Basic writing tips

Follow Associated Press style. Always spell-check and grammar-check and doubly verify spelling of all names, including but not limited to checking them by searching for them online. Pay particular attention to these commonly occurring points:

Story organization

  • Always put the most important developments first. The fact that a committee voted to do something or that some group is sponsoring something rarely is more important than what it ordered done or will present. This is one reason why present or future tense leads often are superior to past tense leads.
  • Picking a single most-important thing and moving it to the first paragraph (or “lede”) is needed even for minor stories. The lede should report the development that has the greatest impact, advances the overall story the most, or is the most recent in a series of developments. Tying several developments into one and creating an omnibus lede is a last resort.
  • Best is when you can cite specific, future impact as opposed to recent bureaucratic action: Trash fees will increase $10 next month is stronger than something that begins The city council voted Monday to increase trash fees by $10 in March.
  • Except in unusual cases, everything related to the lede should go together before you move on to the next most important topic. Relative importance, not the order in which things happen, should govern.
  • If two relatively important things happen in the same story, it typically is better to write two separate stories. Subheads within a single story are a makeshift gimmick best avoided. You’re not writing about the meeting, the interview, or the news release; you’re writing about the issues they raised. Separate issues belong in separate stories even if they came up in the same meeting or interview.
  • Every story needs a headline that summarizes the lede and, by extension, the main thrust of the first and longest portion of the story. Headlines should be present tense, contain both noun and verb, be capitalized in normal sentence style, and tell enough so a reader can make a rational decision whether to read more. They should not be vague teasers or un-telling labels but should be lively, extremely brief, and unambiguous. There’s nothing wrong with humorous headlines, especially in print and especially if the headline reads serious first, humorous second.
  • City is too ambiguous to use in a head for publications that cover more than one town.
  • Routine developments need not be included. Who presided, who reported on various topics, whether previous minutes were approved, how the meeting adjourned, routine bid-lettings and fund transfers, etc., all can be left out unless they involve controversy or significant change. An exception is raises granted to employees; these typically should be documented. Otherwise, we aren’t publishing minutes; we’re publishing stories that evaluate rather than list information.
  • Though occasionally warranted, any story with a long in other business section is by its nature extremely weak and to be avoided. Putting “other developments” in bullet points or smaller type is a clear signal you probably shouldn’t have included them at all. If they are worth covering, they are worth a story.
  • In longer pieces, including features, always clearly establish within the first two or three paragraphs not only the most important new facts but also the reason the story is in this week’s paper. Use this so-called “nut graf” to connect the dots for the reader. We don’t want to simply spew random facts. We want to impart meaning. Don’t talk about the history of a musical act without at least a side reference high up to how the act will be performing here, which is why we would be putting the story in the paper. Don’t tell the tale of a charity beneficiary without at least a passing mention in the first two or three grafs about how he or she will be the focus of an upcoming fundraiser. Don’t tell us ticks are like spiders; tell us why we should care about ticks. Don’t say commissioners like some plan; tell us what the plan they like would do for (or to) average readers. Serve the reader, not the source, the news release, or yourself.
  • Avoid unnecessary digressions. Rarely are stories supposed to chronicle someone’s entire life. Don’t fill them with obit-like personal data or with disjointed side stories that have little relevance to the story at hand. Stay on message. If the information that goes off on a tangent is interesting, write a separate story and save it until you can find a nut graf to make it relevant.
  • Use scene-setting only in features, when a narrative approach actually contributes to the storytelling. Avoid it in news stories, when all it accomplishes is weakening the impact. Avoid backing into stories, as in: President Kennedy was traveling west on Elm St. near the Texas School Book Depository at 12:35 p.m. Friday when….
  • Make sure you have done sufficient reporting. If you can’t or don’t understand what you’re writing about, readers won’t either. Don’t just transcribe notes like a stenographer. Explain. Anytime you are writing the sum total of your notes — everything you know about a story — chances are you are going to make a mistake.

