Writing the perfect intro


The intro is the most important part of any news story. It should be direct, simple and attention-grabbing.

Image of child writing by Alec Couros and released under Creative Commons

The intro should contain the most important elements of the story - but not the whole story. The details can be told later.

It should arouse the interest of the reader or listener, and be short. Normally it should be one sentence of not more than 20 words for print media, and fewer for radio and television.

This is an edited piece from The News Manual. Unlike other material on this site it's not covered by Creative Commons. Please check with the editor if you want to reproduce it.

The purpose of the intro

  • The intro should be based on the most newsworthy aspect of the story
  • The intro should be kept short, uncluttered and relevant to the main story. It should be simple grammatically
  • The intro should make the reader want to read the rest of the story
  • The intro should be appropriate in style to the story.

Newsworthy

To write an intro, you must first decide what makes the story news. There may be several things which are newsworthy in the story. If so, you have to decide which is the most newsworthy. This will be in the intro.

In this way, your readers or listeners will be provided with the most important information straight away. Even if they stop reading or listening after the first one or two sentences, they will still have an accurate idea of what the story is about.

One simple way to do this is to imagine yourself arriving back at your office and being asked by the chief of staff: "What happened?" Your quick answer to that question, in very few words, should be the basis of your intro.

With some years of experience, you will find that you can recognise the most newsworthy aspect of a story almost without thinking. While you are still learning, though, it is useful to have a step-by-step technique to use. We shall explain this technique in detail later in this chapter.

Short and simple

Your intro should normally be no longer than 20 words. There is no minimum length. An intro of 10 or 12 words can be very effective.

Usually, an intro will be one sentence. However, two short sentences are better than one long, crowded and confused sentence.

The words you use should be short and simple, and the grammar should be clear and simple.

You should not try to give too much detail in the intro. The six main questions which journalists try to answer - Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? - will all need to be answered in your news story, but they should not all be answered in your intro. Try to remember these questions as The Five Ws and H - WWWWWH.

For each of those six key questions, you will need to ask whether this detail makes the story news. For example, who was drowned? A woman called Mary. Suppose it had been somebody else - would the story have been stronger, weaker or the same? Only if this detail makes the story stronger should it be in the intro.

The golden rule for intro-writing is KISS - Keep It Short and Simple.

Attract the reader

The intro is the most important part of the news story, because it determines whether the rest of the story will be read.

If the intro is dull the reader will not want to read on. If it is too complicated the reader will give up.

Your time and effort in gathering information and writing the story will all be wasted unless you write a good intro.

Appropriate style

Not all possible intros are appropriate. It would be wrong to write a humorous intro for a story about a tragedy. Serious news stories call for serious intros.

For example, if a man was eaten by the pet crocodile he had reared from an egg, it might seem amusing to use the saying about "biting the hand that feeds you", but it would cause great hurt to the man's family and friends for no good reason (apart from trying to show how clever you are).

Simple steps in writing the intro

Later, we will look in detail at how you gather information for a news story. For the moment, we will concentrate on how you write your news story based on that information.

You will have in front of you a notebook or a tape with a record of one or more interviews which you have conducted. You may also have information from other sources, such as handouts. Wherever your information comes from, your approach must be the same.

Key points

Before you write anything, you have to decide what is the most newsworthy aspect of the story. To do this, let us remind ourselves of the main criteria for news:

  • Is it new?
  • Is it unusual?
  • Is it interesting or significant?
  • Is it about people?

Any fact or opinion which meets some or all of these criteria is what we call a key point. All the key points belong in the news story, but only the most newsworthy belong in the intro. It is your job to decide which.

Go through your notes, go through the handouts and, on a piece of paper, list all the key points.

Now go through the list of key points, ranking them in order of newsworthiness, according to the criteria we have just mentioned. The key point which best meets the criteria will be number one on your list.

Let us do this with the following example.

Information

At 2 a.m. yesterday morning, meteorologists at the Nadi Weather Centre detected a cyclone developing rapidly near Nauru and moving quickly south-west across the Pacific towards the Solomon Islands. They named the cyclone "Victor".

At 3 a.m., they contacted the Solomon Islands government warning of the approach of Cyclone Victor. Government officials immediately put emergency plans into operation.

They warned all shipping in the area of the cyclone's approach. They broadcast warnings on the radio, and alerted the police, who in turn sent officers to warn the people.

By 10 a.m., winds in Honiara were blowing at more than 140 kilometres per hour. At about midday, the centre of the cyclone passed directly over Honiara before tracking into the Coral Sea, where it blew itself out.

In Honiara, more than 20 houses were destroyed and a number of other buildings sustained considerable structural damage. More than 100 people are now homeless. Six people were killed. Another 18 people have been treated in hospital for minor injuries. Mopping-up operations have started in Honiara.

The emergency services are still awaiting news from outlying districts but believe that Honiara has been the worst affected.

Police say that of the six people who died, three men drowned when their car was blown off the road into a river, and two women and a man were killed by flying debris.

Analysis

First we go through the story picking out the key points. For the purposes of this exercise, we shall limit ourselves to six or seven of the most important ones.

Remember our four criteria and test each of the facts against them.

For example, how new, unusual or significant is it that meteorologists in Nadi detected the cyclone? After all, this is one of their jobs. Also it happened at 2 a.m. yesterday, many hours ago. More significant and certainly more up-to-date is the fact that they warned the Solomon Islands government. Maybe that is not too unusual in the event of a cyclone, but certainly an unusual occurrence in the day-to-day communication between the two nations. We will make that a key point:

a) Nadi meteorologists warn Solomon Islands government of approach of Cyclone Victor.

