August 13, 2002
All writing is selection and the writer who writes with effective brevity has focused on the essential tension that will resonate within the reader. The well-written short will expand in the reader’s mind so that it says many times more than what was on the page. Selection allows readers to make a story their own, finding in what has happened to others, what has happened, is happening, or may happen to them.

— Donald M. Murray

A Process Approach to Short News Writing

Good writing may be magical, but it’s not magic. It is the by-product of a rational series of decisions and actions. Fortunately for those of us struggling to write well, that process can be observed, understood and, on the best days, repeated.

No matter what the story’s length, writing requires the same process of reporting, focusing, organizing, drafting and rewriting information into lively and clear prose. But there are special techniques and approaches that will help the writer who is writing short and wants to write well.

The process is the skeleton beneath any story. By articulating the steps that produce effective writing, writers can more effectively diagnose and solve their writing problems. Writers and editors who share a common view and vocabulary of the writing process become collaborators rather than adversaries.


Writers begin with an IDEA, either their own or an assignment from an editor. Good writers usually come up with their own ideas – editors expect that enterprise and rely on them to see stories that others don’t see.


  • Move quickly from assignment to budget line.
  • Decide on a focus early but being willing to be flexible, to change with the information you report.


We don’t write with words. We write with specific, accurate information. Not just who, what, when, where and why, but how. What did it look like? What sounds echoed? What scents lingered in the air? Why did people care? The writer begins to REPORT, casting as wide a net as possible: interviewing, reading, observing, taking notes. Storytellers aren’t tied to their desk. They are out in the streets. They’re the reporters who show up before the press conference and hang around after it’s over, the ones who interview the victim two weeks after the shooting. They know that stories don’t end after the arrest or the election. “The importance of the writer,” the novelist James Baldwin said, “is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.”


  • Be ruthless about finding the heart of the story: an effective story has a single dominant impression.
  • Keep in mind the “iceberg effect”. The strength of a story is the mountain of reporting that lies underneath, the interviews, details, understanding that the writer will never see but will infuse your story with power.
  • Mine for gold: With short stories you only want the best; the most illustrative anecdote, the most telling detail, the most pungent quote, the most revealing statistic,
  • Look for revealing details that put people on the page. The female police officer who wears “size four steel-toe boots.” The widow who sprays her dead husband’s aftershave on her pillow. “In a good story,” says David Finkel of The Washington Post, “a paranoid schizophrenic doesn’t just hear imaginary voices, he hears them say, ‘Go kill a policeman.’ ” Use the five senses in your reporting and a few others: sense of place, sense of people, sense of time, sense of drama.


I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.

— Blaise Pascal

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.

— Henry David Thoreau

Once the writer accumulates a wealth of material — statistics, quotations, differing opinions — confusion often sets in. What does it all mean? What’s the significance of what I’ve learned? As writers try to answer those questions, they begin to FOCUS on the elements that make their subject compelling. Good writers know that a story should leave a single, dominant impression.

“The most important thing in the story,” says Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post, “is finding the central idea. It’s one thing to be given a topic, but you have to find the idea or the concept within that topic. Once you find that idea or thread, all the other anecdotes, illustrations and quotes are pearls that hang on this thread. The thread may seem very humble, the pearls may seem very flashy, but it’s still the thread that makes the necklace.”


  • Write your story in six words
  • Write a budget line
  • Ask two questions that keep track of the focus of any story: What’s the news? What’s the point? They address the reader’s concerns: What’s new here? What’s this story about? Why am I reading this?


Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

— William Strunk, Jr.

I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil.

— Truman Capote

A shape begins to emerge, and with it, a way to tell the story. The writer begins to ORGANIZE the story now. Some writers make a formal outline. Others jot down a list of the points they want to cover. Writers are always looking for a new way to tell their story, to stretch the traditional forms, to experiment.

Writing the lead often helps writers devise their plan of attack. Effective leads “shine a flashlight into the story,” as John McPhee of the New Yorker puts it. It is the first step of a journey. Just as important, if not more, is the last step, the ending. A map also furnishes another essential ingredient for a journey: a destination.


