Guidelines for writing articles on church affairs
1. Things to remember
Many articles in the Russian church press look like protocols. Protocols are a sequential listing of events and statements. It begins with what happened first and ends with what happened last. A protocol has nothing to do with journalism.
Protocols on our webpages begin with: “Pastor X visited Region Y”. That in itself is no news. It needs a quote, an option or some active deed. “When visiting Region on 18 October, Pastor X claimed that the world would end next week.” That is news.
It is the task of the journalist to sift out the important and the interesting from all other possible information. 95% or more of the possible information will not be mentioned at all. He also assigns information a level of importance, a pecking order. The most important news comes first in the article, the least important, last.
Protocols list all the important– or otherwise – people that attend an event. In journalism, they are usually only mentioned if they did or said something significant.
The protocol of a meeting for ex. lists what happened first at the top, and what happened last, last. In journalism, the actual sequence of events in time is totally unimportant. There is no need to cover an entire event in a report – the journalist simply picks out those parts of the event which are of significant to his readers. Only protocols need to be thorough and complete. (But who wants to read protocols?)
What is newsworthy – what should one write about? Search for the unusual, the unexpected, the controversial, the very positive and the very bad. I assume you have heard the old definition of what is newsworthy? “Dog bites man” has not value at all as news. But “man bites dog” does. Unusual are not just events, but also the opinions and expressions of people. I report a great deal on the opinions that people express.
Brevity is proof of journalistic skill. The ability to say a lot in only a few words is a very important talent. A German friend stated what is very true for most readers: “We will support you financially in your work. But please keep your reports as brief as possible!”
In news reporting, anything over 1.000 words is very long. Interviews are very easy to write, since you are usually only writing down what someone else said and you do not need to worry about structure and sequence. But who wants to read a 3.000-word interview?
Generally, sentences should not be longer than 25 words. Paragraphs should be very short: 90 to 130 words, for ex. Some news agencies have started writing each sentence as a complete paragraph, which I think defeats the meaning of the paragraph. A paragraph groups together thoughts or events that belong together.
Write simple, short sentences. Simple words can express very complex and significant ideas and concepts. This is especially important in texts for radio and the visual media, where the listener – if he as not recording - has no chance to hear the sentence a second time.
Academic papers write many more words than necessary and also very often use terms which are completely unnecessary. The writer is simply “showing off” his knowledge. Journalists have very different intentions – they want to inform, be helpful.
Use many quotes. Quotes keep the reading lively. Also: You do not need to quote exactly, you are free to make the quote fit the structure of your sentence. You are especially free to modify quotes regarding style if the speaker will see the text before it is published. Of course, you are not free to change the meaning of quotes!
Remember of course to distinguish between news and commentary. If you write “I believe, that . . “, or “it seems that” or “it appears that”, then you are already writing a commentary and not straight news.
If at all possible, show your text to a friend before it is published – even if you yourself are the final editor. Two heads are always better than one, and we all make grammatical mistakes. A sentence may seem very clear to me – but not to others. You will be surprised!
On foreign language texts: Use native speakers for radio and video. If that is not possible, then at least the grammar must be checked by a native speaker. Native speakers make mistakes in grammar – the same is of course true for non-native-speakers!
Remember who your audience is – you usually know much more about the topic you are writing about than your readers. Do not assume they know a great deal about the topic.
If you interview someone or ask someone for information, assure them that they will be able to see the text before it is published. This is common, good practice in church circles. This will make the person you ask much more candid and relaxed, less cautious. They will give you much more information if they know they will be able to see the text about them before it is published. This is also a very good way to avoid publishing many, many mistakes. Often, the person you ask will want to improve his statements or information after the initial interview.
PR and news – in PR you are restricting yourself to the church leadership or to the group which is paying for the article. In a news article or commentary, it must be your description and opinion. PR stresses the concerns of the persons reported on, news concerns itself most with what the reader expects. This is indeed a large and difficult topic, for many articles are a mixture of PR and news reporting, which is not professional.
3. The structure of a news release
In German we speak about the five W’s that must be in the first paragraph. In English: Who, What, Where, When, How? We could call them in Russian К Ч Г К К, but the sequence in which they appear in the first paragraph is not important. It is really only important that they all appear in the first paragraph. And this is always true in news-style writing.
We also speak of the inverted pyramid: The most important news must appear in the title and in the first paragraph. As you move further down the article, the news mentioned will become less-and-less important. The least important details will usually be in the final paragraph.
If possible, I like to use a two-line title. The first line has a catchy phrase or anything unusual to catch the attention of the reader. The second line then explains what the article in about.
One recent example from me:
The Gospel is the Issue – Not Denominations
Interview with Alexey Smirnov, President of the RUECB
Remember: 95% of your readers will not read more than the first paragraph. So it is clearly the most important paragraph of the story; there is where the reader decides whether he will continue reading or not.
The second and third paragraphs explain the first paragraph in greater detail. Bridges between topics are always good – when one topic leads over very naturally to the next topic. But in news writing, abrupt change of topics between paragraphs is possible – but please use practice sparingly.
The last paragraph can be very abrupt and even be on a topic totally unrelated to the remainder of the article. Sometimes my last paragraph reads: “The RUECB consists of 72.550 members gathered in 1.783 congregations and groups. Its President since March 2010 is Alexey Smirnov.”
But there are very professional papers – “Christianity Today” for ex. – who expect a proper, logical closing in the last paragraph. That last paragraph should point to the future, make a forecast, express a hope or a plan. Otherwise the ending is abrupt and the reader is “left hanging”.
After collecting your information and before you write any text, plan a structure for the article. We call this in English an “outline”. Write down the topics you find most important in the sequence in which they will probably appear in the article. Using an outline helps you to collect your information into groups. It will make the text flow better, it will be easier to find bridges between different topics.
Dr. William Yoder
Written for the RUECB, Dept. for External Church Relations
02 July 2012