Organization site - Fall 2001
Issue: 2/20/01

Journalism's enduring rules: Part 1
By Fred Fedler, University of Central Florida

Teaching students to write for the media is difficult. The media use a unique style and a multitude of rules that students must learn, then apply. Some students are poorly prepared (or poorly motivated), have been taught other styles in English classes, or have developed bad habits that are difficult to correct. Moreover, some journalism students seem to believe that their instructors' lessons are unimportant, reflecting only the instructor's peculiar biases.

In fact, the media's style of writing has evolved over 150 years, and journalists have been nearly unanimous in their acceptance of its primary elements. Those elements are important for all the media, and students familiar with the style's evolution and importance will work harder to master it. To motivate them, this article describes the style's development.

Journalism's professionals have written hundreds of books and magazine articles about their lives and work, and they present a consistent description of the field's rules for good writing. An analysis of their work reveals that journalists developed 12 primary guidelines:

1. Prepare
2. Master the language
3. Be accurate
4. Write simply
5. Write concisely
6. Be specific
7. Remain objective
8. Write tantalizing leads
9. Rewrite
10. Develop a nose for news
11. Remember your readers: Be interesting
12. Learn from your editors.

The following pages examine those guidelines, one by one. Many began to evolve during the 1870s and '80s. The guidelines did not evolve earlier because there were few reporters before the Civil War. America's first newspapers had only editors who tended to be more interested in opinion than news. Also, because their newspapers had small circulation --often only a few thousand -- editors could not afford reporters. Moreover, editors did not need reporters because their newspapers were small, typically containing only four pages, and filled with stories reprinted from other publications.

Gradually, dailies began to hire more reporters, and both reporters and editors began to agree on the keys to good writing.

1. Prepare

Editors advised youths interested in journalism to prepare for their careers and assignments by: (1) obtaining as good an education as possible, (2) reading good books and newspapers, and (3) analyzing everything they read. "The more a man knows the better newspaperman he may become," an editor in Chicago said in 1892.

Charles Diehl began writing for the Chicago Times during the 1870s, and its city editor asked whether he had read Dickens and Thackeray. When Diehl responded that he had, the editor advised Diehl to reread the men's books and to study how simply both had written. Other editors, too, advised youths to study great writers.

Experienced journalists also advised youths to write. "The only way to learn to write is to write," editor Samuel Blythe explained. "You cannot get it out of books or by any other method than by grinding it out...." Blythe warned, however, that writing was hard work (and that becoming a good writer required years of practice).

2. Master the Language

To become good writers, youths had to master the language, including grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.

Fremont Older, who became famous as an editor in San Francisco, observed that, "Nearly everyone thinks he can write, but very few can." Older found it "utterly hopeless to try to develop writers who haven't considerable natural ability." Other editors occasionally helped youths that showed promise: who were poorly prepared but worked hard and learned from their errors. Still, editors often fired anyone responsible for a serious error.

Charles Dana became editor of the New York Sun in 1868 and insisted that every edition be perfect. Dana was preoccupied with grammar and English usage, and he fired a reporter who wrote, "none are." Another editor fired a reporter for using the word "questionnaire" before it appeared in dictionaries (before his newspaper's readers were likely to be familiar with it).

Editors encouraged the use of other words, especially nouns and verbs, while discouraging the use of adverbs and adjectives. Editors explained that nouns and verbs are vivid and concrete, whereas adverbs and adjectives are vague, opinionated, and unnecessary. Typically, editor Morton Sontheimer declared: "One well-chosen verb packs more power than a string of adjectives and adverbs. Leave the adjectives to the circus press agents."

3. Be Accurate

Accuracy became more important as editors changed newspapers' emphasis from opinion to news. Joseph Pulitzer found that, "One single blunder destroys confidence in a thousand statements." Other editors believed that, by itself, one mistake might not make much difference. But each time a newspaper made a mistake, a number of readers noticed it, and their trust in the newspaper was diminished. Moreover, each of those readers was likely to tell friends, so "the circle of doubt grew."

Editors were especially insistent about the correct spelling of names. Nothing offended people more than seeing their names misspelled. Thus, reporters responsible for a misspelled name were punished, even fired. Editors ordered reporters in doubt about a name's spelling to consult a telephone book or city directory. When still in doubt, they might call the person or, before the invention of the telephone, run to the person's home.

During the early 1900s, Ward Morehouse began to write for Billy Sutlive, managing editor of the Savannah Press, and found that a display of negligence or stupidity on the part of one of his reporters was likely to throw him into a rage. Sutlive was fanatical on the subject of accuracy, especially in the spelling of names. "If a man serves as a pallbearer at a funeral, however obscure, it's important to him," Sutlive would tell his staff, "and that man will be the very first to buy a copy of the paper to see if his name is in it. If we get the name wrong, or give him the wrong initial, we lose a subscriber."

