What is the Best Journalistic Style?



Writing Procedures:

To perform effectively in writing, a journalist must formulate writing procedures suiting his temperament and training. However, the following tips would help to build an individual style:

i. Research your writing;

ii. Organize your writing project, deciding what you plan to cover and the audience you plan to write for;

iii. Understand the basic elements of style to achieve consistency in format, language "and punctuation;

iv. Plan for review of your material for technical accuracy;

v. Understand the procedures involved in the publication of your material;

vi. Understand how the final manuscript is assembled for publi­cation and how to coordinate the work of other departments, such as graphic arts, technical typing, and the print shop.

Organising the Writing:

The most agonizing time for the writer is the initial period when you sit staring at a blank sheet of paper, waiting for the words to come. Since you have covered the event and have the necessary points already jotted down, words do come in their sequence, but a writer may waste a lot of time and effort before the words make sense. After many false starts and much re-writing you finally arrange your thoughts in some kind of a reasonable order and start stating them clearly, accurately and completely.

However, you may not have to waste much time if you are duly equipped with the ways to communicate effectively with your readers. It is therefore desirable that you must organise your writing. The first thing you will need for organising your material is detailed knowledge about the history of the topic you have taken up.

Supposing you are reporting on fire in your city, you must have knowledge regarding how fires take place, what havoc the fires usually cause, how lives can be lost, property destroyed, equipments damaged, furniture burnt and so on. Besides a command of the vocabulary and the right expression so you must also have the basic grounding in the topics you wish to cover.

It is for the above reason that every journalist is usually supposed to maintain the necessary literature, particularly press cuttings of reports on different subjects for reference when he has to write his own on one of the subjects.

Specialisation :

Day by day journalists are supposed to become specialists; for instance, most of the newspapers have separate correspondents for different branches of coverage-economics, politics, commerce, stock exchange, courts, sports and, in fact, quite a few for each if the newspaper is well established. No wonder, such specialisation demands effective handling of each item covered. The journalist should not only have on his finger tips all the facts and figures but also be a competent analyst of such data. He should be able to focus the human value of the new event concerning the subject.

Thus, a correspondent after due training becomes a competent researcher. To achieve the research status it is desirable to under­stand the meaning of research in writing. For this purpose, a study of the following method of conducting research would be useful:

i. Define your research requirements.

ii. Identify your sources of information

How much research do you need to do before you begin your writing? That depends on how much you know. If you must write a maintenance manual for a piece of sophisticated machinery, the research task might be enormous. If you are preparing a report on the feasibility of expanding certain territories for a trade, you might already have your general arguments in mind and need only to research the details-the facts and figures. But unless you have almost perfect knowledge of your subject and a talent for total recall, you must do some research. In researching your writing, you need to ask yourself three basic questions:

i. What do I need to know?

ii. What are the sources of information available to me?

iii. How do I use those sources to extract the information require?

At what point are you able to decide, in a general way, what you need to know for your writing project? Place a check' inside the correct answer.

i. When you are assigned, or when you assign yourself the writing project.

ii. When you have completed your outline.

iii. When you revise your first draft.

When you have completed your outline and only when you have established what will be included in your writing can you decide what you already know and what you must find out. Sometimes you will find, as a result of your research; that you need to change your out­line to include or exclude material. Remember that the outline should be flexible. It is a guide, not a law.

2. Background information is often necessary for you to grasp the material about which you intend to write, and it is easy to locate bibliographies on a vast array of technical subjects. Rather than grope around hoping to stumble upon useful information, seek out the person in charge of the technical literature in your newspaper to help you identify the best sources of information for your topic.


Style is concerned with the manner in which you present your information, not the content. The following tips for developing a style may be helpful:

i. Identify the basic elements of style.

ii. Select a format for a particular writing project,

iii. Follow consistent usage in language.

iv. Punctuate clearly and consistently.

Language has a special significance for a journalist. An element of style is sometimes called terminology or mechanics of language. Language is concerned with the exact manner in which words and phrases are presented in writing. It includes abbreviations, capitaliza­tion, compounding, and other details of the written language.

One might argue that punctuation falls within this definition. It does. But punctuation is important enough to be dealt with as a separate element, so we can limit our definition of language even more: When you read a passage aloud, every word or phrase that you hear is included as a language. But those details that you do not hear, except as voice inflections or pauses, are included in the element of punctua­tion. If this definition of language seems a bit arbitrary, it does make the subject of style easier to deal with.

