4‧Legwork leads to the real work

4‧Legwork leads to the real work


illustration: Brian Wang
Jason discovers doing research and gathering quotes are just the beginning when it comes to writing a story.

by John Brennan

For the sixteenth time, student Jason Yip starts to write his Young Post cover story. And for the sixteenth time he hits the delete key on his keyboard, wiping out everything he's just written.

For someone new, up until now Jason has been doing very well on his first assignment as a journalist. He completed the interviews he needed two days ago.

But, as he listens again to the recordings of those interviews, he knows he can't include everything. If he did, his story would fill half of Young Post, not just the front page.

But what to select and where to start? For the last 48 hours, these questions have been going round and round in his mind.

Jason thought he'd already done the hard part, but now he realises it's time to ask again for some help. He gets on the telephone to the office of Young Post.

According to sub-editor Karly Cox, the introduction to a story has to do two jobs.

'It has to hook the readers, and it has to clearly establish what the story is about. You need to know this from the beginning,' she says.

OK, thinks Jason, but exactly how do you grab a reader's attention?

'I take the detail that surprises me the most, something quite fresh, and put this at the beginning of the story,' former YP reporter Sara Yin says.

But fellow reporter Zoe Mak often starts with 'a problem, a question, something that will make the reader think'.

Sara goes on to explain that she follows up her opening paragraph with what she calls a lead sentence or a summarising statement to explain what the story is about.

On the other end of the line, Jason's now hopping up and down with excitement. The question 'Is a treatment for teenage spots worth the destruction of a rare species of tree?' sums up his story perfectly.

And now that he knows where to start, he can't wait to find out what he should include next.

'After your opening, it's time to bring in your evidence,' says Zoe. In other words, the facts he's discovered and the quotes from his interviews to clarify the question his story is asking.

Because he knows the facts so well, Jason is quickly able to write a few paragraphs on the background to his story.

He explains how a company run by Joseph Chong, manufactures an acne ointment that includes an ingredient that comes from a very rare species of tree. But Ivan So, an environmental campaign leader, claims that, if Chong's company continues to chop down these trees, they will soon be extinct.

Jason stops typing and pushes back his chair. He knows he now needs to begin to include some good quotes from his interviews with these two men. But as he stares at his tape recorder, he's not sure what to include, or what exactly makes a quote good.

Once more Jason phones a friend at Young Post.

'A good quote is one expressing a strong point of view, either for or against the angle of your story,' explains Zoe. 'A good quote can bring an article to life.'

And you should also use quotes when the person you're interviewing makes a key point in their argument, she adds.

As he listens, Jason scribbles down a reminder to himself. He must quote Chong's comments about the economic benefits his company brings to the people living in the area where the trees grow.

And he should also quote So's doubts about the company's long-term commitment to these people.

While using quotes will give his article authority, Zoe advises him to be careful. Anything included between quotation marks in his story has to be the exact words spoken by the person being interviewed.

'If something you're quoting is unclear, you shouldn't try and clarify its meaning by changing words,' she warns. 'It is worthwhile keeping a record of your interviews in case anyone questions the accuracy of what you've written,' Zoe emphasises.

'For less important points, or if you know the meaning but are unable to check the precise wording, then you should paraphrase what was said,' Zoe goes on to explain.

When you paraphrase something that was said, you must keep the original meaning but you can change the words a little.

OK. Jason now thinks he knows what to use from his interviews, and how to use it. But does the staff of Young Post have any other advice before he gets back to his computer?

Zoe reminds him he also needs to keep his story balanced. He must make sure both sides of the argument are given equal importance.

And, she adds, Jason should check he has correctly spelled the names and titles of everyone he has interviewed, and that the facts he has included are correct.

What about the final section of his story? 'It's good to end with a strong quote,' advises Sara. And Karly recommends endings that 'encourage readers to go on and find out more'.

'Then I'll be finished?' asks Jason, hopefully. Well, not quite. Sara recommends leaving anything you write for a few hours before rereading it. You're then more likely to spot errors or things you've missed.

Hours and hours later, a tired but happy Jason ends his story with a statement made by a young student.

'Spots are only for a couple of years, but when you destroy a plant species it's gone forever,' Jason quotes.

But as he turns off his computer, the smile freezes on Jason's face. He's proud of what he's written. But what happens if the people at Young Post don't like it?


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