The Basics of News Writing: The 5 W’s
How do you write a news story? News writing follows a basic formula; there are key elements every news story follows. While styles can diverge more dramatically depending on the kind of story -– a feature story may look and sound very different than a hard news one -- all news stories are cut from the same mold. The first element of news writing is, of course, to deliver the news.
Most people have heard of the 5 W’s, even if they’ve never taken a journalism class. The W’s in question, as you probably know, refer to the Who, What, When, Where and Why that every story should address. Depending on what the story is, how and when you answer those W’s may change. If, for example, you’re reporting on a drive-by shooting in a city, you’ll likely start with where the crime happened (what street or area of town for the local paper) and who was involved (if you don’t have names, or the people are regular citizens, you might refer to notable affiliations if, say, the victim and presumed perpetrator were gang members).
Figuring out what details to give a reader, and when, is key in constructing a story. The answer, of course, depends on the facts. If you’re working on the above story, and the murder happens to be one of a string of similar crimes, that may be the point you open the story with. If, however, the above story revolved around someone of note being shot, that might be what you start your piece with. (A story about a notable name being shot is a very different story than one about a private. The latter might speak more to ongoing local violence while the former is a story in and of itself -- X person has been killed and here’s what X person was known for.)
A lede, which is a journalism slang term for the first sentence or two of a story (i.e. lead), is an incredibly important part of the process. You need to hook readers with your lede and, in some cases (as discussed above), relay the important parts of your story. You need to draw a reader in while telling him why the story matters.
Like all forms of writing, there’s no hard and fast rule about what makes a great lede. A good lede changes depending on the story you’re writing. One of the best ways to get familiar with what a good lede is, is to read. Read lots of different stories. Read breaking news stories. Read features. Read reviews. Ledes vary wildly but, you’ll start to notice patterns and, more importantly, what kinds of ledes you like and feel are effective. You can get more basics from this piece from the University of Arkansas on ledes, but I suggest following it up with lots of reading.