Other beginners received similar lessons:

Walter Cronkite learned the need for accuracy while working for the Houston Press during the 1930s. The Press competed with the Houston Chronicle, and the Press' city editor received copies of all of the Chronicle's editions. Moreover, he noticed when the Chronicle spelled a name S-m-y-t-h whereas the Press had it S-m-i-t-h, or when the Chronicle listed an address as "1412" whereas the Press listed it as "1414." Cronkite added that, "He was a stickler for that kind of accuracy, but most editors were in those days."

Joseph McCullagh, managing editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, trained hundreds of correspondents to gather the news in outlying areas. Typically, one of McCullagh's most important rules was accuracy. "Matter sent this paper must be strictly accurate as to fact," McCullagh insisted. "Bogus items, manufactured sensations, and highly colored articles lacking in solid basis of fact are not wanted."

As a beginner in Kansas City, Martin Quigley found that, "The new man was usually assigned to calling all the ... undertakers in town twice each night to harvest, write, and verify the day's obituaries. It was dull, hard, exacting work – but tense, for the chances for error were multitudinous, and [his newspaper's editor] did not tolerate errors in obituaries." Thus, reporters assigned obituaries learned to get and check facts, and to write accurately.

Despite their best efforts, journalists never seemed able to convince the public of their accuracy. Journalists insisted that they had a passion for verification: an honest love for facts. Yet many Americans believed that much of what they read was mistaken: that reporters were slipshod and inaccurate, even deliberate falsifiers.

4. Write Simply

Editors wanted simple writing, and said the key to simplicity was the use of simple words and sentences:

  • "Short, telegraphic, crisp sentences are an excellent key to good newspaper writing," editor Morton Sontheimer explained in his autobiography. "When you come across a long sentence in your copy, see if you can't split it into two or three. Usually, you'll be surprised at how easy it is to do. And frequently you'll save words by doing it."

  • An editor in Danville, Ill., around the turn of the century advised a cub: "Write your stories simply, briefly, and to the point. Make them sound as conversational as possible. Use quotes liberally. They give sparkle to news. Avoid words not in common use and, especially, do not use foreign words. Keep your sentences short enough so they will not sound long-winded and long enough so that they will not appear choppy. Never use a semicolon when a period can be substituted."

  • As a beginner during the 1870s, Charles Diehl used an ornate style while writing about Chicago's hotels. An editor called Diehl into his office and suggested, "If you want to say, 'The hen crossed the street,' say 'The hen crossed the street,' and not that 'The feathery biped perambulated across the thoroughfare.'"

  • William Randolph Hearst established the Chicago American around 1900 and insisted that every story in the newspaper -- even stories about specialized topics such as music, drama, opera, and sports -- be written in a plain, simple language. Hearst wanted everyone who bought the American, not just the people familiars with a topic's jargon, to read, understand, and enjoy every word.

    Robert St. John obtained a job at the American and, during his first day there, consulted a dictionary in a corner of the newsroom. As St. John bent over to verify a word's spelling, city editor Bill Major shouted, "Come here!" Other journalists listened as Major asked St. John about his education. St. John admitted that he had attended college for a year or two, and Major then bellowed:
    Great God! A college man and you're looking up words in a dictionary to use in a newspaper story! Listen! We've got a couple of hundred thousand readers. Maybe half a million. They're truck drivers and shopgirls and housewives and -- Never mind who they are! If you've been to college and don't know the word, have to look it up in the dictionary, how the hell do you expect our readers to understand it?

    Use words everyone knows. We're not in the business of trying to confuse our readers, see? Or educate them, either. No fancy college-boy English. If I ever catch you going to that dictionary again you're fired, get it?

    Arthur Brisbane was another advocate of simplicity. "There's no need ever to use a word of more than three syllables in a newspaper," Brisbane advised his staff in New York. "Remember that a newspaper is mostly read by very busy people, or by very tired people, or by very uneducated people, none of whom are going to hunt up a dictionary to find out what you mean."

    Today's editors teach similar lessons. Jack Hart, writing coach at the Oregonian, complained that reporters cram too much information into sentences. "The usual sentence has five or six separate elements, and those are hard enough to keep straight," Hart said. "Keeping control of a sentence with 20 elements is like trying to herd mice."

    "Simplicity" Hart concluded, "is the surest route to clarity."

    5. Write Concisely

    Journalists' success also depended upon their ability "to say the most in the fewest words." A primer published in 1889 explained, "The most successful journalists are those able to give the facts, the whole facts, and nothing but the facts in brief, pithy sentences, the majority of which contain no more than a dozen words."

    Earl L. Shaub learned the need for speed and brevity while writing for the Cincinnati Post. "One had to be fast and accurate and keep his copy short if he wanted to stay on the payroll," Shaub said. "We were taught that brevity was an art which included all essential facts in a minimum of informative and interesting words. The shorter the news story the better, provided it didn't omit any important or entertaining details."

