Journalism is everywhere. As soon as you open up your social media account, journalism is fed to you in bite-sized chunks. Much of this is not from news websites but delivered second-hand from friends or other sources. However, the origin of all of this information is from the hard-working journalists who witness or experience these events. What these people have in common is a mastery of the English language, something which native and non-native speakers can learn from. From my years as a journalism student, lecturer, and practitioner, I have discovered that following the principles of journalism not only rapidly improves your writing, but it can also do wonders for your pronunciation, presentation skills, and even your listening and reading abilities.
Writing efficiently and with impact
Much of the journalism we see or hear is in the form of news stories. These are carefully constructed factual articles or broadcasts which relate an event in usually less than 400 words. The first skill in a journalist’s writing toolkit is efficiency of language. This means trying to tell a sometimes complex story in as few words as possible. Many journalists can deliver this in the first impactful, exciting paragraph (the intro).
For example, when there is a story of interest, e.g. about a crime, the journalist tries to relay six key facts within the intro, being the:
Here is a common example:
“A fireman1 rescued a kitten from a drain2 in Paris3 last night4 by climbing through a sewer6 after a call from a worried resident5.”
In less than 25 words, this sentence gives the essential information of the story as well as conveying some of the drama of this daring cat rescue. There are very few wasted words.
This can also be seen in broadcast journalism news scripts, where a news story is condensed to four of five sentences of no more than 25 words each. Listening to the news on the radio can teach you much about how to summarise a great deal of information in few words. Working as a broadcast journalist also taught me how to do this to extremely tight deadlines.
Writing with creativity
Print and online journalists not only write news, they also write feature articles. These are stories about events or people that give some factual information, but they are mostly descriptive. This is achieved through the use of “colour” writing. Two methods are employed here. Firstly, there is the use of multisensory description to evoke the sights1, sounds2, tastes3, smells4, and tactile sensations5 in the reader. This means that your observations are like those of a cinematographer but with the added senses of touch, smell and taste. Contrasting and surprising combinations6 are also encouraged. This can be demonstrated by looking at the opening paragraph of a feature about a charity event, for example:
“A chain of bodies snaked across the sticky5 dance floor1 in the queue for yellow mashed potato piled steaming in heated trays1. A band had started playing2. The tail end of the dinner queue was helping itself to the mix of sweet cream and salty starch3/4/6. The sound of voracious ladling2 was accompanied by the rasp of “Simply the Best” 2 sung by a squat man in a pork pie hat6. He was reading the words from a music stand6.”
The second method employed in colour writing is using a combination of shorter and longer sentences to give some syncopated rhythm to the piece, thus making it more interesting to the reader. Rather than having a steady, dull-but-reliable “thrum thrum” of sentences of uniform length, you can take them on a winding road of descriptive indulgence before stopping them in their tracks with some pithily short phrasing.
Speaking with clarity, quality, and precision
As well as honing your writing, journalism can also teach you how to polish that other productive skill, speaking. When I worked as a broadcast journalist, even though I was a native speaker, I was ordered by my production manager to undergo voice training. This was mostly to ensure that my (mild Scottish) accent did not shine through too much during broadcast. The main issue with this was trying to get rid of my glottal stop, specifically missing out the letter “t”. Pronunciation of words, especially proper nouns, had to be professionally precise.
They also worked the pace of my speech. An even pace for a news reader is three words per second on average. This helped keep a check on my sounding either too nervous or too hesitant. Of course filler words such as “um” and “er” were forbidden.
Sentence stress was also important. Unlike poetry, where meter is relatively regular, journalists have to stress the important information, such as the nouns (especially proper nouns), main verbs, and adjectives. For example:
“An ABERDEEN man, GORDON JONES, has been SERIOUSLY INJURED in a CAR CRASH on the M8 near EDINBUGH this MORNING.”
With this combination of skills, the voice becomes a well-trained instrument, ready to deliver speech full of quality, clarity, and precision.
The “hidden” skills
Of course we only see the output of the journalist, who has used their well-polished productive writing or speaking skills to deliver perfect paragraphs of text or spotless speech to news consumers. However, behind this well-presented façade lies the finely tuned set of receptive skills of reading and listening.
Before any piece of journalism is published, the journalist needs to do their research. Many of the stories that I wrote (for print, online, or broadcast) came from press releases. These were usually badly written screeds filled with material that a PR company wanted you to publish, with the real story, the one that should be published, hidden amongst the verbiage. Therefore, with a deadline looming, the quick-thinking journalist has to read, assimilate and make sense of this information before turning it into something meaningful. They should also ask questions of the text so that any holes in the narrative could be filled by further investigation. And this is where the second receptive skill comes into play.
Journalists are usually very good listeners. They have to be. Whether they found some unanswered questions in their research or not, it’s standard practice to interview at least two people in order to gather quotes for a story. Of course pinpoint accurate questions must be written, utilising their already fantastic productive skills. However, when listening to interviewees or those in court or at a press conference, a journalist must learn to pick out the most relevant parts in the midst of the irrelevant information and write them down in their shorthand notebooks, ready to be inserted into their story. Many journalists use digital recorders which seemingly negate the need for listening skills, but these are outlawed in many courts around the world, and it’s quicker to read back something from your notepad than listen through a whole recording just to get a precious five-second quote. Anyway, pens run down more slowly and are cheaper than batteries.
Journalism into learning
So, how can these principles be used to improve your English? Well, the first thing you should do is get out there and find some stories and then practice writing and/or telling them. Even if you are confident about your output, you should always get it checked by an editor. This could be an English language expert, but preferably a trained journalist, who can give you advice on how to improve on your techniques. Publishing your stories or broadcasts on a website is a great way to boost your confidence and get some editorial feedback from the website’s editor. What matters is that you keep reading and listening; writing and speaking. With time, you will not only be broadcasting your journalism skills to the world, but also your vastly improved English.