Punctuation then is that portion of the language that is written but not spoken. Punctuation marks as commas, periods, and parentheses might be regarded as signposts that make understanding easier. The punctuation marks may be heard in the spoken language as pauses or voice inflections, but they are not heard as words. Some authorities regard capitalization as a detail of punctuation, but by our definition, it is part of the way a word is presented and thus is language, not punctuation.

Simplicity Preferred:

The type of English used in modern journalism is simple, direct and incisive. The emphasis is on clarity rather than circumlocution. The cliche has given place to the unaffected phrase. Therefore, in all news or editorial writing, a journalist should make sure that the meaning of everything he writes is crystal clear-no ambiguity even in the briefest paragraph. Absolute clarity is the first essential.

The use of literary words or Latin or French words, simply to make them interesting, serves little purpose in journalistic writing unless there is no English word to represent the same meaning. A journalist should develop an easily understandable and forceful style.

The ability to write good English can be-cultivated. A young journalist should concentrate carefully upon its acquisition. It is not a matter simply of acquiring a characteristically journalistic phraseology. Imitation is of no real value in journalism. Every journalist has to develop his individuality. In the early stages of his training, a journalist has to largely depend on self-training.

He should take every opportunity to compare his work with the work of first rank journalists who may have covered the same event as himself. Best opportunities are provided by events of national importance.

Each news article describing such events should be carefully studied and analysed to get the right type of guidance. A comparison of reports covered by different reputed journalists is of the greatest value in revealing to the beginner the secrets of journalistic technique.

It pays to know shorthand:

A journalist^ must value practical knowledge of shorthand. Other things being equal, a journalist who has a command of short­hand has a chance of rising in his line smoothly and quickly. Although modern journalism does not necessarily mean reproducing speeches and debates, seminars or meetings, verbatim as most of the good newspapers prefer individual handling of such events by their reporters and correspondents, there are sometimes occasions when verbatim reports are called for to prepare briefly and brightly written precis for publication. Moreover, leaders of outstanding importance or statements of vital interest to the nation and their reports can be handled with greater detail if the reporter knows shorthand.

The ability to take a verbatim note may not be as necessary as it was some years ago when long first person reports were common; yet, it is unwise for the young journalist to assume that he can do perfectly well without shorthand. In important interviews, taking notes of some kind is usually called for and shorthand becomes an indispensable tool to provide the necessary details and accurate reproduction of the views of the person interviewed.

One important use of shorthand which a journalist has is in the writing of editorials, special articles, book reviews and other work of a more or less literary nature. It becomes handy to make rough drafts and facilitate the research by making extracts from numerous books in reference libraries. All this means saving of time and minimising of labour.

While shorthand is an additional facility, it is not an indispensable qualification for a journalist. To be a successful journalist, the young man should be basically competent, good at language, pro­ficient in ideas and full of social vigour. He must be alert, capable of asking the right questions at the right moment and writing in flowing simple English.

Nowadays a good percentage of journalists have acquired the typewriter habit. In many offices the typewriter is provided for every member of the staff. A young journalist therefore should learn to operate a typewriter as soon as possible. While a large portion of news writing is done on the typewriter, it is desirable to develop a good handwriting. Most important, it is necessary to develop a clear style.

General Knowledge:

A successful journalist should have a sound foundation of general knowledge and commonsense. He must always carry either in his mind or on him the necessary reference material to check up facts and figures as he comes across them before giving his reports.

A good journalist has to safeguard the reputation of his newspaper and avoid irresponsibility of error. He must have the capacity to correct mistakes in matters of fact and the accidental slips in matters of taste and propriety of public men.

Any copy he writes must pass the test of his good sense and he should hand over nothing to the sub-editors even in haste until he has gone through it carefully and is certain of its ac­curacy. He must remember that public men and women from whom he collects materials are liable to error. Thus, as far as possible, dates, quotations and historical backgrounders should be verified. It is neces­sary to develop an observant eye and a questioning mind-the two assets important of a journalist.

Among the important facts and figures about the major coun­tries which any journalist must have at his command are:

(a) Constitutions along with their basic economic systems;

(b) Economic achievements together with comparative economic indicators like per capita income, GNP, etc.

