One of my favorite stories I covered as a general assignment reporter involved a tulip tree. This tulip tree was a billowing 60-foot landmark in an eastern Massachusetts town. The townsfolk adored the tree, and it wasn’t a surprise when residents budded into verbal battle when town officials said they would gut the tree because its roots had overgrown the sidewalk and prompted safety concerns.
While some locals called the town’s decision an attack on their village, I was busy formulating the front-page story. Aside from attending municipal meetings about the tree’s fate and speaking with residents about their love of the specimen, I knew this story needed extra attention to the elements of storytelling and ingredients of news writing. I had to bring the story to life as the tree awaited its execution – after all, it’s a reporter’s job to tell a clear, concise and visual story that’ll keep readers flipping pages and viewers scrolling eyeballs.
Here’s what a tulip tree taught me about news writing and how your story could land on page one:
- Craft a compelling lede. The lede – the first sentence of your story that contains the news hook – is the make or break deal, the most important sentence in your story. Your words need to capture the readers’ attention before they reach the period. To do so, aim to write ledes that contain about 35 to 40 words and address the five Ws – who, what, when, why and how – as much as you can to make your readers slide into the next paragraph. For my tulip-tree story, I led with the high-level details that the tree was slated for removal and caused uproar from residents who even consider filing an appeal.
- Determine direct or delayed lede. Not only do you have a few words to secure readers’ attention, but you need to do it in style. Depending on the nature of your news – a big company acquisition, an emotional family homecoming or a popular tree’s destiny – go direct or delayed. Direct ledes are often used for hard news stories, and these ledes are exactly what they sound – tell your news as it is. Delayed ledes, however, are most used when writing feature and human pieces – these ledes take a slower approach to introduce the reader to the story and focus heavily on imagery and senses. While I could have taken a slower approach to the tulip tree by describing it or including residents’ favorite memories, I opted direct because of the heated debate and got right to the punch of the story.
- Employ muscular verbs. The immortal words of one of my editors: use verbs that put an extra emphasis on show not tell. A good rule of thumb: ditch the verbs and forms of being. If you’re describing a busy airport with gate agents speaking loudly via intercoms, opt for verbs such as bark or squawk to show your readers these gates were quickly corralling passengers to board aircraft. For the tulip tree, I used the verb straddle to show how the tree was growing on both a resident’s and town property. These Arnold-like verbs will help your message resonant louder with readers.
- Vary sentence length. Also advice from the same editor: don’t bore your readers with the same declarative sentence as if it’s on repeated spin cycle. As a wordsmith, you’ll want to write a long sentence for every couple short to medium sentences. Differing your sentence length will keep your reader engrossed in the story, hungry to learn more. Like ledes, your average sentence should be no more than 35 to 40 words.
- Sprinkle color commentary. Your quotes from sources, be them residents, officials, executives or celebrities, should also show not tell and encapsulate opinions and analogies that’ll advance your story to the next level. Quotes should never rehash the preceding paragraph, but should complement and build off the words that introduce them. Quotes should also be used sparingly as your words should tell the story, not others’ thoughts. In my tulip-tree story, I concluded with commentary from a resident saying the decision was wrong: “I consider this an attack on my village. I feel like this whole thing is about an urbanization that is distinct and clear about efficiency. I don’t know what you guys [Board of Selectmen] are thinking to even claim that you’re tree friendly and claim that you’re green.”