Now let us look for our next key point. Key point (a) is about meteorologists and government officials. We have to read on a bit further to find facts about the Solomon Islanders themselves, the people most affected by the cyclone. They were first alerted to the cyclone by radio broadcasts and police officers. They would have found this unusual and highly significant. Let us make this our next key point:

b) Solomon Islanders themselves warned of approaching cyclone.

Next we have mostly weather details. These should be reported in our story, but they do not themselves tell us much about the effect the cyclone is going to have on people's lives. Those people live in Honiara and we learn that 20 of their homes have been destroyed. This is quite new, unusual, significant and about people - another key point:

c) More than 20 houses destroyed and other buildings sustained considerable structural damage.

Key point (c) tells us about "houses", now we learn the fate of the people in them. More than 100 people now have nowhere to live. That is unusual and very significant for both the people themselves and for the government. It is also as up-to-date as we can get:

d) More than 100 people homeless.

The next sentence gives us the real tragedy of the story - six people have been killed. This fact fills all the criteria for news. It is new, it is unusual for a number of people to die so suddenly in such circumstances and it is significant for their families, friends and the authorities. Most important, it is about people:

e) Six people killed.

We could leave it there, because mopping up after a cyclone is not unusual and it appears that Honiara was the worst hit. There are, however, 18 people who will bear some scars from the cyclone, so let's make them a key points:

f) Eighteen people treated for minor injuries.

Right at the end of the information we find out how the six people died. Our readers or listeners will be interested in this, so we will make it our final key point:

g) Three drowned and three killed by flying debris.

Notice that we have left out a number of details which our reader or listener might like to know. We can come back to them in the main body of the story.

For now, we have seven key points. We cannot possibly get them all in an intro so we must choose one, possibly two, which are the best combination of our news criteria.

News angle

In most events journalists report on, there will be several ways of looking at the facts. A weatherman may take a detached scientific view of Cyclone Victor, an insurance assessor will focus on damage to buildings, a Solomon Islander will be interested in knowing about the dead and injured. They all look at the same event from a different angle. Journalists are trained to look at events from a certain angle - we call it the news angle.

The news angle is that aspect of a story which we choose to highlight and develop. We do not do this by guesswork, but by using the four criteria for news which helped us to select our key points. The news angle is really nothing more than the most newsworthy of all our key points.

With this in mind, let us now select the news angle for our intro from the key points. Keep referring back to the Information given earlier in the chapter.

Key points (a) and (b) are not very new, nor are they really about people (simply meteorologists and governments). Key point (c) is about buildings, and the point is made better in (d) when we translate destroyed houses into homeless people. Key points (e), (f) and (g) are all about people. People slightly injured (f) are not as important as people killed (e). Key points (e) and (g) are about the same fact, but (e) gives the details in fewer words and is therefore preferable for an intro.

We are left with a shortlist of (d), (e) and (f). Because 100 people homeless is more significant than 18 people slightly injured, let us take out (f). We can always use it later in the story to fill in details. That leaves us with (e) as the most newsworthy fact, followed by (d):

Six people killed. More than 100 people homeless.

Here we have our news angle, the basis for our intro, but on their own these eight words will leave our reader or listener more confused than enlightened. This is because we have told them part of what has happened, but not who, where, when, how or why. You should never try to answer all these questions in the intro, but we have to tell our audience enough to put the bald facts - six people killed, more than 100 people homeless - in context. Let us do it:

Six people killed. More than 100 people homeless...Where? ... Honiara, Solomon Islands. When? ... yesterday. How?... Cyclone Victor passed through Honiara.

Exactly who the victims were, why they died and what else happened need to be told in greater detail than we have space for in an intro. We will leave that until the Chapter 6.

We do, however, have enough facts to write our intro, once we have rearranged them into grammatical English. Let us do that:

Six people were killed and more than 100 people were left homeless in Honiara in the Solomon Islands yesterday when Cyclone Victor passed through Honiara.

The word count for this sentence is 25, which is too long. We repeat words unnecessarily, such as "people were" and "Honiara", and we should be able to find a simpler and more direct word than "passed through". Let us write it again:

Six people were killed and more than 100 left homeless when Cyclone Victor hit Honiara in the Solomon Islands yesterday.


This is very nearly correct, but it contains a strange expression: "hit Honiara in the Solomon Islands". This sounds too much like "hit John in the face", so it may confuse our reader or listener. (How could Honiara be hit in the Solomon Islands?)

We must simplify this. If we are writing this story for a Solomon Islands audience, then we can leave out "in the Solomon Islands". After all, Solomon Islanders know where Honiara is:

Six people were killed and more than 100 left homeless when Cyclone Victor hit Honiara yesterday.

If we are writing this story for readers or listeners in any other country, we can leave "Honiara" out of the intro. Of course, we shall include this important detail in the second or third paragraph. Our intro will look like this:

Six people were killed and more than 100 left homeless when Cyclone Victor hit the Solomon Islands yesterday.

Of course, not all stories are as simple to see and write as this. But by applying this step-by-step approach of identifying the key points and ranking them in order before you write, you should be able to write an intro for any story.


To summarise:


The intro should be

  • newsworthy
  • 20 words or less
  • attractive to the reader
  • appropriate in style.

When writing your intro:

  • List the key points
  • Put the key points in order of importance
  • Choose the main key points as your news angle for the intro

The News ManualThis module is a one of six from The News Manual reproduced here with permission. Unlike other modules on this site, The News Manual modules are not covered by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA. If you want to reproduce any you will need to contact the editor.

Image by Alec Couros and released under Creative Commons.

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