organization for your article

Writer William Least Heat-Moon tells a story in his Blue Highways on the building of a wall. He joined a friend in New England and constructed a wall out of irregularly shaped rocks. Since the rocks were odd shapes, the men have to chose just the right one to put on top of another. The men began the project by surveying the inventory of rough fieldstones and selecting the best one to match the one before. In the end, the wall appears solid and Moon wonders if it could have been built any other way.

Moon suggests that the men intuitively knew what stone would be the best in the sequence. For writers, the sequence of information can’t be based on a hunch; information must flow in a pattern that has some kind of order, even if it is transparent to the reader. The order may be chronological, but that is one of the weakest because the most important information may be half way through the narrative, or even at the end and writers want the most crucial points to be read first. A better approach is to make a decision on the information based on the importance of the information.

Raw material

Writers collect facts, often using interviews, and shape that raw information into an easy-to understand report. They work hard to make their words flow so the audience can grasp the ideas quickly. The process includes selecting the best raw material available–the best quotations, the best anecdotes, the best observations–and arranging it in a story that makes sense and reads well.

Coherent reports begin by writing a lead that sums up the story, a second sentence that amplifies the first sentence with additional information and successive sentences that follow logically one after the other.

Tip: When you know nothing of a subject on which you are about to write a feature article, read a children’s book. Writers who pen long feature articles know the importance of speaking the argot of the experts. Before you talk to an expert on investing strategies for baby boomers, read a children’s book on stocks, bonds and OPM, a phrase some investor’s use to mean “other people’s money.” Children’s books are designed to be easily understood, while giving the reader access to the fundamentals. This idea works for the big-league writers and it will work for you and me, too.

Fact arrangement

One of the best ways to organize a news story is to systematically arrange the information with the most important information first. By arranging the facts from pertinent to less significant, your report helps the harried reader get the vital news first.

Imagine that you are a reporter assign to find out about a couple who was about to be married on Valentine’s Day on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building, a la Sleepless in Seattle twist.

Here are the facts.

  • FACT 1 Rose Marie Higby and Alan J. Ross, both of Langhorne, Pa., signed up to be wed on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building.
  • FACT 2 Thirty-four couples also signed up for weddings on the 80th floor.
  • FACT 3 Right before Higby and Ross were wed, a gust of wind blew the couple’s marriage certificate off the 80th floor.
  • FACT 4 The 34th Street Partnership is a merchants’ group that sponsors the “marriage marathon” at the Empire State Building.
  • FACT 5 Dan Sieger, spokesman for the merchants’ group, said, “They (the couple) had been dating for 17 years, and they finally made the move.” He also said, “They were mortified at first (when the certificate blew away). “We happened to have a Xerox of it downstairs and we were able to salvage the whole thing.”

The strategy

The first task is to write a lead. Will you use a creative lead or a summary lead? Since the story is humorous with a happy ending, a creative lead is your best bet.

While it isn’t given as one of the facts, the 1957 tear-jerker An Affair to Remember features a couple who pledge to meet on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building…if each decides the other is the one. This fact, part of the background that you might have to learn for yourself, might make a creative lead. If you wanted to refer to either An Affair to Remember or another movie, Sleepless in Seattle, you’ll need to choose an element that relates to our Langhorne couple, too. In both movies, the lovers have plans for a meeting on the 80th floor, but somehow the plans are thwarted or confused yet the conflict gets resolved. That bit of background, available by consulting a reference book on films or a telephone call to the reference librarian at the public library, might suggest:

The scene on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building had all the makings of a couple in love after the Sleepless in Seattle movie, plus added suspense when the marriage certificate they needed to be wed blew away.

Not to worry. This story ends happily, too, when a photocopy was used to complete the wedding ceremony today on Valentine’s Day.

This creative lead, three sentences total, took longer than usual to get to the point of the story. Perhaps you can suggest a quicker approach but be sure to get the place, the event and the surprise wind in the opening to snag your reader’s interest.

What does a couple in love, the Empire State Building, Valentine’s Day and a sudden gust of wind have in common?

That’s a question lead that gets all the elements in one sentence, but without a movie reference.

Here’s one using the song title technique that is to be used very sparingly.

Gone With the Wind? Right action, wrong movie.

