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Wednesday 19th April 2023

Writing for the news

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“Press releases that ensure a story writes itself, capturing the right tone and selling the news back to its proprietors is possible. Difficult, but possible.”

 

At Woburn Partners I am surrounded by exceptional writers. 

They all have one thing in common: they’ve worked in environments that teach good writing in the same way that a grizzly bear might teach you self-defence. Newsrooms and political campaigns demand copy that’s precise, concise and forceful. And they demand it an hour ago. 

Back in February, Victoria Richards, Editor of Indy Voices, wrote a Tweet thread soliciting pitches for on-the-day comment pieces responding to current news events. She was attacked for suggesting authors might need to be up at 7am and turn a piece around quickly. 

Setting aside the fact editors don’t need to make themselves publicly open to pitches like this (and on the evidence of the deranged replies, perhaps they shouldn’t solicit contributions on social media at all), demanding the news agenda be more considerate of your schedule makes you both blindingly arrogant and useless to any journalist. 

As my colleague Kate Conway put it, ‘the news is always moving. Catch it if you can’. 

Our team’s experience shows that sacrificing early mornings, late nights and the odd goat to the gods of the news cycle can yield great things. It also shows that good writing that meets the strict criteria of news media can be learned. 

Whether it’s a comment piece for a client with a specific voice, or press releases that ensure a story writes itself, capturing the right tone and selling the news back to its proprietors is possible. Difficult, but possible.

It starts with a hook. As shown by Richards’s thread, what people are thinking, talking and reading about today matters. Drawing a golden thread out of a news event – an idea, a way of thinking, a moment in our shared history – and weaving it into a pitch can give unparalleled force and immediacy to the issues you need to platform.

“At Woburn Partners we’re always working with big issues, and appealing to big ideas. Sometimes the story you want to place may be a little smaller – but you can still make it resonate”

It’s a finicky skill. A tenuous connection will scream off the page. Without conviction in that golden thread – belief that it can reveal something vivid and truthful about the world – the whole thing falls apart.

At Woburn Partners we’re always working with big issues, and appealing to big ideas. Sometimes the story you want to place may be a little smaller – but you can still make it resonate.

That’s why the second ingredient is heart. Any story worth reading is a human story. So find it. Consider what matters to your audience – what animates, frustrates and moves them – and write in a voice that speaks to it. 

This can apply as much to a press release announcing a new product line as it does to an op ed, open letter or Q&A. People follow the news to stay informed, but they also do it to understand their place in a changing world. Reading the paper is as much an expression of desire as it is an act of reason.     

To really account for this, you can’t just rely on heart. You’ll also need a hammer – a precise understanding of how to generate force in your writing.

Sentences, and the short, slicing paragraphs that structure any good news article, have a music to them. It is quite possible to attune your ear to the moments of harmony and discord, resolution and suspension, that ensure your argument is felt rather than simply understood.

Those are the ‘three H’s’ of news writing. To master them, you must seize brevity, punctuate ruthlessly and edit judiciously (everyone, without exception, needs an editor who is not themselves). Annihilate your ego and kill your darlings – it’s an op ed, not Swann’s Way. Read aloud, and if you stumble over a phrase, nix it.

Last and most importantly, read the news. Better yet, order it straight to your office every morning. Our newspapers in the UK have the best teachers in the business, they’re up at the crack of dawn, and they deserve your support.