At RJI, we’ve been working to improve how we share information with our readers.



When you have completed this lesson you should be able to

  • Eliminate unnecessary or weak works in your copy
  • Ensure your writing is accurate
  • Eliminate or support reporter opinion in your copy
  • Use consistent style
  • Present copy free of unnecessary racial, gender or age identification and stereotyping

Use the suggestions in this lesson to check your own writing as you produce drafts of your stories. Taken together these lists will help you add power to your copy.

Write tight copy

The impact and tradability of your news stories will be greater if your copy is tightly written. Here are some guidelines:

  • Generally, the fewer words you use to tell the story the better
    • Eliminate modifiers. Replace them with nouns and verbs.
    • Eliminate unnecessary introductory and dangling phrases and clauses.
    • Eliminate repetition wherever you can.
  • Replace long words with short ones whenever possible
  • Keep modifiers close to the words they modify
  • Eliminate the writer's warm-up paragraphs from your copy
    • Examine the first draft of your story. Might it actually begin at the third paragraph of your writing. The content of the first two are often warm-up paragraphs like an athlete stretching before competition.
    • A lead that says -- "a meeting was held" -- is a common example of a warm-up paragraph. Better to being with what happened at the meeting.
  • Avoid complex sentence structures. Make simple, active-voice sentences your primary sentence form.
  • Replace cliche's with other words.
  • Place attribution correctly.
  • Express ideas in positive form.
  • Avoid the following:
    • The construction: when asked...she said...
    • Leading with unfamiliar names or programs
    • Writing the word recently

Write accurate copy

Otherwise well-done work will be discounted when readers/audience find errors or confusing sentences. Avoiding these problems begins in the reporting process and continues until you submit your story. Here are some guidelines that will help you get correct information into your notes.

You must understand the details of a story before attempting to write an account for others.

  • Listen to sources, ask effective follow-up questions
  • Summarize for sources what you understand to be their points of view
  • Study documents and data you gather. Ask for clarification on points you do not understand.

The accuracy process continues after you have written your first drafts.

  • Read your copy aloud. You can often identify relationships within sentences and paragraphs that you did not intend to establish
  • Read copy from end to beginning. This can help you find style, spelling and punctuation problems.
  • Keep verb tense consistent
    • What justification do you have for using tense other than past in this print story?
    • What justification do you have for using a verb other than to say?
  • Choose words carefully
    • Does your copy say what you intend?
    • Can you replace big words in your copy with small, simple words?
  • Use but correctly. Often and is the better choice

Eliminate or support reporter opinion in your copy

Unsupported, direct expression of a report's opinion often gets into copy in the form of modifiers. The reporter can avoid such problems by reporting more fully.  Here are some hints:

  • Get more details from the reporting process to work with when you begin writing.
  • Have multiple sources for your stories.
  • Seek alternative opinions and illustrations for your stories.
  • Tell the stories of real people in your copy.
  • Enforce the requirement that news story content be limited to observable facts.

Use correct grammar

Using correct grammatical constructions makes it easier for your readers/audience to read, understand and enjoy your copy. Alternatively, when readers discover grammatical errors in your copy, it suggests the reporter was not attending to detail and may have made other mistakes in the reporting process. The readers/audience may wonder, "What else has the reporter got wrong?"

Use correct style

Your readers/audience can more easily focus on the content of your stories if you and your publication present information in a consistent manner -- abbreviated street names and titles consistently, using numbers in a predictable, consistent way. Journalists call the rules they create to govern such presentation -- style.

In the United States most publications use the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual as the foundation guide for presentation. In other countries, publications may use similar style guides from the major wire service or other media outlet as the foundation document.

Most publications also have their own style guides that modify or extent the major national guidelines. Broadcast media will have guidelines that differ from print guidelines because of the linear nature of those programs. Technical publications also will have style guidelines to govern the presentation of that specialized information.

As a reporter, you will be expected to turn in copy that is consistent with your publication's style guidelines. You will not know all of the style requirements for copy and you will find yourself frequently looking up usage and presentation issues; however, to be efficient, you must know frequently used style guides for your beat area.

Present copy free of unnecessary racial, gender or age identification and stereotyping

Journalists work in an increasingly diverse environment.

  • Global economics, travel and communications are changing what we think of as local. Even small businesses in a community have international markets, customers and suppliers.
  • Within local communities, the profile of the influential and powerful is changing. Women and people of color are playing roles not done just a few years ago.

These new realities require reporters:

  • To seek out new viewpoints and sources. Without such diligence, reporters cannot be confident they will understand the issues and options within their stories.
  • To examine the ways they use language. Without such examination, their writing may be limited by the old cultural norms.

Be aware of the possibility of unconscious bias -- the subtle differences in expectations among groups. Few of us will be guilty of blatant racism, sexism or other harsh stereotyping; however, all of us must recognize that we see the world through the lenses colored by our own culture. That cultural lens affects the subjects we choose to report, the sources we select to consider and the words we use to tell those stories.

Our cultural foundations influence how we report and write. For example, one of the aspects of our old culture was to see men and women in different roles: Men as fixers, problem solvers, hunters and gatherers. Women as nurturers, pets, victims.

Ask the people about whom you write whether they find stereotyping in your copy. You can do this as part of the accuracy check process or perhaps better, contact the sources after publication at times away from specific deadlines and ask for a review of your copy.


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