  • “Think ‘short’ from the beginning. That’s a suggestion echoed in The Elements of Style, Strunk & White’s indispensable guide: “You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another.” Staying faithful to an 800-word length will help you jettison irrelevant information and avoid reporting detours that might be interesting but will consume valuable time.
  • End it first. Once you settle on a destination, it’s easier to plan your route.
  • Work the Rubik’s Cube. Move, cut, shift the elements of your story.
  • Try New York Times writer Rick Bragg’s “Five Boxes: approach. Bragg doesn’t outline his stories, but he does preach the value of the “five boxes” method of story organization.

    1. The first box, the lead, contains the image or detail that draws people in the story.
    2. The second box is a “nut graph” that sums up the story.
    3. The third box begins with a new image or detail that resembles a lead and precedes the bulk of the narrative.
    4. The fourth box contains material that is less compelling but rounds out the story.
    5. The fifth, and last, box is the “kicker,” an ending featuring a strong quote or image that leaves the reader with a strong emotion.

“Even if you just completely scramble it later on, at least it got you rolling,” Bragg says in Best Newspaper Writing 1996.


When I see a paragraph shrinking under my eyes like a strip of bacon in a skillet, I know I’m on the right track.

— Peter de Vries

The writer is ready to DRAFT the story, almost like an artist with a sketchpad. It may start with a line, a paragraph, perhaps even several pages. The writer is discovering the story by writing it. Writers use the draft to teach themselves what they know and don’t know about their subject. Saul Pett, a veteran feature writer for the Associated Press, says, “Before it’s finished, good writing always involves a sense of discipline, but good writing begins in a sense of freedom, of elbow room, of space, of a challenge to grope and find the heart of the matter.”


  • Write early: Find out what you know, what you need to know
  • Write the end first. Most reporters concentrate on the lead. When you’re writing short, especially, the ending is more important for time management and psychological reasons.
  • Find a narrative line
  • Put your notes aside before you start to write. “Notes are like velcro,” says, Jane Harrigan of the University of New Hampshire. “As you try to skim them, they ensnare you, and pretty soon you can’t see the story for the details.” Her advice: Repeat over and over, “The story is not in my notes. The story is in my head.”


The main rule of a writer is never to pity your manuscript. If you see something is no good, throw it away and begin again. A lot of writers have failed because they have too much pity. They have already worked so much, they cannot just throw it away. But I say that the wastepaper basket is a writer’s best friend. My wastepaper basket is on a steady diet.

— Isaac Bashevis Singer

Like a surgeon, right down to the bone.

— Anne Sexton

Good writers are rarely satisfied. They write a word, then scratch it out, or in this computer age, tap the delete key, and try again. The writer has begun to REWRITE. “Nonwriters think of rewriting as a matter of tinkering, touching up, making presentable, but writers know it is central to the act of discovering,” says Don Murray, author of Writing for Your Readers: Notes on the Writer’s Craft from the Boston Globe.

The writing process isn’t a straight line. Often the writer circles back to re-report, re-focus, re-organize. Good writers are never content. They’re always trying to find better details, a sharper focus, a beginning that captivates, an ending that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.


  • Leave yourself time to make it the best it can be
  • Raise the bar: is it good enough?
  • Murder your darlings
  • Cut “like a surgeon,” as poet Anne Sexton says. “Down to the bone.”
  • Select, don’t compress: Wholes, not parts
  • Is there a beginning, middle and end?
  • Is the ending resonant?

    • Are the sentences active?
    • Can I use punctuation as a tool?
    • Role play the reader. Step back and pretend you’re reading your story for the first time. Does the lead make you want to keep reading? Does it take you too long to learn what the story is about and why it’s important? If not, are you intrigued enough to keep reading anyway? What questions do you have about the story? Are they answered in the order you would logically ask them?

Good writing is like a window pane.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or jargon word if you think you can use an everyday equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

— George Orwell

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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