Posts in category Writing

Five steps to improve your writing

It’s the least looked at element on the page. But it’s probably the most important. One of the primary functions of a yearbook is to tell the story of the year. To do that, we have to gather information and write compelling stories.

Step 1: Get the whole story

One reason students struggle writing stories is they don’t gather enough information. It’s important to start with the 5Ws and H (who, what, when, where and how) and then expand on them. Ask for additional details and encourage interviewees to tell you more. Sources don’t always elaborate and it’s the reporter’s responsibility to dig deeper. Often students gather the background and factual information but forget to ask for opinions. While the facts are essential to the backbone of a story, it’s the emotions and opinions that will be the heart of it. Make sure questions address both.

Start with 10 prepared questions, beginning with basic information and easy queries. Ask for additional detail along the way, gently prodding the source to explain more. Move to more complex questions as the interviewee becomes more comfortable. Don’t be afraid to ask impromptu questions based off an answer. These usually lead to the best anecdotes and quotes. Always thank the source at the end and leave the door open to follow up if additional questions come up. Ask for suggestions on other people to interview.

Strive to interview at least three sources for every story. This will give the story balance and ensure the writer has additional perspectives. And it’s much more likely the story will provide a more complete picture of the topic, event or person profiled.

RELATED: Check out this interview tip sheet.

Step 2: Grab their attention

After collecting all the information, it’s helpful to go over the notes. Find the most interesting fact the source said and cultivate that for the introduction. The lead is the first part of a story to entice the reader to continue reading.

An easy mistake is to write a summary sentence, like a thesis statement about what the story is about. But that won’t grab a reader’s attention. (Save that sentence for the nutgraph paragraph that goes after the lead or first quote.)

Instead, write a strong feature lead that hooks the reader. It could be a narrative or anecdotal lead that provides rich imagery and details setting the scene. It could be a contrast lead that provides striking differences. It could be a startling statement lead to shock the reader. A roundup lead provides a list of things to entice the reader to keep going.

Avoid starting with a question or a quote. Have you ever started a story with “Have you ever?” Let’s avoid this cliché too. These starts are overused and take little imagination or effort. Speaking of imagination, don’t ask the reader to “imagine” something. The writer’s job is to show, not tell. Do a great job setting a scene and the reader will have no problem conjuring up the image in their head. Also, avoid using first or second person (I, we, you) which brings the reporter into the story; stick with third person.

Step 3: Follow a formula

Strong stories follow a story formula to keep the reader engaged. Story formula, also called quote transition formula, presents the facts and quotes in an order to move the reader through the story. Essentially, every transition is followed up by a quote expanding on that transition. This formula of transition, quote, transition, quote, etc. continues until the entire story is told.

The transitions provide facts and paraphrase indirect quotes. This is where having a detailed interview helps. Reporters will need factual information to fill in the details of the story. The transitions also help the reader move smoothly from one part of the story to the next (Hence, why they’re called transitions).

The quotes are emotions, thoughts, opinions and reflections of the facts. The quotes should NOT be facts. Save that information for the transition paragraphs and use all the source’s best thoughts and opinions for the quotes. Strive to have multiple quotes from multiple sources in stories.

To help the story flow and to keep the reader’s attention, we recommend keeping quotes and facts in separate paragraphs and making sure there is a quote after every fact/transition paragraph.

Step 4: Leave your opinion out of it

It’s really important to keep personal opinions out of the story. This means avoiding cheerleader-like statements “they worked hard” or “tried their best.” Reporters need to remain objective to be a reliable and trustworthy source of information. The lead, nutgraph and all transitions should omit any opinions. Save all the opinions for the quotes. 

Step 5: Have a strong conclusion

One of the best ways to wrap up a story is with a strong, ending quote. Save a great quote from the interview that is a strong note to end on. Another option is a final sentence to tie the ending back to the lead, leaving the reader with a sense of closure.

Following these suggestions will help improve students’ feature writing skills. Another tool to help writers is a writing rubric. Consider having editors use it as they proofread stories and it’s also a helpful for grading. Happy writing!

Writing in the heat of the moment

Journalists emphasize the importance of writing in “hot heat.” In other words, it is important to write as the events unfold.  As school starts, Gulf Coast residents are struggling to deal with record flooding from Hurricane Harvey, but communities throughout the country may face difficult situations throughout the school year. Even those outside the community may be involved. Localize coverage by recording how students in your school assist with calamities in other parts of the country. It is far more effective than running stock photos from news services.


Follow these steps to get started.


Free write. Write continuously for 15 minutes at a time without regard to spelling, grammar or organization. Every so often, note the time, place and circumstances of what is happening around you.

Don’t self-edit. You don’t need to share free writing with anyone, so let yourself write as ideas and thoughts come into your head. Getting everything on paper will help you remember the situation exactly as it happened.

