Sean's Thoughts on Basic Newswriting


Teaching journalism game me a whole new appreciation for the business I am in. It forced me to think about and rationalize things that I used to do automatically or instinctively.  I found it extremely helpful and it made me a better writer and reporter.

Here are some of the class documents I came up with during my three years in the classroom and as faculty advisor for the college newspaper at Cal Poly Pomona. I hope they help shed some light on the craft of journalism. The insights and opinions in these documents are entirely mine, derived from my own particular set of experiences. But I'm always happy to have my preconceptions challenged or my horizons broadened by the experiences of others. If you have any comments, corrections, additions or corollaries to anything here, please feel free to let me know. I'd love to talk about it and maybe even post it here.


Elements of a Story: This is my basic guide for beginning writers. As you can tell, I focused on the most conservative, basic forms of a story, a discipline that new writers need to master before getting to the flowery stuff. I always told them that journalism is a question of formulas - master a few basic formulas and you can do just about anything. But it's not all about slavishly following the rules. Master the rules, understand what they are for and why they are rules, then you can begin to break those rules to good creative effect.

Some Thoughts on Writing Leads: I have always maintained that the most important paragraph in a story is the lead. You write a bad lead and you might as well quit right there, 'cause the reader (or viewer or listener) is going to turn away immediately. Here's the short form.

Plagiarism: There have been lots of high profile plagiarism cases lately and it is clear that there is wide debate and misunderstanding in journalism and the culture generally about constitutes a fair use of someone else's words, ideas and information. Here are a few of my common sense rules for keeping yourself out of trouble.

AP Basics: These are the things that pretty much every editor expects his people to know, and therefore I expected my students to know. It isn't perfect or exhaustive, it's just the stuff that tends to come up almost every day. Violate these rules regularly and you can expect a testy note from the copy desk. Note that the page references are based on the 2003 edition, which is the latest version I own.

Caption Writing: It is amazing how bad captions tend to be. All too often they appear to be written by reporters who don't understand pictures or photographers who don't understand writing (I used to tell my students that the most marketable combination in journalism, especially in the entry level, are people who understand a little of both. A few of my students believed me). Here are my general rules for writing a caption that is readable and helpful.


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