The Associated Press led the story this way:

A couple who’d been together for 17 years planned to marry on Valentine’s Day in the Empire State Building–only to have their marriage certificate blow out the 80th-floor window.

Again, a loooooooong lead. No matter. Now we can tell the story. The next task is to arrange the facts by selecting the most important information and arranging it in the right order.

The leads tell the reader that a couple was to be wed but wind blew their marriage certificate away. The next pertinent bit of information is the couple’s identity. Drop that fact into the story. Then offer a word of explanation in the form of a quote. This is similar to the paragraph below the story. Since we have a quotation from Sieger saying his group had a spare copy of the marriage certificate, the story could achieve a sense of completion by ending with that fact.

Here’s a possible version of the story.

The scene on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building had all the makings of a couple in love after the Sleepless in Seattle movie, plus added suspense when the marriage certificate they needed to be wed blew away.

Not to worry. This story ends happily, too, when a photocopy was used to complete the wedding ceremony today on Valentine’s Day. (FACT 1-2)

“They (the couple) had been dating for 17 years, and they finally made the move,” said Dan Sieger, spokesman for the 34th Street Partnership, a merchants’ group that sponsors the “marriage marathon” at the Empire State Building. (FACT 4-5)

Right before Higby and Ross of Langhorne, Pa., were to be wed, a gust of wind blew the couple’s marriage certificate off the 80th floor. (FACT 3)

No problem. According to Sieger, “We happened to have a Xerox of it downstairs and we were able to salvage the whole thing.” (FACT 5)

What version works for you? Think about the various approaches and decide on how you want your article to read. The first step is to think about the content and what is the appropriate approach to take. Now you are ready to engage the writer’s imagination to devote your special gifts to capturing this narrative with insight and panache.

Quotation as an organizing device

In developing an article, a writer must examine the facts to determine the proper order of the information for the maximum clarity and the most economical use of language. As stated earlier, the Valentine’s Day story is an example of an article that presents the facts in order of most important information. One way to make this decision easier is to select two quotations. This idea works best when the two quotations are from the same person. Use the first quotation in paragraph three and the other quotation as the last paragraph.

Some considerations with the quotations

Quotations should be used for information that adds to the article; they shouldn’t be used for facts and figures that can be better stated by the writer.

For instance, a quotation that says, “The party will begin at 5 p.m.” is weak. You can state that kind of information, so why waste a valuable quotation on it. Save the quotations for the explanations, the answer to the “ why” question.

Think of quotations as the sweet spot of the tennis racquet. It’s in the center where the strings are most taut, and where the netting will give the ball the most power. Place the quotations that you use in sweet spots in your article to give them the most power. Select phrases from your subject that are picturesque and well-said. When a college dean of students once was interviewed by a leading newspaper on his opinion of a beleaguered college president, the dean said, “I would give him a D, not exactly a failure, but far from a success.” The quotation works because it is clear but it draws on the culture of education, the all-important grade.

Often the reporter can condense a statement from a source, the person who is providing information. In these cases, the reporter can paraphrase the quotation. Paraphrasing means putting the quotation in your own words. It works because writers often can recast a turgid statement into a concise sentence. One magazine writer, speaking on the use of quotations, made this clumsy statement, “The only thing that I’d said for the use of quotations is that effective reporting is, part of it, at least, is to know what you’re looking for before the interview.” Yet, the idea is a good one: Writers must consider the article angle before starting the interview, but that journalist’s quotation is gaseous.

Now look at this quote. “Go where the reporting leads you,” said Jeffery L. Sheler, an editor with U.S. News and World Report. “It’s more than having a story in mind and going out quote-shopping.”

Great quotation.

It plays on the metaphor that writing an article is like a trip to the grocery store where you pick up a little dairy, a little poultry and quart of ice cream. The act of gathering the information, commonly called reporting, is the combination of good planning and quick wits, not just two parts quotation, one part anecdote and a splash of humor.

In an article about nutrition labeling in a company cafeteria, the director of the cafeteria made the following question-and-answer response: “Can we do this? Yes. We will, with the help of staff, design and post signs, write signs, and make the changes by the deadline, and we’ll make them.”

The quotation contains good information. As a quotation, however, it is too unwieldy. The syntax is strained making the meaning difficult to understand. The writer can paraphrase the quotation in her own words:

By fall, signs labeling the nutritional content of food will be on display in the cafeteria, according to the director of dining services.

