15 News Writing Rules for Beginning Journalism Students

The goal is to provide information clearly in common language

Journalism student using laptop in conference room
gremlin / Getty Images

Gathering information for a news article is vitally important, of course, but so is writing the story. The best information, put together in an overly intricate construction using SAT words and dense writing, can be difficult to digest for readers looking for a quick news fix.

There are rules for news writing that result in a clear, direct presentation, providing information efficiently and accessibly to a variety of readers. Some of these rules conflict with what you might have learned in English Lit.

Here's a list of 15 rules for beginning news writers, based on the problems that crop most frequently:

Tips for News Writing

  1. Generally speaking, the lede, or introduction to the story, should be a single sentence of 35 to 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" doesn't have enough vital information.
  3. Paragraphs in news stories should generally be no more than one or two sentences each, not the seven or eight sentences you probably wrote for freshman English. Short paragraphs are easier to cut when editors are working on a 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. Backward constructions are harder to read.
  5. Always cut unnecessary words. For example, "Firefighters arrived at the blaze and were able to put it out within about 30 minutes" can be shortened to "Firefighters doused the blaze in 30 minutes."
  1. Don't use complicated-sounding words when simpler ones will do. A laceration is a cut; a contusion is a bruise; an abrasion is a scrape. 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. Those adjectives are unnecessary.
  6. Don't use phrases such as "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 review or editorial.
  8. When you first refer to someone in a story, use the full name and job title if applicable. On all subsequent references, use just the 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 two people with the same last name are in your story, in which case you could use their full names. Reporters generally don't use honorifics such as "Mr." or "Mrs." in AP style. (A notable exception is The New York Times.)
  1. Don't repeat information.
  2. Don't summarize the story at the end by repeating what's already been said. Try to find information for the conclusion that advances the story.