Ernest Hemingway made it famous. Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein broke the biggest political scandal of the 20th century with it. Anyone who reads a newspaper sees it every day: the terse, factual, active-voice writing style journalists use to report on-the-spot news around the globe as fast as their fingers can type (or write).
Master this muscular prose and you’ll become a better writer who can say more with less. You’ll open new markets for the short, newsworthy articles that populate publications of all sizes and subjects.
Finally, you’ll become a market-ready member of the digital literati who inhabit the Internet — scribes who write for quick reading and short attention spans in the lean prose environment of the personal computer.
The Rules of Style
Style, say the artistes, can’t be taught. Nonsense, say journalism professors and their students who have, for decades, learned to write tight, efficient stories for the world’s news publications.
Otherwise known as Associated Press (AP) or wire style, journalistic prose follows prescribed rules that almost any writer can easily learn — without a degree in journalism.
A collection of these reportorial rules — the AP Stylebook — “is often called the Bible of news writing” said Cameo Publications president Dawn Josephson, who at age eight sold her first story to New York Newsday. Josephson has used AP style to sell over 1,000 articles to such magazines and newspapers as Business Week, Entrepreneur, and USA Today.
Twenty-five years ago, the AP Stylebook started as a cooperative publication between the world’s two largest newswire services: the Associated Press and UPI (United Press International). The two wire services eventually diverged, and AP captured the market for its 400-page stylebook, a staple in journalism schools, newspapers, magazines, and almost any publication that reports on any subject.
Six major areas define AP style, according to Josephson: numbers, names, dates and times, addresses, punctuation, and abbreviations. For example, “you spell numbers zero through nine,” said Josephson, also the author of Putting It On Paper: The Ground Rules for Creating Promotional Pieces that Sell Books and So You Wanna Be a Ghostwriter.
“Double digit numbers and above require the use of figures, until you get to the high numbers, such as millions and billions.”
Other peccadilloes: wire style always uses quotation marks in place of italics, and “innocent” instead of “not guilty.”
“If a wire editor accidentally hits delete on ‘not,’ there’s big trouble,” said former AP reporter and Boca Raton, Fla. public relations exec Mary Hightower.
Example 1: Jurors in a criminal trial today declared OJ Simpson — who led LA police on a slow motion, 55 mile-per-hour car chase — innocent of murder.
Example 2: Despite taking the stand in his own defense, OJ Simpson felt the wrath of 12 angry jurors, who today ordered the former football star to pay civil damages of 20 million dollars to the two families of his alleged victims.
While AP rules may seem arbitrary, they “make it easier for readers to follow the text without being interrupted by inconsistencies or lots of punctuation and symbols,” said Josephson.
Leading from the End
The New York Times is famous for its strong leads: the introductory sentences that state the story’s climax — first.
“Unlike the essay, which can take a few paragraphs to develop, the news story makes its main point in the opening,” said Pennsylvania State University journalism and communications professor R. Thomas Berner.
AP style dispenses with a basic rule of good writing: “slowly build to a strong climax” — for good reason.
“You want to state the most important point first and then work down, almost like an inverted pyramid,” Josephson explained. “This allows editors to ‘chop’ off the bottom text if the piece is too long to fit and it saves editors time.”
For a hypothetical war report, “instead of talking about the battle for three paragraphs and then stating that seven people died, you start your story with ‘Seven soldiers were killed yesterday in ambush fire….’,” Josephson advised. “Then you describe the battle itself.”
Length, position, voice, and content — AP style governs the basics of that most basic element of writing — the sentence.
The first rule of sentence construction — pare until spare.
“Usually, sentences of 17-22 words form short, direct paragraphs,” in the news story, Berner said.
Simple economics and new technology shortened the reporter’s sentence, explained Hightower.
“Two factors shaped wire style — the need to produce accurate stories quickly and the limited ‘bandwidth’ of the wires that carried the dispatches” through telegraphs, said Hightower, who spent nearly 10 years at the AP as a reporter, editor and assistant to Chris French — the esteemed Stylebook editor.
Today, limited bandwidth plagues the Internet — the same way it plagued the telegraph.
“Telegraph time was very costly,” said Hightower. “To save money on the amount of telegraph time used, stories became very lean — quite a contrast to the often florid writing style of the time.”
Reporters also write sparingly to achieve clarity.
“At the AP, you write for the world,” Hightower said. “The last thing you want is for an editor 10 time zones away to look at your story and wonder, ‘did the writer mean this or that?'”
