Journalistic writing is, as you might expect, the style of writing used by journalists. It is therefore a term for the broad style of writing used by news media outlets to put together stories.
Every news media outlet has its own ‘house’ style, which is usually set out in guidelines. This describes grammar and style points to be used in that publication or website. However, there are some common factors and characteristics to all journalistic writing.
This page describes the five different types of journalistic writing. It also provides some tips for writing in journalistic style to help you develop your skills in this area.
The Purpose of Journalistic Writing
Journalistic writing has a very clear purpose: to attract readers to a website, broadcaster or print media. This allows the owners to make money, usually by selling advertising space.
Newspapers traditionally did not make most of their money by selling newspapers. Instead, their main income was actually from advertising. If you look back at an early copy of the London Times, for example (from the early 1900s), the whole front page was actually advertisements, not news.
The news and stories are only a ‘hook’ to bring in readers and keep advertisers happy.
Journalists therefore want to attract readers to their stories—and then keep them.
They are therefore very good at identifying good stories, but also telling the story in a way that hooks and keeps readers interested.
Types of Journalistic Writing
There are five main types of journalistic writing:
Investigative journalism aims to discover the truth about a topic, person, group or event. It may require detailed and in-depth exploration through interviews, research and analysis. The purpose of investigative journalism is to answer questions.
News journalism reports facts, as they emerge. It aims to provide people with objective information about current events, in straightforward terms.
Feature writing provides a deeper look at events, people or topics, and offer a new perspective. Like investigative journalism, it may seek to uncover new information, but is less about answering questions, and more about simply providing more information.
Columns are the personal opinions of the writer. They are designed to entertain and persuade readers, and sometimes to be controversial and generate discussion.
Reviews describe a subject in a factual way, and then provide a personal opinion on it. They are often about books or television programmes when published in news media.
The importance of objectivity
It should be clear from the list of types of journalistic writing that journalists are not forbidden from expressing their opinions.
However, it is important that any journalist is absolutely clear when they are expressing their opinion, and when they are reporting on facts.
Readers are generally seeking objective writing and reporting when they are reading news or investigative journalism, or features. The place for opinions is columns or reviews.
The Journalistic Writing Process
Journalists tend to follow a clear process in writing any article. This allows them to put together a compelling story, with all the necessary elements.
This process is:
1. Gather all necessary information
The first step is to gather all the information that you need to write the story.
You want to know all the facts, from as many angles as possible. Journalists often spend time ‘on site’ as part of this process, interviewing people to find out what has happened, and how events have affected them.
Ideally, you want to use primary sources: people who were actually there, and witnessed the events. Secondary sources (those who were told by others what happened) are very much second-best in journalism.
2. Verify all your sources
It is crucial to establish the value of your information—that is, whether it is true or not.
A question of individual ‘truth’
It has become common in internet writing to talk about ‘your truth’, or ‘his truth’.
There is a place for this in journalism. It recognises that the same events may be experienced and interpreted in different ways by different people.
However, journalists also need to recognise that there are always some objective facts associated with any story. They must take time to separate these objective facts from opinions or perceptions and interpretations of events.
3. Establish your angle
You then need to establish your story ‘angle’ or focus: the aspect that makes it newsworthy.
This will vary with different types of journalism, and for different news outlets. It may also need some thought to establish why people should care about your story.
4. Write a strong opening paragraph
Your opening paragraph tells readers why they should bother to read on.
It needs to summarise the five Ws of the story: who, what, why, when, and where.
5. Consider the headline
Journalists are not necessarily expected to come up with their own headlines. However, it helps to consider how a piece might be headlined.
Being able to summarise the piece in a few words is a very good way to ensure that you are clear about your story and angle.
6. Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ structure
Journalists use a very clear structure for their stories. They start with the most important information (the opening paragraph, above), then expand on that with more detail. Finally, the last section of the article provides more information for anyone who is interested.
This means that you can therefore glean the main elements of any news story from the first paragraph—and decide if you want to read on.
Why the Inverted Pyramid?
The inverted pyramid structure actually stems from print journalism.
If typesetters could not fit the whole story into the space available, they would simply cut off the last few sentences until the article fitted.
Journalists therefore started to write in a way that ensured that the important information would not be removed during this process!
7. Edit your work carefully
The final step in the journalistic writing process is to edit your work yourself before submitting it.
Newsrooms and media outlets generally employ professional editors to check all copy before submitting it. However, journalists also have a responsibility to check their work over before submission to make sure it makes sense.
Read your work over to check that you have written in plain English, and that your meaning is as clear as possible. This will save the sub-editors and editors from having to waste time contacting you for clarifications.
Journalistic Writing Style
As well as a very clear process, journalists also share a common style.
This is NOT the same as the style guidelines used for certain publications (see box), but describes common features of all journalistic writing.
The features of journalistic writing include:
Short sentences. Short sentences are much easier to read and understand than longer ones. Journalists therefore tend to keep their sentences to a line of print or less.
Active voice. The active voice (‘he did x’, rather than ‘x was done by him’) is action-focused, and shorter. It therefore keeps readers’ interest, and makes stories more direct and personal.
Quotes. Most news stories and journalistic writing will include quotes from individuals. This makes the story much more people-focused—which is more likely to keep readers interested. This is why many press releases try to provide quotes (and there is more about this in our page How to Write a Press Release).
Most news media have style guidelines. They may share these with other outlets (for example, by using the Associated Press guidelines), or they may have their own (such as the London Times style guide).
These guidelines explain the ‘house style’. This may include, for example, whether the outlet commonly uses an ‘Oxford comma’ or comma placed after the penultimate item in a list, and describe the use of capitals or italics for certain words or phrases.
It is important to be aware of these style guidelines if you are writing for a particular publication.
Journalistic writing is the style used by news outlets to tell factual stories. It uses some established conventions, many of which are driven by the constraints of printing. However, these also work well in internet writing as they grab and hold readers’ attention very effectively.