Reporting vs. writing

In my former life as a newspaper editor, I liked working with great reporters more than working with great writers.

What’s the difference? Reporting involves discovering a story worth telling, figuring out who or what might make good sources, finding those sources, persuading people to talk, deciding what to ask, confirming the accuracy of what they’ve told you, and researching other supporting information. After finishing all that, the reporter finally gets to sit down and write.

Writing is presenting your facts (and opinions, if appropriate) clearly, and in an order that makes sense to your audience. This is where you need to show some style so that you aren’t just presenting a dull list of facts.

Editing can fix poor writing, but it can’t fix poor reporting. That is, I can untangle a sentence, eliminate extra words, or put paragraphs in a more logical order. I can’t answer an important question the reporter never asked (though I can send the reporter back out to ask it).

Whether you are writing a news story, a white paper or a quarterly report, you need to gather your facts and make sure you have answers for the reader’s most likely questions.

The classic formula is to cover Who, What, When, Where and Why. Let’s go through the list.

Who: Not just “mistakes were made,” but who made those mistakes? Even when the cause doesn’t involve a person (lightning, earthquakes), who is affected? Finally, who is your audience? Customers? Shareholders? Your boss? The general public? Knowing that will help you figure out what to tell them.

What: Tell us what happened, of course, but we also might need some context. What led up to this? What’s scheduled, or at least likely, to happen next?

When: Sometimes we need to know down to the second. At other times, knowing the century might be enough. But don’t give us a vague “recently” or “soon.” Also, if you are writing something that’s going to stick around for a while, put a date on it, including the year.

Where: Make sure you are giving enough information for a newcomer to understand you. My township likes to send out notices that such-and-such an event will take place “at the Community Center.” That’s no good if you don’t already know where the community center is.

Why: Not just why something happened, but why it matters (or should matter) to your readers.

Some writing gurus add one more element: How. If you’ve done a good job covering all the W’s, you’ll most likely have covered the “how” as well.

Not every W is equally important in every piece of writing, but it’s a good checklist to make sure you aren’t leaving out something important.

If you’ve done a good job of reporting, you’ll usually find that the writing comes more easily. And even if it doesn’t, you are in a good position for your editor to help you.

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