    Being concise was important for three reasons. First, it saved a newspaper's space. Second, it saved readers' time, since they were given only the essentials. Third, it increased stories' clarity.

    To be concise, journalists used short, simple words – and eliminated unnecessary words:

  • Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune from 1841 until his death in 1872, advised correspondents: "When you have written what you have to say ... see if there are not some sentences that could be spared without serious injury. If there are, out with them! We are compelled to decline good articles because we cannot make room for them."

  • John Cockerill, an editor in Cincinnati after the Civil War, urged reporters to shorten their stories. "If you're determined to ramble, don't write," Cockerill insisted. He returned dull stories to reporters, ordering them to "brighten up" their work (and fired those unable to do so).

  • William Randolph Hearst advised an editor in New York: "It's what you leave out of a newspaper that keeps the dullness from it. The more you leave out, the brighter the paper becomes."

  • Bill Major, a city editor in Chicago, reminded young reporters that the Book of Genesis tells the story of the Creation in 802 words. Major complained that some cubs used more words to describe a "stinking little murder."

  • 6. Be Specific

    Journalists also had to be specific. Editors wanted stories so specific that readers could visualize every scene and reach their own conclusions. Fremont Older learned that lesson in San Francisco during the 1880s. An editor at the Morning Call took a kindly interest in Older's work, advising him on ways to improve. "Never say a woman is beautiful," the editor said. "Describe her, and then let the reader judge if she's beautiful."

    Charles G. Ross received a more painful lesson. As a cub in St. Louis before World War I, Ross took a streetcar to a distant corner of the city, where a painter had fallen from a factory smokestack. It was a hot day, and Ross had to walk a long way after reaching the end of the streetcar line. By the time he reached the factory, gathered the information, returned to his office, and wrote the story, it was late in the day. An editor glanced at Ross' story, then asked, "How tall is this smokestack?"

    Ross estimated that it was "quite tall."

    "'Tall' is a relative term," his editor responded. "I want you to go back and find out the exact height." By then, it was night. Still, Ross had to return to the scene to learn the smokestack's exact height – and never forgot the lesson, "Get the facts."

    7. Remain Objective

    Journalists had opinions about some issues they covered and also were affected by some issues. Still, journalists were expected to separate their opinions from their work. Editors insisted that reporters remain neutral: that they present facts without commenting on them. Readers wanted facts and were likely to stop buying newspapers that seemed biased: that published opinions they disagreed with.

    Some editors wanted their newspapers, too, to remain noninvolved. Joseph Pulitzer, for example, insisted, "A newspaper should have no friends." While hiring an expert to write for Pulitzer, an editor said: "Write what you believe to be right. The World, Mr. Pulitzer, and I have no friends ... nor any policy that interferes with the facts."

    Journalists believed that the concept of objectivity made them open-minded, tolerant, and fair: always willing to listen to other people's ideas. While following that policy, journalists discovered that even people who expressed ideas they considered abhorrent were honest and sincere.

    8. Write Tantalizing Leads

    By the late 1800s, journalists were beginning their stories with short introductory paragraphs called "leads." Why? Editors explained that a typical reader looked at only a story's first paragraph. Editors wanted to tantalize readers: to immediately present each story's most interesting and important details: the details most likely to lure readers into a story.

    An article published in 1889 explained, "The opening sentence in a long report must be made as attractive as possible, so as to catch the eye of persons who are hurriedly glancing here and there throughout the paper for interesting items of news." An editor in New York added, "...if you don't hit a newspaper reader between the eyes with your first sentence, there is no need of writing a second one." A third journalist agreed that most readers never went beyond a story's first paragraph. "Your only chance of getting him to read on is to make that lead so interesting he can't resist," editor Morton Sontheimer said. "It's not only the most important part of the story, but the toughest part to write."

    Sontheimer recommended the formula used in successful fiction: action from the start. "Action captures the reader's interest -- and the more dramatic, the more interest," Sontheimer said. "Get the best of the action and drama the story contains into its first couple lines."

    Labert St. Clair's first assignment in 1905 involved a city council meeting, and he began by writing, "The city council met in regular session at 7:30 last night." Editor Hamilton Mercer rejected the story and told St. Clair to try again, summarizing the meeting's action -- its outcome or results -- in the first paragraph. "This will grip the reader's interest," Mercer said, "give him an idea of what happened, even if he cannot finish reading the entire article...."

    During the 1920s, Agness Underwood learned to write in Los Angeles. Underwood started as a telephone operator at the Los Angeles Record, and an older woman helped her become a reporter. Underwood's mentor explained that a story's first paragraph should "present the crux with an impact that will seize the reader's interest and stimulate curiosity for the following sentences." After mastering that and other lessons, Underwood became an editor.

    Go to part 2 of this article