The same admonition holds true for Internet writers, whose words can also reach the world.
Although wire writers do use longer formats, “the aim remains the same,” Hightower explained. “Tell the story economically and creatively to communicate important points quickly. I often compare wire style with haiku. It’s lyrical, descriptive, and minimalist.”
Former Kansas City and Toronto Star reporter Ernest Hemingway used his journalistic style in this lyrical, descriptive, and minimalist passage from A Farewell to Arms:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.”
Leading — by Example
Lead sentences — which should represent the best in wire writing — contain both subtle and overt style points.
Example 1: A space probe may have made the biggest discovery in scientific history — microscopic organisms thriving beneath the red surface of Mars.
For the safety of both Martian and Earthling, researchers have no immediate plans to bring the microbes to this planet.
Example 2: The mysterious red planet that has long fascinated Earthlings with its potential for life — Mars — is teaming with microscopic organisms, researchers said today.
Bringing the organisms back to Earth, however, may be years away.
In each example, 10 – 25 word sentences tell the most important part of the story — typically 300 to 500 words — first: researchers say they have found life on Mars.
Rather than boldly stating, “scientists found life on Mars,” however, each lead uses qualifiers — “may” and “researchers said today.”
The main point of each sentence also precedes the identification of the person making the point.
Instead of “Researchers said today that Mars is teaming with microbes,” the sentence should read “Mars is teaming with microbes, researchers said today.”
Quotes, too, always precede the quoted party’s name, which should in turn precede any identifying information about that person.
Commonwealth State University Professor of astrobiology Martin Smith said: “This discovery….” should instead read, “This discovery is the biggest in scientific history,” said Martin Smith, a professor of astrobiology at Commonwealth State University in Braddock, Florida.
Finally, newswire sentences are always active. Instead of “OJ Simpson was acquitted by 12 jurors today,” the sentence should read “Twelve jurors today acquitted OJ Simpson,” with the word “twelve” a more reader-friendly choice than “12” to start the sentence.
Evolution of a Reporter
Novice news writers should “buy a copy of the AP Stylebook and use it,” Dawn Josephson advised. “Also, read lots of newspapers to get a feel for the style and then imitate the good ones.”
“The best ways to learn wire style are to work with a good editor and to read the AP Stylebook,” Mary Hightower agreed. “It also helps to read wire stories once you know what characteristics you’re seeking.”
After answering a “science writer” position ad at JournalismJobs.com, this then-novice news writer began reporting science and technology news for United Press International in 2001.
With neither an English nor journalism degree, I picked up wire style by reading both the AP Stylebook and UPI’s in-house manuals. In a few months, my writing evolved — from gabby and flabby to lean and mean.
Now, I make between $2000.00 and $3000.00 monthly writing primarily short news stories, many of which I have collected at weeklyscientist.com.
Wire style, Hightower said, “is generally considered the benchmark style for all journalism, so newspapers, broadcast outlets, and of course, the wires themselves” purchase wire-style stories from freelance reporters known as “stringers.”
Wire style is also the best tool for writing short articles.
“Flip through the latest edition of Writer’s Market, and read what editors want,” writes Behlor Santi in Short Articles For Fun And Profit at WritersWeekly.com. “Break in by writing short pieces… Break in with our department articles… Break in with short news articles about our industry….”
These days, Santi explains, “more editors expect beginning writers to submit short articles — newsbreaks, book reviews, short humor, anything under 500 or 600 words.”
In his article, Santi lists 11 paying short-article markets, including such top publications as True West, Air and Space/Smithsonian Magazine, and Guideposts For Kids.
Public relations firms also hire freelancers to write press releases — using the style most familiar to the reporters they want to impress.
“In public relations, we’re picky about AP style,” Hightower said. “There are two former AP staffers in our office, and it is so much of a habit that AP style pervades our memos, thank-you notes, etc.”
Memo from the Master
“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Hemingway advised writers in A Moveable Feast. “Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence and go on from there.”
If, as Keats said, truth is beauty, follow the simple rules of newswire style to create beautiful sentences with brilliant potential and, like Hemingway, go on from there.
Former UPI senior science correspondent Mike Martin is now the lead research and innovation writer for NewsFactor Networks, the world’s largest information technology newswire service. Martin has published news articles in such magazines as MacLean’s, Spirituality and Health, and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. He regularly writes for Science and Spirit, and clients he located via WritersWeekly.com, including ComputerBits and the St. Louis Journalism Review. He hosts the weekly Science Guy radio show on KFRU in Columbia, Missouri.