First steps: structuring a story

Women in World War II. Photo: The U.S. National Archives/CC/Flickr

TOPIC: Structuring a story.


Hold the adjectives! A guide to news writing by Associated Press’s writing guru Rene J. Cappon
Writing Style [.ppt file]  AND Structure & Quotes [.ppt file]
BBC Academy – Writing for mobile: Bite-size basics
Deloitte – Mobile Consumer 2014: The UK Cut, Revolution and Evolution

What is hard news? What is soft news?

Hard news:

  • Chronicles important events that have impact on or relevance to peoples’ lives
  • Relies on verifiable facts and identifiable sources
  • No comment from the reporter – either explicit or implied
  • Formal structure starting with the most important aspect of the story, irrespective of chronology – ie ‘inverted pyramid’
  • Simple, concise language
  • Primary purpose is to inform

Soft, or human interest news:

  • Colour pieces, picture stories, interviews, historical articles about ordinary people with unusual lives or involved in unusual events
  • Varied structure, but rarely inverted pyramid
  • More informal language
  • Main purpose is to entertain or evoke an emotional response

Read a few stories, and think about why some are “hard” and others are “soft” or “human interest”. What are the differences in writing style? Which stories do you find more interesting?

Elements of a story

There are three elements to a story:

  1. Headline
  2. Intro, or the lead – what the role of the intro? To draw people in, to keep them reading
  3. Body of the story – what is the role of the body of the story? To keep people interested enough to keep reading contains the bulk of the information, quotes

Structuring your story:

  • Focus on the strongest angle
  • Write a lead that attracts the reader
  • Set out facts accurately and clearly
  • Try to find a structure that encourages reading
  • Use the best quotes early in the story

Why the 5Ws and H are important:

  • They shape the story, by helping you evaluate the most important part, or the guts of the story
  • Once you have considered the strength of each W and H, you’ll be able to tell how to write the story.
  • They also help you when interviewing – you can use them to ensure you’ve explored the key elements of your story.

Activity: Read through a story. Work out what the five Ws and H are, and their position in the story. Why did the journalist position the Ws and H where they are? Could the reporter have used different elements in the lead? Can you compare the same story in different newspapers?

Writing news

Good journalists have always made every word count. With more readers accessing news on mobile devices (mostly phones but also tablets) efficient writing has become even more important.

Online news has to be easily read, contain links that add value and be engaging on any sized device. Most media organisations now put mobile first, getting the story right for a smaller screen first and then adding features such as interactive graphics or photo galleries to enhance the reading experience on larger screens.

Every word must count. Mobile readers won’t tolerate superfluous fat in a news story – if their attention isn’t captured instantly, they click away.


The lead

  • Highlights the most important or interesting point of the story
  • Usually who is involved, and what happened
  • Uses active voice – subject-verb-object structure e.g. A gang of youths threw bottles at police, NOT Police had bottles thrown at them by a gang of youths
  • Is short! Between 25 and 30 words, no more than 35

After the lead

  • Second paragraph: further explanation – the next most important Ws and/or H, a strong quote
  • Further pars amplify the points already made. They may tell the story again in further detail, and more chronologically
  • Final pars tie up any loose ends, or offer less important information
  • Mobile news stories should offer readers a good idea of the facts of the story in the first four paragraphs

The paragraph

  • News stories should be organized into easily digestible paragraphs
  • Paragraphs are fact units, and in hard news writing they often contain only one sentence
  • Paragraphs enable the writer to structure their work, and the reader to understand and absorb it


  • Need to work for all platforms – the main headline should be no more than 55 characters (more than 55 looks very long on a mobile screen)
  • Should contain facts and enhance understanding, otherwise it becomes ‘click bait’
  • Are written so that readers can find them (i.e. address SEO or Search Engine Optimisation)
  • Tips for maximising SEO include:
    • Understanding how search engines work and how people use them to search
    • Identify key words people use to search for the info contained in your story
    • Use the proper names of the people involved
    • Use straightforward terms over more exciting headline words
    • Put the strongest key words at the start of the headline


  • Should take readers to original source material (online documents, web research, social media posts, other news sites) using the words that describe them as the hyperlink. e.g. as used in this story from the Sydney Morning Herald
  • Can be to related content (explainers, video, analysis) on your own or other news sites
  • Must work! Check them once you have published


1. Lead writing practice:

Write a lead for each of the following stories.

2. Write a headline for each of the stories above, taking into account SEO

3. Story structure exercise

4. Find a simple press release and write a short news story (200-300 words) and a headline. Sources to try:

If you don’t finish your work in class time, please finish it at home and post it on your blog for next week.


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