15 Helpful News Writing Rules for Beginning Journalism Students

The Common Mistakes You Need to Avoid

A news reporter
  Tashi-Delek / Getty Images

We've written quite a bit about how beginning journalism students need to focus on reporting as much as news writing.

In our experience, students usually have more difficulty learning to be thorough reporters. The news writing format, on the other hand, can be picked up pretty easily. And while a poorly written article can be cleaned up by a good editor, an editor can't fix a thinly reported story.

But students make many mistakes when they write their first news stories. So here's a list of 15 rules for beginning news writers, based on the problems we see most.

  1. The lede should be a single sentence of roughly 35-45 words that summarizes the main points of the story - not a seven-sentence monstrosity that looks like it's out of a Jane Austen novel.
  2. The lede should summarize the story from start to finish. So if you're writing about a fire that destroyed a building and left 18 people homeless, that must be in the lede. Writing something like "A fire started in a building last night" isn't enough.
  3. Paragraphs in news stories should generally be no more than 1-2 sentences each - not seven or eight like you're used to writing in English class. Short paragraphs are easier to cut when editors are working on tight deadline, and they look less imposing on the page.
  4. Sentences should be kept relatively short, and whenever possible use the subject-verb-object formula.
  5. Along these same lines, always cut unnecessary words. Example: "Firefighters arrived at the blaze and were able to put it out within about 30 minutes" can be cut to "firefighters doused the blaze in about 30 minutes." 
  1. Don't use complicated-sounding words when simpler ones will do. A news story should be understandable to everyone.
  2. Don't use the first-person "I" in news stories. 
  3. In Associated Press style, punctuation almost always goes inside quotation marks. Example: "We arrested the suspect," Detective John Jones said. (Note the placement of the comma.)
  4. News stories are generally written in the past tense.
  5. Avoid the use of too many adjectives. There's no need to write "the white-hot blaze" or "the brutal murder." We know fire is hot and that killing someone is generally pretty brutal. The adjectives are unnecessary.
  6. Don't use phrases like "thankfully, everyone escaped the fire unhurt." Obviously, it's good that people weren't hurt. Your readers can figure that out for themselves.
  7. Never inject your opinions into a hard-news story. Save your thoughts for a movie review or editorial.
  8. When you first refer to someone who's quoted in a story, use their full name and job title if applicable. On the second and all subsequent references, use just their last name. So it would be "Lt. Jane Jones" when you first mention her in your story, but after that, it would simply be "Jones." The only exception is if you have two people with the same last name in your story, in which case you could use their full names. We generally don't use honorifics like "Mr." or "Mrs." in AP style.
  1. Don't repeat information.
  2. Don't summarize the story at the end by repeating what's already been said.