requires creativity, tenacity, a proactive approach, and an unwillingness to hear the word “no.”

Even reporting on a straightforward event can be difficult. I have noticed that many journalists are anxious or unenthusiastic about breaking the invisible wall that ordinarily separates us from strangers—our subjects—or about “bothering” people in general. To report a story, one must put all this aside. Sending an email and hoping that the recipient finds time to respond is not enough. To report a story successfully, one must seek out, by whatever (reasonable) means necessary, all of the people whose perspectives might add a dimension to the story.

Many journalists tend to end their stories with humorous or interesting quotes. I like this approach. Why not go out with a bang? Why not leave the reader, if at all possible, wanting more? Should that not be the goal of all great writers?

-By Benjamin Soloway ’13, who adds “This post is by no means a compressive guide to journalistic writing. But I hope it helps.”

i “Portraits of Grief,” New York Times
ii Mike Wallace and Beth Knobel, Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010), 114-120.
iii “Star Style and Rules for Writing,” Kansas CityStar
iv Wallace and Knobel, 54-61.

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