In most cases, information must be attributed to give the reader some idea of the credibility of the source. In this case, the director of dining services is in the position to know about the labeling program. It’s worth repeating that attribution is necessary. When it is missing, readers may wonder about the authority and source for information that stands alone. Avoid including attribution only in cases where the information doesn’t invite contradictions.

Equal facts

In those rare cases when facts are of equal importance, the sequence is of no consequence. When writing an announcement of an event, for instance, the rooms where the function will be held may be considered to be equal in their relative importance. Displays of old and rare newspapers will be shown Monday at 3 p.m. in hospital lounge and at 8 p.m. in the Hicks Humanity Center.

Notice in that sentence, however, that the earlier time was mentioned first suggesting that even cases of equal facts, a sense of order is useful.

Veteran newswriting teacher George Hough represents the equal facts story this way:










The equal fact story allows the writer to plunk the facts down in any order. Beware. This kind of story is best reserved for brief items of just a few sentences. While these items don’t require much creativity, they should still follow the principles of good newswriting-the concise use of a few well-chosen words. Strive for economy.

Suppose, for example, your organization asks you write an announcement about a celebrity appearing for a fund-raiser. The most important information concerns the celebrity’s name and when and where he will appear.

Here are the elements.

Celebrity: Actor Davy Jones of The Monkees

When: June 13, 1996

Where: Talls Family Music Center

When: 2 to 4 p.m.

Other facts include that Jones will sign autographs, meet fans and talk about his acting career. To help your readers recall Jones’ claim to fame, you add that Jones was part of the 1960s TV show The Monkees and he appeared in the 1995 movie The Brady Bunch Movie.

After the important information is inserted in the lead, these equal facts can be arranged randomly.

Here’s one possibility.

Actor Davy Jones of 1960s TV hit “The Monkees” will appear June 13 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Talls Family Music Center, Center Square.

Jones appeared in the 1995 movie “The Brady Bunch Movie.” He will meet fans and sign autographs at Talls.

Anyone born after 1970 may not remember Jones or The Monkees and you might have to consult a reference book on entertainment to provide additional detail on the music the group played and the popularity of some of their songs.

The sample brief above takes a straight-forward approach to the story, but an enterprising reporter can have some fun with the material by using a feature lead. As you develop as a writer, evaluate the story elements and decide if a light touch or somber touch is required.

Here’s a light touch.

Hey, hey, he’s still a Monkee and he’s still monkeying around.

Today actor Davy Jones of the Monkees will monkey around at Talls Family Music Center, Center Square from 2 to 4 p.m.

In this example, a line from TV show theme song is used to build a lead. Be advised, These kinds of leads can be considered too cute and readers (and editors) may be turned-off, so use them with discretion.

Tips: Contractions are good!

He’s still a Monkee. Right.

He is still a Monkee. Wrong. Wooden.

Often, the “be” and the “ing form of the verb can be deleted in briefs.

He will monkey around. Right.

He will be monkeying around. Wrong.

The play will open tonight. Right.

The play will be opening tonight. Wrong.

The “be” can be used as the verb in the sentences where leanness is essential.

The meeting will be Monday at 4 p.m.

For briefs, the acronym SOP will help. In this case, it doesn’t mean “standard operating procedure.” The acronym SOP can help a writer remember the order of a brief by putting the name of the speaker (S) first, followed by the organization (O) involved, then the place (P). SOP also stands for standard operating procedure and this mnemonic can be your SOP for this task.

Example: Actor Davy Jones will speak to the Kiwanis Club at Talls Music Center Friday at 4 p.m.

Use a.m. or p.m. for time.

Make up your own sentences using SOP.

I. _____________________________________________________________________

II. _____________________________________________________________________

III. _____________________________________________________________________

IV. _____________________________________________________________________

Choosing the right touch is part of the challenge in writing for mass media. Having some fun with Jones’s Monkey lyric is appropriate for a feature article about a musician from the 1960s, but that kind of approach would be in poor taste for an article about crime, violence and tragedy. Hard news is concerned with the hard parts of life. Counselor Scott Peck begins his best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled2 by telling his readers to learn that life is hard and then they can respond well to the routine disappointments.

