Reporters: six questions to ask yourself before writing your story

by Tom Huang
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

As an editor, I try to ask good questions. That’s because I’m a curious person, overflowing with sentences that end in question marks.

It’s also because, as Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark once wrote, “Teachers and editors best operate as resources for writers, by conferring with writers, not telling them what to do.”

I don’t mean to say that I never give writers suggestions. But I try to start with questions that spark a writer’s imagination. I push the writer to think harder about the story’s theme. I encourage the writer to try fresh approaches to storytelling.

We know the basic questions that journalists strive to answer when chasing a news story — questions starting with “who,” “what,” “where,” "when,” “why” and “how.”

Here are a few other questions I like to ask writers — usually right before they start their reporting, and then right before they sit down to write.

Even if you’re on deadline, try having a 10-minute conversation guided by these questions. As an editor, the coaching you provide on the front-end can often save you time revising the story after the fact.

How would you tell this story to a friend? I like asking this question because it encourages the writer to think about the most interesting and relevant nuggets of the story. We’re good at considering the news value of a story, but we’re not always as good pondering the “Why should the reader care?” part. Having the writer imagine telling the story to a friend can help him or her think about why we should care. This approach can also help the writer move away from any jargon and bring a conversational tone to the piece.

What would an early headline be for this story, knowing that the headline is not set in stone? This is a variation on the question, “What is this story really about?” Boiling the premise down to five or six words can help the writer sharpen the story’s focus. In my newsroom, we’re asking reporters and line editors to write early Web headlines and short summaries on top of their stories. This is largely for production reasons, but the added benefit is that we’re encouraging writers and editors to get at the heart of the story earlier in the process.

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This article first appeared on Poynter Online, IJNet’s partner and the website of the Poynter Institute, a school serving journalism and democracy for more than 35 years. Poynter offers news and training that fits any schedule, with individual coaching, in-person seminars, online courses, Webinars and more. The complete article is translated in full into IJNet’s six other languages with permission from Media Helping Media.

Photo by Valerie Everett, used with a CC-license