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How to Write for Media (part two)

October 17, 2013
Welcome back to Public Information. This month, we’ll continue with our series on how to write for media. 

Last time I discussed understanding what your audience wants and learning the specialized style used by media professionals. This month, I want to discuss story structure and deadlines.

Step 3: Write in an inverted pyramid
Like most people who didn’t go to journalism school, you probably write exactly how you talk. On paper, this leads to circuitous paragraphs of useless, but cordial, information all placed at the top of the story (precisely the place we need focused, purposeful language). Why? Because as children we’re taught that being overly direct is rude. 

Here’s the thing: No one reads beyond the headline and first paragraph. Journalists know this, so they sum up the story in the headline, then give you who, what, when, where and why in the first two sentences. 

That counterintuitive structure is called in inverted pyramid, because everything broadly important is at the top, and everything narrowly useful is at the bottom. Anything, and I do mean anything, placed under that vital lead and “nutgraph” -- your nutritious nut of information – can and will get cut to make room for ads, because they pay the bills.

So when you write, create a one-line headline (no more than 7 words) that sums up exactly what you’re trying to get across, usually the event name with a date. You can also use a one-line sub-headline that explains the second most important information, like cost or place. 

The first sentence should look something like: Your organization is doing something at this time and place. The second should look like: Here is why this is important, and how you can find out more information should you want it.

From there, use quotes that illuminate the subject but don’t contain overly technical language. You want to fight at all times the perception that its government as usual in your organization. Remember: Be welcoming, not technical.

The nice part is that after a while, you begin to internalize this structure, so it becomes second nature.

Step 4: Do it early
I cannot emphasize this enough. If you know something is coming up, write the release early, get away from it, and then come back to it. You’ll be shocked how different copy looks a day later. 

Also, doing the work early combats what I call the 90/10 rule: On any project, the first 90 percent takes 10 percent of the time. The last 10 percent takes 90 percent of the time.

When you’re rushing to get something out the door, that’s when mistakes happen. And mistakes will happen, so decrease the chances by giving yourself plenty of breathing room. 

That’s it for this month.
Jason Wright is Communications Manager for the Georgia Tech Research Library. Up until November 2015, he was the Director of Innovation and Engagement for the City of Milton where he oversaw all aspects of the city's branding and communications efforts, including transparency, automation, design, photography, printing, web services and social media and public outreach.

Prior to Milton, Wright spent seven years working in the magazine and newspaper business. Most recently he was editor of both the Milton Herald and Alpharetta–Roswell Revue and News, where he wrote, edited, photographed for and oversaw design of the weekly papers. Prior to that, he worked as a writer, editor, designer and photographer for local, regional and national publication.