Times and dates

  • As with most things, we prefer the shorter version: 10 a.m. instead of 10:00 a.m. or 10 o’clock in the morning. Don’t repeat a.m. or p.m. when expressing a range of times, and don’t use hyphens to indicate ranges. The event will be 9 to 11 a.m. not 9-11 a.m. or, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m.
  • Use noon and midnight instead of 12. Remember that midnight is the last second of a departing day, not the first second of a new day. Because most people don’t understand this, avoid using the term.
  • It’s time-day-place in that order. The meeting will be 7 p.m. Thursday at the city library.
  • Avoid awkward use of present tense for future events: A parade at 10 a.m. will kick off festivities is preferred to  A parade at 10 a.m. kicks off festivities.
  • Avoid needless use of from, at, or on immediately before a time element (The board will meet on 1 p.m. Thursday) unless it sounds stilted without it or it’s necessary to avoid ambiguity, such as when it separates capitalized words: Smith will marry Jones on Sunday.
  • Never use both day and date. In Wednesday’s paper, use day of the week instead of date for things that happened from the most recent Thursday through things that will happen the next Tuesday. Use today for things that were to happen in the middle, on the day of publication. Otherwise, use date alone without day.
  • The same logic applies to years. In a paper published in August 2017, the previous Sept. 1 would not have 2016 appended to it, nor would the upcoming July 31 have 2018 appended to it. However, something that happened May 1 of the previous year would be listed as having happened May 1, 2014, and something that will happen Aug. 1 of the following year would be listed as happening Aug. 1, 2018.
  • There’s always a comma before the year and always a comma after the year unless there already is another punctuation mark after the date.
  • Abbreviate Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec. when used in specific dates. Other months are spelled out. Always spell out months when not used with specific dates.
  • Use numerals only, not ordinals: Aug. 23, not Aug. 23rd. Exception: When referring to the holiday, Fourth of July and July Fourth are acceptable, but in that case Fourth is spelled out, not used as an ordinal numeral.

Titles

  • Don’t use Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., etc.,  except in direct quotes or in extraordinarily rare cases when it is absolutely necessary to avoid confusion among multiple people with the same last name and he and she or use of first names won’t accomplish this.
  • We prefer a woman’s actual name (Sally Smith) to a name based on her husband’s (Mrs. John Smith). We do not accede to requests to call women Ms.
  • In most cases, use the person’s last name on second reference for people age 18 and older. Use the person’s first name on second reference for people younger than 18. Jane Smith becomes Smith on second reference if she is an adult; Jane, if she is a child. Exceptions: We typically use last names in all stories about game coverage, even if athletes are younger than 18, and we may use first names in long feature pieces to distinguish among spouses and generations or to add personality. This exaggerated familiarity is not allowed in standard news stories, however.
  • Dr. is rarely used. When it is used, it is used only for licensed and practicing physicians and surgeons (not for optometrists, chiropractors, Ph.D.s, pharmacists, lawyers or others who may possess doctoral degrees) and only when the person is being quoted as a medical expert. A lowercase descriptive generic such as physician or surgeon is the preferred title on first reference. No title is needed on second reference except within direct quotes or to clarify roles after a long gap between first reference in a complex, multisource story. For Ed.D.s or Ph.D.s, describe the degree: Smith, who  has a doctorate in English.
  • Because many members of the clergy are not officially ordained, we do not refer to any of them as reverend unless they make a specific point of requesting such treatment. In those cases, the form is the Rev. John Smith, not Rev.  John Smith. However, the preferred method for identifying members of the clergy is pastor John Smith, Father John Smith, minister John Smith, etc., as the clergyman prefers. Only Father and Msgr. are capitalized.  Last names stand alone, without title, on second reference unless the religious title provides necessary clarification vis-à-vis another person with the same last name or is another clarifier, as with Dr. above.
  • Generally, regard titles as occupationally informational, not honorific. If preacher John Smith is doing something religious, call him pastor or preacher John Smith. Otherwise, he’s just plain John Smith. The same holds for physicians and others.
  • Where possible, substitute a generic description for a title. Capitalize titles only if they represent a specific, supervisory role within a hierarchical structure. Principal John Smith but teacher Bill Jones, Sheriff Jane Doe but deputy Sally Brown, game warden Erasmus Dragon, tax collector Hugh Lewis Dewey.
  • Capitalize formal titles in front of a name but make them lowercase after a name or if the title is generic. He said Sheriff John Jones also served as city marshal. Do not repeat titles on second reference.
  • Avoid needlessly long titles, particularly in front of names. Sheriff John Jones is preferred to Marion County Sheriff John Jones. Superintendent Sally Smith is preferred to a title that includes of schools or the district name. The context of the story should indicate whether it’s the one city’s or another city’s mayor who is being referred to as Mayor Larry Fine.
  • It’s State Rep. John Jones, R-Urbana, for a state legislator; Sally Smith, D-Illinois, for a member of Congress. U.S. and Congressman are not used unless necessary to avoid confusion when both types of representatives or senators are in the same story.
  • Where possible, describe the person’s position after his or her name rather than list a precise and capitalized title in front of it: Ahmad Mohammed, an assistant in the registrar’s office, is better than Assistant Champaign County Registrar of Deeds Ahmad Mohammed. Never abbreviate assistant.