Use all five senses. It’s easy to remember sights, but don’t forget to note the sounds and smells of what’s happening around you. Also be aware of temperature and muscular tension. What does it feel like to walk through deep water or snow? What sounds did you hear as you observed the fire?


As you become more comfortable in the situation, listen to what people are saying.


Write down the most quotable quotes.  Those who you interview need not always be students or teachers from your school. Talk to everyone affected, including friends and family members to record their impressions and reactions.

Consider emotions. Remember people affected by natural disasters may feel overwhelmed by emotions and may not feel safe discussing their feelings. Respect their space.

Don’t forget the human element. Others may find some relief in talking. Let them talk. (You are not a psychologist; don’t analyze their responses.)

By the numbers. Listen for facts & figures as they are reported by officials. Statistics and numbers help better tell the story.


After returning to school, become a storyteller.


Choose an angle. Students and teachers will be very willing to share their stories. More than likely, their stories will provide an angle for your coverage.

Collect photos. Ask for photos of your area and surrounding areas from students and your photographers. Be sure to ask permission before running a photo in your story.

Layer coverage by using multiple secondary coverage modules in addition to your feature photo, headline and copy.Always include a fact box with specific information about the event. Use as many numbers as available.

Writing in the heat of the moment brings authenticity to your coverage, while adding quotes and details lends depth.

Proofreading preferences


Proofreading is a second chance to examine text for typographical errors. But it’s easy to skim past mistakes in grammar or spellling – ahem, spelling.


Consider the following when proofreading:

  • Take some time away from the copy. Whether it’s 30 minutes or a few days, stepping away makes it easier to recognize mistakes.
  • Proofread from printed pages. It’s more difficult to catch mistakes on a computer screen.
  • Go somewhere quiet.
  • Listen to music or chew gum. Relieve the pressure of being constantly focused, but do it without too much distraction.
  • Avoid proofing under fluorescent lighting. The flicker rate is slower; as a result, it is hard to pick up inconsistencies.
  • Check spelling by using a computer spell check program or reading the text backwards.
  • Consult a student directory to verify name spellings and grades.
  • Don’t proofread if you’re tired.

Bonus tip: Using proofreading marks will help make the editing process smoother and quicker.

Say it like you mean it

3Nov16Quotes are the heart of your stories and captions. But too often they’re bogged down with attribution in the wrong place. So, let’s set the record straight when it comes to he said/she said.

  • Only use said. Avoid verbs that take away from the quote or interject opinions (i.e. stated, explained, replied, expressed, laughed, giggled, commented, said with a smile). Also, avoid “says” because it implies the person is still talking.
  • You’re not Yoda. While we love the Star Wars Jedi, let’s not model his use of language. Verbs go after nouns. You wouldn’t say “walked Lemons” or “talked Lemons” so don’t say, “said Lemons.” Similarly, substituting pronouns makes it clear that “she said” is preferable to “said she.”
  • Exceptions? When using a who clause or introducing a person with a long title. “It’s wonderful to have long, beautiful interviews,” said Kel Lemons, Balfour’s Key Accounts and Education Manager.
  • Know when to introduce the speaker. Place the attribution after the first sentence of a quote. Readers need to know who’s talking, but it’s not more important than starting the quote.
  • Punctuate the quote properly. Commas and periods go inside quotation marks. After the first sentence use a comma, use a period after the attribution and last sentence.
  • Example: “I am so tired of students putting commas in the wrong place,” adviser Jill Smith said. “Hopefully, this will help them learn the accurate way.”
  • First or last? Once you’ve mentioned the person’s title and full name, it’s preferable to only use the last name on second and future references. For adults, courtesy titles aren’t necessary, but first names are needed to go with the last name on first reference.


Need a cheat sheet? Here’s our handy guide for quotes and attribution.

Why we Tell Stories

Oct4Are you missing the Olympics yet? One of the best aspects of the two-week sporting bonanza is the storytelling. NBC spends months researching, filming and editing features on the athletes.

Tom Rinaldi does it on a weekly basis for ESPN. His voiceover indicates you’re in for a great story. From heartbreaking to soul lifting, Rinaldi shares incredible stories of players, fans and coaches.

Those stories remind us everyone has a story to tell. And it’s important to share them. Your staff members’ challenge is to get people talking, relating their unique experiences, situations, histories, challenges and triumphs.

As you seek out new stories to tell:

  • Encourage your staff to talk to students they’ve never met before. Consider sending them out once a week to discover new stories on your campus, not coming back until they’ve met a new person and have a great story to share.
  • Think about what will make their stories interesting and worth reading or watching.
  • Have a beginning, middle and end to the story to draw the reader in and keep them.
  • Include descriptions of specific, memorable moments. Include strong details and colorful quotes.
  • Feature those stories in your yearbook so they’ll be shared and permanently recorded.


Need inspiration? Grab some tissue and watch a few of Tom Rinaldi’s features for ESPN: a Game Day story about a sick LSU fan, sportsmanship on the basketball court and the night a basketball manager became the star athlete.