(c) Historical backgrounds.

(d) Important personalities, past and present, in different walks of life;

(e) Problems facing the local communities, the nation and other countries in different sectors together with proposed solutions by different authorities.

(f) A good grasp of world affairs, international conflicts, activities of the World Body and its agencies, etc.

If a journalist has a field of specialisation, he is expected to be a research scholar in that field and have at his command the necessary facts and figures, literature for reference and advanced specialised uptodate knowledge about that field.

One of the most important things a young journalist has to learn is how to use reference books and similar sources of informa­tion. Besides the commonplace encyclopedias to which quite often most of the people have access, a journalist must have a resource­fulness of reaching the right source for the information he seeks. For example, for checking the spellings of the names of important personalities, he can refer to the telephone directory or other sources of this kind available. A successful journalist should be able to create in his mind a useful sense of location in his search for information which he is called upon to make. It is not necessary for him to over­burden his mind with facts so long as he knows where and how to obtain them.

Is a journalist a born writer?

Not necessarily. But it would be true to say that he is one of many who, though talented, are responsive to the stimulation of close contacts with the society. The inspiration he derived from his social contacts, the fire he got from his sense of social being and his ambi­tion to be an active participant in social life-all put life into his writing. It is a fact that a successful journalist has to be one who has the basic talent but has also the desire and the chance to make the best of it. While there are certain departments of journalism like news editing or sub-editing which require no in-born qualities, a journalist should have a consistent and persistent endeavour to acquire professional efficiency.

Write as you talk:

An easy solution to the problem of writing is frequently heard: "Write as you talk". It has a disarming simplicity. But what are its applications to newspaper writing?

To the extent that it leads reporters and sub-editors away from the stilted and legalistic and technical forms of writing, it is a good advice. The reporter, who wrote this lead, could well heed the injunc­tion to "write as he would talk". But chances are that what one might say face-to-face would not make suitable news lead either. What is said in conversation is based on common background and common experience.

This is a relatively narrow and unified frame of reference. But when the reporter is speaking to an "audience" of very diverse background, the content of the communication must take this fact into consideration. He can't refer to "that annexation deal on the west side", although in conversation this might be adequate to place the story in his hearer's minds.

There are other reasons why a conversational approach is inappropriate. The spoken language differs considerably from the written language. Radio newsmen find that reading newspapers over the radio is bad procedure. Material which is written for the eye is altogether wrong for the ear. There are new techniques to reach the listeners which are quite different from the techniques employed in reaching the readers.

It makes sense that the reverse should also be true. Simplicity and directness are valued in both radio and newspaper writing. But devices to attain this goal which work on the radio usually do not work in the newspaper.

A newspaper once printed a verbatim report of a parliamentary session in which all parties were speaking "off the cuff". The thing was quite a success on the radio, but in the newspaper it was all bunk.

Three Formulas:

There tire no formulas for a readable writing style. There are only formulas which measure some of the elements of good writing. How many elements there are altogether it is probably impossible to determine. The three formulas most commonly used to measure newspaper readability measure two or three elements. It must be realised, in using them, that there is an extra "other things being equal" factor to be considered.

Rudolph Flesch's original formula measures three things: sentence length, word difficulty, and number of personal reference. It measures word difficulty on the basis of the number of prefixes or suffixes to be found m a hundred-word sample.

Another expert-Robert Gunning, used three criteria.

They are sentence pattern, "'fog index" and human interest. "Fog index", as he described, is a measure of the abstraction and com­plexity of words. He would appear to be employing roughly the same yardstick as Flesch.

A third formula, according to Edgar Dale and Jeane S. Chall has only two elements. They measure sentence length and word difficulty. They get at word difficulty by counting the number of words in a sample of 100 which fall outside their list of 3,000 easy words.

These devices have their value. Application of such yardsticks can usually result in better newspaper writing and it is only barely possible that they can do occasional harm. Perhaps a slavish devotion to the idea that any short sentence is better than any long one can produce a choppy and unpleasant style. Perhaps too much emphasis on the simple sentences can contribute to structurally monotonous writing. The readability experts can nevertheless show that good writing can be readable according to their measurements and that, in fact, most good writing does rate as readable.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that when a journalist has learned the tricks of shortening sentences and substituting simpler words for more difficult ones, he is a success.