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Book review: News Writing by Anna McKane

The deeper I got into this book the more I grew to like the author.

Anna McKane is a former Reuters journalist and long-time lecturer at City University in London.

The points she makes in this down-to-earth textbook for would-be journalists all ring true – and made me want to pass it on to some younger, greener colleagues once I’d written this review.

Even a reminder of the elements that make up a good article, how to spot and develop a news story, and when to strop writing are all good to know and fun to revise… it took me back to my own student journalist days and yes, it made me smile.

There is even a section on hyphens which would have made some of my old lecturers laugh – citing the dodgy “extra marital sex”, “30 odd students” and “problems associated with eating disordered children”. So where should you put that hyphen again?!

From the very basics – such as how to keep your notebook in order – she follows the professional’s journey down every avenue of the job.

She writes: “Put your name on it, and date the notebook on the front with the first day it was used. Write everything in it: the date, name and place of an event before you go to it, or the name of the interviewee before you talk to her (and check with her that you have got it right). Obviously write down what happened, but write down everything else that might be important, from the name of the news editor when you start a new job, to the name of a pub which someone recommends.

“If there is a dispute about your reporting, careful and well-organised notes may help you to prove that you have reported someone accurately and this may prevent you from getting fired.”

Sound advice indeed.

Her delivery comes across one of joy at the career she chose to make for herself.

For instance, she recalls with a lightness of touch in her writing how she spoke to a friend of the deceased after an inquest.

“We had heard in court that he was a well-known performer in local pubs and clubs, and he had collapsed on stage.

“What we didn’t hear, as I discovered from the friend, was that he was a drag artist, with a stage name which had not come out at the inquest. He was well known locally by this stage name, but not known at all by his real name.

“This information gave the story a completely different angle.”

Marvellous. Her way of working is the lifeblood of the regional press and reminds us all of the importance of the story behind the story.

She goes through the basics, such as the main source of news being events, written material and reporter-originated ideas, before sub-dividing them for further analysis.

There is also a section on what makes news, what the news threshold is, and why a different scale of events means different things to different publications.

She points out the joys and pitfalls of writing ‘soft’ news such as theatrical reviews, parades, displays and performances… and other live events, including court.

Anna warns: “You may not have time to go through many pages of notes from a three-hour court case.”

Her advice? “You have to mark a couple of good quotes, get the facts right, and be able to write it in time for the next edition.”

Some of it might sound like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs – but it needs to be said. There’s no guarantee anyone will tell the raw trainee until they get to work, and then it might be too late.

She’s au fait with the newsroom, telling the student: “Local papers tend to have unwritten rules which it will take a while for an inexperienced reporter to learn: it may be that car crashes are reported only if someone is killed, for example, or house fires only if the damage is so bad that the family has to be evacuated.”

Must-read sections include common errors with percentages, different sorts of averages, and the dangers of linking random, unrelated points.

There are sections on grammar, language and subbing, as well as clichés and avoiding the narrative.

Spotting potential pitfalls, using a story structure, writing the intro, how to do backgrounders – and an engaging foreword by Prof Peter Cole – all make this exactly the kind of book the trainee could do with in their desk drawer.

  • News Writing by Anna McKane, Sage publishing, softback £17.99 (ISBN 1-4129-1915-0)