numbers

  • Use numerals for all animal and human (but not inanimate) ages, for all cardinal or ordinal numbers in headlines, and for numbers 10 and larger in text: a 2-year-old cat, nine cartons, 10 cases, the boy is 6 years old, the eight-year-old building, she is a 5-year-old. If one number in a sequence is in numerals, all should be. In the rare case when a number is at the start of a sentence, it should be spelled out.
  • For grade levels in schools, except in list or tabular matter, spell out grade numbers nine and below, hyphenate compounds, and keep them lowercase: a sixth-grader, in sixth grade, grade six. Do not abbreviate kindergarten; use kindergarten through eighth grade, not K -8.
  • Unless specifically told otherwise in AP style (9mm handgun), do not abbreviate units of measure: 100-meter dash, five-kilometer run not 100m dash or 5K run.
  • On second reference, times may be shortened decimally: She ran the mile in 4 minutes, 3 seconds and the two-mile in 8:14.
  • Sports scores always use hyphens instead of to: Marion won, 212-0.
  • Separate multiple units of measure by a comma: The eclipse lasted 34 minutes, 5 seconds not 34 minutes and 5 seconds. The baby weighed 6 pounds, 12 ounces. The athlete jumped 19 feet, 2 inches.
  • Avoid compound numerical adjectives, but if you can’t, hyphenate them solid: the 6-pound-10-ounce baby, the 8-by-10-foot banner. If it’s a range, use suspensive hyphenation instead: the 10- to 25-year prison sentence. Because they do not express actual dimensions, only approximations, spell out lumber references: two-by-fours not 2x4s.
  • Heights in sports stories are an exception. They always use numerals and, depending on whether they are used before a noun or separately, may drop the inches and use or not use hyphens: The 6-foot-10 center jumped 9 feet, 11 inches. The guard, who is only 6 feet, 4 inches tall, jumped 12 feet. The forward, who is 6-7, jumped 11 feet. The other 6-7 forward jumped 12 feet.

Syntax and word choices

  • Always put modifiers, particularly time elements, as close as possible to the word they modify, particularly if it is the main verb of the sentence. Bob and Sally Smith dined Sunday with John and Nancy Jones. Position of the time element may be crucial: The board voted Tuesday to build a new building is completely different from The board voted to build a new building Tuesday.
  • Avoid intensifiers and other expletives. Expletives aren’t curse words; they’re unnecessary words: Write He didn’t spend time feeling sorry for himself, not He didn’t spend any time feeling sorry for himself. Instead of There are five things the city can do, make it The city can do five things. Generally, eschew wordiness: His faith helped him keep a positive attitude about his situation doesn’t need about his situation added to its end (or even a and attitude).  The worst part of the ordeal had nothing to do with cancer doesn’t need of the ordeal inserted after part.
  • Note how many words can be removed from this short:
             Food will be available from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
    Saturday afternoon in Central Park during a silent-
    auction fundraiser for an individual battling cancer.
    John Jones was diagnosed with colon cancer in
    October 2017 and has incurred financial hardships
    from his many surgeries and trips to Minnesota for
    treatment.
    The money raised from the auction and food
        sales will go toward relieving his wife, Susan, and
    their children of a portion of their financial burden.

