Getting It Right: Stop the Presses: Writing News Copy into Your Fiction, Part 1

Author Lynne Cantwell
Author Lynne Cantwell

It happens sometimes: Your main character needs a vital piece of information that can only come from a third-party source. So you slip it into a newspaper story, or you put it into the mouth of a TV or radio reporter. There’s nothing wrong with that. But please note that writing credible journalistic prose means following some conventions – conventions that you would do well to follow, if you want to keep your journalist readers from howling, or sobbing brokenly, or reaching for the hooch. Or all three.

I worked as a broadcast journalist for 20 years, including a few years at the network level, before I quit the business and got a real job. I’ve distilled that experience into some pointers on how to make news stories in your novel more realistic.

Writing for broadcast is a little different from writing for print, but the principles behind both are the same. Let’s talk about those principles in the context of newspaper copy first.

The Five Ws and an H: Every news story needs to include these six elements: who, what, when, where, why, and how. As many of them as possible should come in what’s known in the vernacular as the “lede.” Some articles take hard ledes, like a story about a traffic accident, and some take soft ledes, like the ones in your newspaper’s lifestyle section or in a magazine. A soft lede can be several sentences long, and it can be pretty chatty: “When Jane Doe discovered the moldering manuscript in her attic, she had no idea it was about to make her rich. Sotheby’s today announced expert confirmation that Ms. Doe’s manuscript is an early draft of a play by Shakespeare. The manuscript is expected to fetch at least $225 million at auction Tuesday.”

But by and large, you will be writing hard news stories, and ledes for those are a single sentence long. In the case of Ms. Doe’s good fortune, the hard news lede might be: “Sotheby’s today set $225 million as the opening price for what experts confirm is an early draft of a Shakespearean play, to be auctioned in London Tuesday.” In each case, Sotheby’s is who, the manuscript is what, and Tuesday is when. The where is a little different, because the soft lede is concentrating on the discovery (in the Doe attic) while the hard lede is concentrating on the upcoming auction (in London). How and why are sometimes hard to fit into a lede, but they need to be included in the paragraphs that follow. (And by the way, newspaper paragraphs typically consist of just one or two sentences each.)

Sez who?: Attribution is key. You need to make it crystal clear where your information is coming from – in every sentence. You can’t just say, “A Milton man was killed in a one-car accident early Saturday when his car left the road and overturned.” How do you know that? Who told you? The cops, probably. So you need to either start or end the sentence with “police said.”

This is important journalistic c.y.a. stuff. Let’s say you’re writing a political story. There’s a huge difference between saying, “Senator-elect Roe is a liar,” and saying, “The chairman of the Senate Banking Committee said, ‘Senator-elect Roe is a liar.’” The second one might get the chairman in trouble, but the first one could get you sued. (Although the first defense against libel is truth, so if the senator-elect really is a liar, you might have nothing to worry about. But let’s not get into libel law.)

Speaking of journalistic c.y.a., people sometimes wonder why “alleged” is used in news stories about criminal activity. After all, the cops have arrested the guy, people saw him at the scene, he’s confessed – why is the paper still calling him the “alleged” killer? Because he hasn’t been convicted yet, that’s why. And if the evidence is tainted, the witnesses are lying, the confession is thrown out, and the guy walks, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. A smart reporter keeps using weasel words until the perp is found guilty.

By the way: A judge hands down the sentence; a jury hands up the verdict. It’s because the judge sits higher than the jury does. (Now you can make fun of all the writers who get it wrong. You’re welcome.)

Write tight: As true as this is in fiction – and it is true in fiction – it’s geometrically truer in news copy. Sentences should not be complicated; stick to subject-verb-object construction. Avoid using adjectives. Don’t use adverbs at all; find a stronger verb instead. Root out all instances of “there is” and “there are” and kill them – they’re a red flag that you’re venturing into the passive voice.

As I said above, the rules are a little different for broadcast news. We’ll tackle those in part two.


Lynne Cantwell has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. She also taught introductory TV production at American University. Lynne’s vast overeducation includes a journalism degree from Indiana University, a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University, and a paralegal certificate. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Her third novel and her first urban fantasy, Seized: Book One of the Pipe Woman Chronicles, was released in March. You can learn more about Lynne at her blog, her Facebook page, and on her Author Central page.


Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

20 thoughts on “Getting It Right: Stop the Presses: Writing News Copy into Your Fiction, Part 1”

  1. Lynne, fantastic post! I wish every author would read this – because what you say about "The Five Ws and an H" also rings true for book sales blurbs AND synopses. Thanks so much for sharing with us!

    1. You're very welcome, Kat. And really, this will help me, too. I'm getting tired of that keyboard-shaped bruise on my forehead. 😉

      Very true, btw, about sales blurbs and synopses. Those six elements are key to generating reader interest.

  2. This is such perfect timing for something I'm writing, I can't believe it! Thanks Lynne for a great post. I too am looking forward to part 2.

  3. Heh heh – I was trained as a journalist, columnist and feature writer before I began this novel-writing caper, so I do wholeheartedly agree it's a different way to write altogether. In my novel Camera Obscura I include a report from a newspaper (about the Concorde that came down on top of a French hotel in 2000, remember?) I made sure that I went back to my old skills for that, and also researched the real reports that came out on British and French newspapers.

    Thanks for this – it's a keeper.

    1. You're very welcome, and thanks for the confirmation. 🙂

      Good for you for writing feature articles. I can't write a magazine-style lede* to save my life — I always feel like I'm backing into the story, lol.

      *For non-journalists, this is where the writer tells a little vignette (with or without real names) for the first paragraph or two, and then finally gets around to something that resembles a lede.

  4. Good stuff, Lynne! I used to work for the late-1960s underground press, later on other papers and then p.r., and you've covered these crucial points extremely, exceptionally well! Thanks.

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