Global Voices - Article Structure | Institute for War and Peace Reporting
There is no one method of writing journalism. The aim of the IWPR editing process is to try and relay as best as possible the texts prepared by IWPR writers to our audience. Because we want as many readers as possible to benefit from the articles, we need to present them in a way that readers find easiest to comprehend.
This is not to say that the IWPR format is the only or best of journalistic formats but it is one which reaches the most readers. Since our guidelines are based on structure and presentation they should be seen as a way of facilitating writers in their efforts to communicate with a wide-ranging readership.
The guidelines, extracts and articles below demonstrate the ways in which formal rules of journalism can be followed while also enabling individual voices to be heard.
The key is that, however individual the voice, it must be clear and easy to follow. Consider you were reading a report on political developments in some place you were unfamiliar with. You don't wish to be talked down to, but you do want to be given all the salient facts so that you can understand what the article is trying to say.
Sometimes, texts are heavily edited and lose much of the flavour of the original because two or three edits are needed to extract a story from submitted material. If we don't receive articles with a clear lead, body and conclusion illustrated with examples and quotes and with all facts sourced it means we have to fill in the gaps or else leave out material which the writer might consider important.
Pieces which conform to our basic structural requirements rarely need much work.
Regardless of article style, there are essentially three parts to every article:
The lead, or first paragraph, is the most important part of any story. It needs to engage and inform the reader in a sharp, concise manner.
The lead is usually two or three sentences long and should include the five Ws: Who? What? Where? When? Why? However, this does not mean the lead needs to be dry or dull. An informative lead can be direct and to the point, but it can also be entertaining, especially in features.
The aim of the lead is to grab the reader's attention immediately, to let them know straightaway why they should read this story, rather than clicking over to read any of the thousands of other stories on the Internet. It should be strong, explaining exactly the importance of the piece.
You can't sacrifice clarity for ingenuity. But you can keep your lead spare by including only absolutely essential information at the top, and then folding in other key details in the following few paragraphs - key days, full party names, scene-setting details, etc.
We are well aware that this structure based on strong leads is may appear quite contrary to some regional styles, where a conclusion or punch-line is kept for the end. Again, we are not trying to judge the merits of local cultural styles, but the strong lead is undoubtedly an essential component of international journalism, helping your articles reach a wider audience.
Crucially, a strong lead will also help you write the rest of your piece more easily, and will help ensure that your piece gets published by IWPR quickly and with less editing.
There are several types of lead. The writer decides how best to introduce the reader to his story.
- Summary leads summarise the main facts of the story and pack as much information as possible:
After a high-speed chase through Budva yesterday, police arrested a 45 year old journalist and charged him with speeding and resisting arrest.
We usually use summary leads for news analysis pieces, where we are not trying to capture a mood so much as relay the essential facts to the reader.
- Anecdotal leads use a story or some colour to interest the reader and capture the mood of the story:
Sixteen year old Petrisor Lazar wears the face of a 40-year-old - tired, weary and disillusioned. He works hard all day and part of the night at a small private garage in Bucharest.
Anecdotal leads are common in in features.
- Delayed leads try to entice the reader without giving too much of the story away:
Tiny Montenegro, the only republic still yoked to Serbia in the rusty Yugoslav federation, often seems as if it is still in a time warp. (The Economist)
- Quotation leads begin a story with a quotation, which should be short and reflect the main point of the story:
"I really admire Antonescu's patriotism and nationalistic attitude," said octogenarian Ilarion Stanescu, of his former commander and wartime leader, Marshal Ion Antonescu.
- Question leads ask a simple question needing a short, pithy answer:
Will Milosevic be extradited on Friday? The answer is yes, for as the Yugoslav government is aware, his ticket has already be reserved and paid for.
The emphasis of the lead is just as important as the type of lead. We always have to ask ourselves what is the most important "W" in each article and then highlight that in the lead.
- The Who lead draws the attention of the reader to a high-profile name:
Russian President Vladimir Putin's surprise visit to Kosovo last week brought few new ideas on solving the region's problems.
- The What lead is a better option when the situation is more important than the personalities:
Independence, corruption and politics have slipped off the agenda in Montenegro following news that the tiny republic may be sitting on top of huge oil reserves. Coffee shops, classrooms, lecture halls and businesses are buzzing with speculation the find could bring untold wealth to the republic's 650,000 citizens.
- The When lead is used on rare occasions, when the time of the event is the most important point:
The commemoration last week of Liberation Day - the day NATO formally brought an end to the 1999 conflict - was a big event on the Kosovo calendar.
- The Where lead focuses our attention on the place about to be discussed:
There are shiny new street signs in Vukovar, the town in eastern Croatia that the Yugoslav army pounded to rubble in the autumn of 1991. There is a Dr Franjo Tudjman Street, named after Croatia's independence leader, and a European Union street, which points optimistically to a day when the former Yugoslav republic will be accepted into the 15-nation group.
- The Why lead is used in cases where the motive or cause of the event is the most important aspect of the story:
Republika Srpska, RS, could pay a high price for the violent demonstrations in Banja Luka and Trebinje against moves to rebuild mosques destroyed during the war.
All material in a piece should be unified and belong to the same theme. Though a feature might not be as rigid as a news piece, the structure still needs to be disciplined. A picture is being drawn, and any information which isn't relevant is going to lose the reader.
Again, each paragraph needs to follow on logically from the previous one so the reader can follow the narrative. The flow of a piece is susceptible to several common mistakes; avoid the following:
Too often, we waste time giving the same information twice in the same article. Be concise. Save words. Say it once.
- Long Quotes
Keep your quotes short. Eliminate the extra, non-essential information, and leave the reader with just the pith of your source's words. It is acceptable to shorten a quote as long as the meaning is not changed in any way.
Keep the flow of information logical. Extraneous information, even when interesting in itself, only distracts the reader from your main argument.
Of course, the overall structure of a piece needn't be completely linear. A common practice is to follow the lead with a quick, four- or five-paragraph summary of the entire piece, and then continue with deeper, more detailed material. Another idea is to to use "summary break" paragraphs to summarise the preceding five or six paragraphs; the whole effect is that of a minor tangent, the writer having taken the reader elsewhere briefly.
Generally, however, the overall structure of a piece can be chronological or it can develop by theme. When in doubt, use chronology: time is often the best engine for your narrative.
The ending should give a sense of finality and resolution to the reader. All loose ends need to be wrapped up.
It is often a good idea to return to the begining of a piece and refer to it in your concluding paragraphs. The idea is to remind the reader why this story is important and give the reader that feeling of closure.
The conclusion is most certainly not the place to introduce new information. A conclusion is for wrapping up and summarising previously stated facts and arguments; it is for ending the path you've created, not starting a new path.
In every piece you write, use the conclusion to leave the reader with one single significant thought and impression. This is your final chance to leave a lasting impression.
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