Always challenge your writing by going back and removing extraneous words and avoiding jargonistic words like individual.

Likewise, instead of:

      The group encourages residents to come and
bring a side dish or dessert to share. Tables and
lawn chairs also are desired.

Write:

        Participants are being encouraged to bring
tables, lawn chairs, and a side dish or dessert to
share.

  • Eliminate subtle editorialization. Important services such as counseling will be provided. Suddenly, the reporter is determining what services are important and what aren’t. Delete important and the facts remain, but the opinion goes away. The competition, at which the group will sell balloons, is another chance to help is not as good as  The group will try to raise more money by selling balloons at the competition.
  • Eliminate imperatives couched in passive: More information is available from John Jones at (620) 555-1212. not For more information, call John Jones at (620) 555-1212. Rather than writing Students are asked to attend a meeting at which organizers will discuss the plans, state the same thing as Organizers will discuss the plans at a meeting for students. Otherwise, the publication, not the organizers, are the ones doing the asking. Likewise, the family suggests memorials to… or a memorial fund has been established with… are almost always better than memorials may be made to.…  
  • It’s occasionally OK to tell readers what to do (To donate, send your contribution to…) provided you make it the reader’s choice (with to donate as a conditional not a flat-out command or a back-handed passive structure). Otherwise, use phrases such as More information is available at… or Memorial funds have been established with… These are always safe.
  • When using quotes and paraphrases, avoid inverted attributional syntax. Smith said is almost always preferred to said Smith. Resist the temptation to use the inverted format as a makeshift gimmick for stacking a title or other clause after the speaker’s name. Start a new sentence instead.
  • Eschew synonymomania and “loaded” attributional words. The best attitributional word is always said. Such words as continued and added often are used as crutches to get around over-quoting. Reserve their use only for situations in which a speaker truly added something as an afterthought or, after interruption, continued to make the same point. Likewise, understand that words such as verified, claimed, asserted, alleged, denied, explained, educated and described carry with them connotations as to whether the writer believes or does not believe what is being said. As potentially biased words, they should be avoided.
  • You can’t have the something without a something first. Proper names never need the. It’s Champaign City Council not the Champaign City Council. The council may vote to approve a beautification plan but cannot vote to approve the beautification plan until after the plan is first introduced as a plan. Generally, challenge yourself every time you use the to make sure it is needed and that there is an antecedent a that already has been introduced in the same story.
  • Generally use the fewest words possible. Don’t, for example, repeat shared last names (John Smith and Sally Smith). Regardless of whether they are or are not together, call them John and Sally Smith. Use John Smith and Sally Jones, both of Marion, not John Smith of Marion and Sally Jones, also of Marion. Even get rid of the of where possible: John Smith, Marion, and Sally Jones, Hillsboro. Avoid other unnecessary words, too: John Smith, 21, not John Smith, age 21
  • Avoid weak syntax that uses expletive linking verbs in the main clause and active verbs in subordinate clauses: The car that he drove was a 1968 Mustang.
  • If/whether. They aren’t the same. If expresses a condition. Whether expresses the alternative of that or that not. For example: If I need something, I will go to the store. I don’t know whether I will need anything or whether I will go. Whether I go will depend on whether I need anything. If this has you confused, so be it.
  • Watch out for the ___ others. It’s acceptable to say these two will do one thing while two others will do something else, but if the numbers in the two groups are different, the phrasing must be the other two not the two others 
  • Distinguish between like and as if. Like cannot introduce a clause, only a phrase.  The car looks like a tank, and he drives it as if he were a tank commander. 
  • Avoid misused clichés and archaeic words. It’s run the gantlet not gauntlet, cutting muster not mustard, etc. Avoid the archaeic word gotten. Don’t hold meetings or events. You can be a host for something but you cannot host it. It’s not a couple things; it’s a couple of things. The whole comprises the parts, making comprise a word best avoided. People do not graduate college; they graduate from college.
  • Avoid judgmental words. People receive degrees and honors; whether they earn them is a matter of opinion. They work in a job; whether they serve is a judgment question.
  • Avoid dangling modifiers. Kansas will rely on all-star running back Sayers, not An all-star running back, Kansas will rely on Sayers because Sayers, not Kansas, is the all-star running back.
  • Funds vs. money. Funds are accounts into which money is placed. Your fund may have insufficient money, but unless you are an accountant who hasn’t set up enough accounts, you can’t have insufficient funds.
  • Frequently misspelled words: day care, health care, child care (two words as nouns, hyphenated if adjectives, never one word); Internet, Web (both capitalized); website (one word, lowercase); email (no hyphen); canceled (one L); meat loaf (two words).
  • Don’t dehumanize. Use who not that when referring to humans.

