Global Voices - Article Styles | Institute for War and Peace Reporting
There are many different types of articles in journalism; IWPR generally commissions four major styles:
Each article style merits a different approach, so it is absolutely essential that writer and editor agree beforehand what type of article is intended. The style of article should be expressly stated in the commissioning brief.
The real goal is transparency: readers must be able to tell exactly what kind of piece they are reading.
IWPR is not a news agency, but from time to time, we do run straight news pieces. These are fully factual accounts, loaded with detail and devoid of personal opinion.
In theory, straight news articles should be the most straightforward to write: one simply reports the words and deeds of others in a direct way. In reality, however, it is often difficult to detach oneself from a story so completely, and the variety of facts leads to issues over article structure.
Also, the sheer number of facts will necessarily lead both author and editor to make subjective decisions over which facts to keep and which to eliminate, thus destroying the very foundation of objectivity. For this reason alone, many believe that completely objective reporting is impossible.
With this in mind, IWPR's pure news pieces are few and short.
The news analysis article is the dominant style at IWPR. News analysis articles have a direction, but they relate that direction from a factual basis, and they aim to be both informative and balanced.
Because this style is so central to our work, it is worth itemising essential elements and important characteristicsof the news analysis piece:
- News analysis pieces are based on a timely element. We usually refer in the first or second paragraph to WHEN an event has occurred.
- These pieces must strive for objectivity. There should be no personal opinion; items reported must be facts and facts must be credited to sources. Analysis and analytical conclusions should be based on these facts, and ideally credited to quoted sources.
- News analysis pieces are written in the third person. No reference to the author should be made. "Sources tell IWPR," not "they told me."
- Paragraphs should be concise and clear and carry one idea at a time. Each paragraph should follow on logically from the one before. There is no hard-and-fast rule on paragraph length, but avoid long meandering blocks of text: they will be cut. Especially in online writing, we want to avoid the "wall of text" effect.
- Quotations must be credited and the best source found. Sources should be identified by name, age and position. Try to avoid anonymity unless the source is absolutely against his name being revealed. In such cases, agree with your source on language identifying them as closely as possible: "a senior Yugoslav Army officer" is much better than "a Serbian source," for example. You must clearly distinguish between unnamed sources in cases where more than one appear in a story.
- Balance is essential. If you quote a source putting forward one opinion, there must be an opposing view put forward by another source. The objectivity of an article will be put into question if only one view is put forward by people interviewed.
- Accuracy is essential if the articles is to be taken seriously. Any claim must be backed up, any accusation followed up. Follow the "two-source" rule, especially for controversial information. Dates should be precise (not "last week" but "on June 30").
- Don't assume the reader knows the background to the story. Imagine you were reading a story about Uzbekistan and the first paragraph ran: "Although the president is dealing with the crisis on the border it's expected that things might be stirred up again in spring".
Someone from the region might realise that the story is about the expected attack of armed Islamic guerrillas from Takjikistan and that President Karimov has been shoring up his defenses in the south. Most, though, won't have a clue.
Note, this does not mean we have to write down to the reader; do not confuse clarity with stupidity. It is possible to explain everything clearly and still write fluently.
- Use the inverted pyramid style. Most important facts at the top, least important at the bottom. We do not have a tradition of leaving the best until last, of keeping the reader going by leaving out important facts till the end. This has the opposite effect: if a reader doesn't have the main facts at the beginning of a story he might well stop reading. The inverted pyramid also helps the editing process. One of the problems we often encounter is that equal importance is given to several points in the story, which means we have to give priority to what we feel is important. It is the writer's job to make this decision.
- Don't go off at tangents. There may be a lot of interesting material you would like to include but if it doesn't have direct bearing on the story it will be edited out. All information must be relevant to the main argument or story and add weight to what the article is trying to say.
- Sometimes it is easier to write the way you would try and explain the story to a listener. Imagine someone is asking you to explain the story in two or three sentences, then imagine you have to talk someone through the piece.
- Omit needless words. In all cases, be concise. Make each and every word count. Respect your words and use them like a precious commodity, not a gushing river.
A feature is an evocative piece; it tells a story with colour and well-written images. Features make the point by bringing the reader right to the location of the story, as if the reader were looking through the journalist's eyes.
For this reason, the lead of a feature is the key element. The feature lead should capture the mood, create an image and appeal to the imagination. It must instantly transport the reader to the location.
Look at this example:
It may seem like a schoolkid's dream. In spring and autumn, the local authorities call on all pupils and students to put down their books and pens and then close down the classrooms.
"We're off cotton picking," chant the kids as they ride off in trucks to the fields at seven in the morning for their 11-hour, unpaid day. The jubilant reaction to being let off school palls as the harvest drags on into the winter months.
Here is a second example:
In the first week of May, four homosexuals were beaten up outside an Almaty gay club. Police arriving at the scene did nothing to stop the fighting. Instead, they joined the attackers. The incident is anything but unique. Beatings of gay men are as commonplace in Kazakstan as police intervention or protection is non-existent.
"I was battered, but I cannot take the attackers to court - I am an outcast and a pervert as far as the police are concerned," complained Andrei, who is bisexual.
The lead grabs you and brings you right into the piece.
Feature writing is more creative than other forms. The author sets the tone of a feature to fit the mood of the story.
A typical ending to a feature is to return to the scene created at the beginning of the piece, in the lead.
An opinion/comment piece is not simply a rant. Good opinion/comment pieces have something important to say and are well-written. This is not the place simply to write what you feel; it is the place to develop a convincing argument that can stand up to informed criticism.
An opinion/comment piece can be formal or informal, depending on the subject matter, but in every case, the reader should clearly understand she is listening to the writer's voice. Each piece should:
- Have a particular voice and personal style;
- Be built on careful reporting, analysis and assessment;
- Focus on one subject;
- Present new insights in a lively, even controversial, manner;
- Stimulate readers to think and see a subject from a different angle;
- Show rather than tell;
- Use examples and stories rather than confront the reader with bare opinions;
- Focus on the issue and not the experiences of the writer;
- Emphasise intelligence and argument rather than emotion.
In addition, opinion/comment pieces should be consistent in tone. Whether thoughtful, analytical, conversational, critical, reportorial or satirical, choose a voice, and stick with it. More than one mood will distract the reader.
For more on article styles, see the article styles and structures training module outline:
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