Q: How can a reporter answer all the key questions in a short article?


Journalistic writing is direct, concise and precise. As “The Elements of Style” says: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

This book is to writing as “The Elements of Journalism” is to the reporting—a treatise, a bible, an instruction guide.

This semi-humorous video might help you remember the rules of writing short and concisely. The Elements of Style from Jake Heller on Vimeo.

The goal isn’t sentences that fall flat on the ear, but efficient and exacting word choices. I tell journalism students to pretend that there is a word drought; use as few words as possible to say what you need to say. You don’t water your lawn needlessly during a rain drought, and you don’t waste words in journalism. “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline,” William Strunk, Jr.  writes in the book, “but that every word tell.”

In addition to word choice, the article’s structure helps readers learn everything they need to know in a short amount of space.

There are three main story outlines journalists use in their articles: the kabob, the martini glass (or hourglass) and the inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid is the most popular for short news stories because the focus is putting the most important information at the top (the widest part of the pyramid) and the least important at the bottom.

News wasn’t always written this way. If you compare articles written in the early 1800s to those written at the end of the century, you’ll notice the earlier ones are wordy, flowery and take forever to get to the point. What changed? The invention of the telegraph in 1845. “The thing to know about the telegraph is that in its day it was as revolutionary as the Internet,” writes Chip Scanlon in a 2003 article. This groundbreaking invention allowed newspapers to publish stories days after an event happened, not weeks or months. It also cost about 1 penny a character, which is the equivalent of $.34 today.

If you were a publisher and the above paragraph (606 characters) was going to cost you $207.04 to publish, wouldn’t you demand that your writers were as efficient as possible with their word choice?