Punctuation

  • Use commas to separate items in a series. AP eschews a final comma (the so-called Oxford comma) before the and, as in: The flag is red, white and blue.
  • A comma is used before and in a compound sentence with different subjects: John threw the ball, and Mary caught it. A comma is not needed before and in a compound sentence with the same subject: John hit the ball and (he) ran to first base.
  • Also use commas to set off nonessential clauses. The team that saved the day includes an essential clause. Which team are we talking about? The one that saved the day. Because the clause is essential, we don’t set it off with commas. But if we already knew that the team in question had saved the day, commas would go back in. The winning team, which last year lost all its games, includes a non-essential cause. We already know which team we are talking about. We’re just adding extra, nonessential information, which we need to set off with commas. We also need to use which instead of that to introduce the clause.
  • A comma (and which instead of that, if the sentence calls for it) is needed around a nonessential phrase that does not limit but merely provides additional information: John and his wife, Mary, played ball. The field, which had been covered during a rainstorm, was in good condition.
  • No comma (and that instead of which, if the sentence calls for it) is needed around a essential phrase that limits rather than merely adds background: John and his son Bob pitched and caught while sons Adam and Charlie batted. The field that they played on was not the one that had been covered.
  • Context is key. If I have two brothers, I talk about my brother Sam (no comma). It could be my brother Joe instead, so his name is essential. If I have only one brother, however, I talk about my brother, Sam, with commas, because in this case Sam is nonessential information, as if I were saying my brother (whose name, by the way, is Sam).
  • Unless covering polygamists, always use commas around a spouse’s name: She and her husband, Sanji, own a small business.
  • Who, which should be used instead of that or which when referring to humans, can introduce both essential and nonessential clauses. That introduces only essential clauses, while which introduces only nonessential clauses.
  • Semicolons are “double commas” in listed series. If you have a list of things, the component members of which already have commas within them, separate the series items with semicolons: Survivors include his son, John, of Marion; daughter, Sally, of Emporia; and brother, Bob, of Wichita. If the rare case in which the deceased had multiple sons, daughters, and brothers, only some of whom survived, thereby making their names essential rather than nonessential, it would be permissible (though not required) to shorten this to: Survivors include son John of Marion, daughter Sally of Emporia, and brother Bob of Wichita.
  • Semicolons also can replace comma-and combinations in joining sentences: The skies were blue; the clouds, white. He preferred crimson; he would accept red. Dashes and elipses are not acceptable substitutes. Generally, a period and a new sentence is preferred.
  • Dashes also are “double commas,” but only in appositional series. The flag’s colors — red, white, and blue — are vivid. Dashes indicate a longer pause, a more abrupt change and even less essential information than commas do in separating  subordinate clauses or phrases:  The flag — its colors long since faded —  was tattered as well. Unlike semicolons, dashes do not join sentences; semicolons are used in those situations.  I enjoyed the carnival; it was fun. not  I enjoyed the carnival —  it was fun. Periods and separate sentences generally are preferred, however.
  • Colons point forward to introduce material, including lists: He loved the flag’s colors: red, white, and blue. Generally, dashes are to be avoided in these situations.
  • Elipses (…) indicate omissions, not pauses. They should not be used in place of dashes.
  • Apostrophes (‘) are never used to create plurals, only to create contractions or possessives. The Smiths aren’t apostrophized. Carefully review the punctuation section of AP style. Jones’s wife, the Joneses’ house, the ’70s, rock ‘n’ roll. Expressions like John Adams Jr.’s  father should be rephrased to avoid the issue.
  • Avoid unnecessary possessives when dealing with collectives: It’s Old Settlers Day, farmers market, Warriors stadium, Veterans Day.

