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Word Matters: Three Tips from the World of Journalism

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor

Mary Vitcenda Journalism has been transformed in the digital age, but its basic principles still hold true — and apply to writing at FD. Given my background in journalism, I often bring those principles to my editing, especially the cardinal rule to get the facts right.

If you’re unsure about something you have just written, verify the accuracy of information in your draft before publication. Actually, it’s a good idea to do a fact check with reliable sources even when you think something is correct. We’ve all fallen into the trap of assuming accuracy and having to back track. So:

Tip 1: Check the facts.

But back to journalistic principles, and more to the subject of this column — journalistic practices. How do they apply to writing at FD? Let’s look at two long-standing conventions of journalism and how you might use them to strengthen your writing. First, consider the 5 Ws of reporting:
  • Who was involved?
  • What happened?
  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why (and how) did it happen?
These are not only questions the readers and listeners of news stories ask. They’re also questions that FD audiences ask, and you’ll need to answer them in your writing — whether you’re developing a report, a web page, a fact sheet, or a video script. See Children’s Mental Health Case Studies for an example of a web page that hits the 5 Ws.

There it is:

Tip 2: Cover the facts. You’ll find that answering the 5Ws for your audiences helps you learn more about your subject.

Next, consider the inverted-pyramid structure (see graphic). This journalistic practice puts the most “newsworthy” information first — in summary form — and then adds more detail in descending order of importance. In academic terms, this is stating your thesis — your main ideas — first and adding supporting material later.

Inverted Pyramid Writing infographic
Figure credit: Mary Vitcenda.

In “hard news” reporting, answers to all the 5W questions go in the first one or two paragraphs of text. You don’t have to be that strict in FD writing. Nor should you forego use of storytelling, anecdotes, and other techniques from fiction to engage audiences in your non-fiction writing. But in general, you should strive to present the most essential information as quickly and concisely as possible, i.e., summarize it at the top of whatever you’re creating. Here’s an example of a recent blog post written in the inverted-pyramid structure: Who Provides SNAP-Ed in Minnesota?

Why is it important to get to the point fast? Because most readers and listeners are impatient, or they’re pressed for time. This is especially true on the web, where visitors scan pages quickly and depart just as quickly if they don’t immediately find what they’re looking for. Your audiences (and Hannah!) will thank you for using the inverted-pyramid structure. Here’s an example of the inverted-pyramid structure applied to a Teen Talk fact sheet: Teens and Family Meals. This fact sheet doesn’t read exactly like a news article. However, it sticks to the structure in that the main ideas are stated at the top, and supporting information follows. To recap:

Tip 3: Get to the facts. You’ll find that following the inverted-pyramid structure helps you present the facts in an organized way that’s easy for your audience to read and follow. And that’s especially important at Extension, where we pride ourselves on being an evidence- and research-based institution.

Having the facts is one thing, while communicating them in engaging, accessible ways is another. So if the inverted-pyramid structure and other journalistic tools help us do that, why not use them?

Updated May 4, 2016
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