News training: How to write an intro

You’ve attended the scene of the news, done your interview and are preparing to file your story. You may have the luxury of a few minutes to drive back to the newsroom or you may just have a few seconds before you start filing. Either way, by taking a moment to gather your thoughts you can begin to crystallise the intro to your story.  It has to be easy to understand, appropriate to the tone of the coverage and above all encapsulate the main news point.

When I was in journalism training we had a lecturer who likened the intro to “a lens through which the point of the story is focused and its news value magnified”.

Such is the importance of the intro, reporters are often thinking of the optimum line even when they are still interviewing their sources.

A news intro should be short and clear. It can cover some of the ‘who, what, where, why and when’ of the story but it should stay within a maximum of around 20 words.

Try wherever possible to use the active voice as this helps to frame the urgency of the situation but remember also that the passive voice may have to be deployed to locate the main actors first. For example: “Two teenagers have been found dead…” not “A passing walker has found two teenagers dead…”.

The intro may be seen as a springboard for telling the rest of the story. It has to strike a balance in informing the reader without loading on too much detail which can come later.

It is helpful to try to break down complexities in the story using temporal conjunctions such as “as”, “after” and “following” so you can begin to explain a sequence of events.

Long titles can render an intro cumbersome.  Rather than give the official titles of people or organisations, it is easier on the reader’s eye to give ‘quasi-titles’. The tone of these will be determined by the individual newsroom’s style book. For example, you might say: “Top people’s wine supplier Dreggs & Co was today….” but you will want to avoid saying: “Dreggs & Co, official purveyor of wines and spirits by Royal Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, was today…”.

As the story moves from the intro and lead paragraphs, it should unfold in a logical order that the reader can understand. Always try to break the subject down; divide and sub-divide. When you are dealing with technical information, avoid jargon and ensure you can explain it in simple terms. Where appropriate, help the reader along by using example, analogy, illustration and anecdote.

Remember, good writing is writing that ‘comes alive’. In the context of news writing, that means helping the reader to see what you, the reporter, have seen for yourself.

This post is part of a series reflecting themes from our online practical training course for working journalists.  The course was launched recently with a video announcement by Lord Black, CPU Media Trust Chairman.

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SCOTT SINCLAIR – Deep South Media