Quotes

  • Direct quotes should be precisely what the person said, without any attempt to characterize accent. Give each person quoted the same level of latitude for minor cleaning up of oral stammers.
  • If a quote requires parenthetical insertion to be understood in context, it is best to paraphrase or use a partial quote
  • If a quote contains only factual material, not opinions, feelings, or other color, paraphrase it to save words and increase impact.
  • Full-sentence quotes should start a new paragraph, not be added to an existing paragraph.
  • Be mindful of introducing new or changed speakers. Initial attribution should be as high up in the quote as possible. “The problem,” Sheriff John Jones said, “ is vexing because….” not at the end.
  • Do not abut quotes from different speakers without inserting either a paraphrased quote or a transitional phrase indicating a change of speaker:

“Balls!” cried the queen. “If I had to, I’d be king.” 

            The prime minister was less certain.

            “At least she’s courageous,” he said.

Not:

“Balls!” cried the queen. “If I had to, I’d be king.” 

            “At least she’s courageous,” the prime minister added.

Lists

  • Break long lists, like lists of award recipients or attendees at family reunions, into paragraphs of approximately seven lines each. End each paragraph with a period.
  • Wherever possible, lists should be in rank or some other logical order and, within each rank, alphabetical order.
  • Do not use asterisks and only rarely use code letters; make all notations within the list itself.
  • More aggressively abbreviate and use numerals in lists, even if they would not be allowed in text.
  • Use boldface and dashes to set off categories and colons to introduce subcategories within them.

Academic excellence — Isaac Baldwin, Dylan Goebel, Elizabeth Goentzel, Monica Spachek.

Citizenship — Baldwin, Goentzel.

 Composition — 7th grade: 1. Katey Ehrlich, 2. Lauren McLinden. 8th: 1. Erin Meierhoff, 2. Baldwin and Sarah Eurit.

Governmental budgets

Talking mills (two Ls, not one) and levies (not the type with three Es) is the best way to put people to sleep. We may need to refer to them, but it’s better to ask these key questions in dealing with any governmental budget story:

  • The total property tax to be paid to that governmental unit by the owner of a typical home with a fair market value at whatever the average home price is in the area being discussed.
  • How much of a change that will be from the same property tax bill for the previous budget year.
  • The total planned spending of the governmental unit, including spending of money from grants, aid, borrowing, reserves, etc., and what percentage of the total budget is paid for with property taxes.
  • Any significant new projects being undertaken within the planned total spending in the coming budget and any significant reductions or cuts in previous projects.
  • Any projects or services considered but rejected as too expensive.
  • The percentage of total spending going towar
    • each major service provided by the government
    • improvements in public infrastructure — roads, facilities, etc.
    • paying down debt and lease-purchase agreements
    • reserve accounts that will be allowed to build up to pay for planned purchases in future years.
  • How much property valuation changed and what the tax rate would have been had valuation not changed.
  • The size of an reserve funds carried over from one year to the next.

Almost none of these items will be mentioned at a budget meeting. You will have to ask before or after to bring meaning to the story.

Governmental units typically structure their budgets over several months. Initial budget requests are generally grossly inflated by department heads, then trimmed to a more workable number. Discussions of what to trim generally occur in work sessions. These are prime times for reporting on public officials’ attitudes and priorities for spending and should not be skipped simply because no binding action is taken.

Once a governmental unit agrees on a budget to present to the public, it is news. Don’t wait until the budget hearing that comes afterward. Produce a story that answers all the bullet points above and provides insight into what the governmental unit has adopted as priorities more than just what it will do with taxes.

Once you know the proposed mill rate for the new budget, and how the mill rate has been equalized to reflect differing levels of valuation, you can calculate the impact on the owner of a typically home yourself once you know the rate at which homes are assessed vis-a-vis fair market value. A mill is $1 per each $1,000 dollars of assessed value. If the valuation to fair market value rate is 11.5 percent and the average home price is $85,000,  a 20 mill levy would cost the owner of a typical $85,000 residence:

((85,000 * 0.115) / 1000)  * 20 =  $195.50