In news, however, hard refers to the more serious hardships of life-fires, car accidents, thefts and any event that is timely, that must be published or broadcast immediately or it loses its value as information. All crime is considered to be hard news. Social occasions such as weddings are considered soft news. In many cases soft news is read more readily than hard news, but the function of the information often determines the approach the writer should take when constructing the article.

Detecting the hard news edge

Consider the story of a three-year-old child who called 911 to help authorities extract her mother from the trunk of a car. Is that hard news or soft news?

It sounds as if it could be a fun story about a woman who accidentally locked herself in her trunk and her daughter saves the day.

Would it make any difference if an armed robber locked the woman in her trunk?

Yes, that behavior is a crime, making the story hard news. The tricky part is that the happy ending with a surprise hero, a toddler, gives the story an added dimension. It sounds as if it could be a feature article, soft news. Soft news is considered to be less time-sensitive than hard news. Furthermore, the approach used for soft news often has a richer narrative quality and allows the writer to break free of the economy of language reserved for hard news. In writing the story as a blend of hard and soft news, the writer must strike the right quality, a matter known as tone.

Tone refers to the way the words are understood. Is the piece jocular, deadly serious, lighthearted or down-right hokey?

In the rescue story, considered a standard in mass media writing, the Associated Press treated the report the way a master of ceremony might use in bestowing an award. Here’s the beginning.

Mary Graves has always thought her 3-year-old daughter was something special.

The toddler proved it by talking to a 911 operator and leading police to the car where an armed robber had locked her mother in the trunk.

“She’s just really bright. I don’t know how to explain it,” Graves said Sunday night. “She has a photographic memory, and she’s learning three different languages. She’s a special little girl.”

The report goes on to tell the story of the robber who reportedly locked Graves in the trunk but not before the mother pressed 911 and slipped her cellular telephone to the little girl. The girl was left in the car and the robber left.

Chronological development

Once the AP writer told the readers the end of a story- a toddler called authorities to help her mother escape from the locked trunk of a car-she went back and filled in the crucial details in chronological order.

Here’s a way to practice this important writing technique. Think about yesterday. What were some of the highlights? Tell a story of one of those highlights, but instead of starting at the beginning and spinning the account in 1,2,3 fashion, tell the conclusion first, then go back and fill in the details.

Most of us are used to holding off on the dramatic conclusion, but in mass media writing, the audience usually wants to know the outcome first. The following example is a long anecdote that is notable for its lack of drama. However, it’s the pedestrian quality that provides a bit of charm found in ordinary life.

Barbara Wojcik told me of her encounter at the swimming pool. In the late 1990s, Taylor, a three-year-old, who has never called 911 on a conventional telephone or a cellular one either, spied a child in the baby pool. Toys surrounded the little girl and Taylor decided this tyke was a good prospect for friendship. However, when she started over to the girl, the little toy czar barked, “These are my toys. Stay away. Go back to your mother!”

Taylor stopped in her tracks, put a finger to her cheek and said, “Hmmmm. Let me think about this.”

She really didn’t know what to do next. Barbara sat about 10 feet away and noticed Taylor mumbling to herself and Barbara went over for a closer hear and discovered Taylor praying, “Jesus, help the little girl to be happy.”


As suggested in the previous example, an anecdote is a brief story, but a story nonetheless, told in chronological fashion. How could it be told with the ending first. Take a minute and think about the approach you would use in developing this account, known as an anecdote or short story.

You need a way to sum up the story in a sentence. You ask yourself, “Is this hard news or soft news?” The subject isn’t crime-it’s politeness. It isn’t tragedy, but it does have a sad note. In short, it’s the kind of story that a proud mother might share with a friend, not the subject of an evening newscast; however, it still contains all the elements of a story that you can tell in mass media convention. This story has a clear ending, meaning that it must have a beginning, too. As you may recall from your literature days, short stories in fiction are defined as possessing a beginning, middle and end.

The end of the intercession at-the-pool story is the prayer. As a writer, you could have asked, “But what happened next?” You could keep asking that question to peel the action back another layer, but let’s stay with this version for the time being and work with the information we have.

The ending is a child praying. In searching for a feature opening, the writer wants a pithy statement that tells the conclusion but hints that more is involved.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Ray Smith‘s book Used with permission.

Download the entire book for free from our MTI Online resource center.

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

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