Writing News Stories: Six Honest Serving Men

Master the Basics

I keep six honest serving-men
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who

Rudyard Kipling
- Just So Stories (1902)

My first encounter with the 5 Ws and an H was when I was a student at Rhodes University in 1978. By then some of my classmates were familiar with the problem solving method because they were taught this in High School English.

I don’t think there can be any journalist today who is not familiar with the “six honest serving-men.”

In the seventies we were encouraged to answer as many of these six questions in our introductory paragraph. Today, journalists are given more latitude when writing the hard news story and are allowed to answer the questions in the body of the story.

Over a number of years, I have been fortunate to judge various journalism competitions. Recently I have been looking more closely at the hard news category and what I saw disturbed me.

Journalists were making declarative statements that were opinion in their intros. For example, one story’s intro said something like this (and I write from memory): Confirming the education department’s poor service delivery record, School A had classrooms of over 100 learners on the first day of school yesterday.

And this story was entered into a national journalism competition in the category of hard news. Why should I as judge even read further when the journalist does not follow the basic rules of hard news? When I read further I thought that the story was certainly dramatic but we do not look at that alone. We look at the quality of the writing.

The journalist could have said the following: School A has crammed over 100 learners in each of eight classrooms on the first day of the school year.

This sentence answers the questions Who What Where and When It needs only to answer the Why and How.

While the practice of having the “six honest serving-men” in the intro is no longer a requirement, I would say it remains a useful foundational method for a new writer.

It is a guide that will help you not go wrong because it focuses the mind. Eventually it becomes second nature. Once it does, you can experiment with frills.
I always tell the story about the carpenter who is asked to build a table. His first task is not to carve the legs of the table. The first task is to ensure that the table stands firmly on its four legs – that it has balance and would be considered to be a good table by anyone.

Master the Basics

First learn to get good at building the basic table. When you can do this easily, you could then consider learning the skill of carving the legs.
Practice, practice and practice again. Read the newspapers and on-line sites and study how hard news stories have been written.

My first stint in a newsroom was when I by chance spent a month at the Cape Argus in 1976. I say by chance because I wrote letters to seven companies in the Cape asking for a holiday job. Only the Cape Argus bothered to respond. I was interviewed and offered a job for a month that hooked me for life.

In the basement of the Argus was a printing press that set each letter of our words into lead. The machinery was heavy and the ink messy. To make the job of the setter easier, we had to write each paragraph more or less on a separate piece of paper.

I used to slip three pieces of paper with carbon paper in between into my typewriter. I wrote only the intro on the first page. On the second page and third I had more than one paragraph. I would drop three copies into my news editor’s tray. One was for him, the other for the sub-editors and the third for the typesetter in the basement. Ink, lead and newsprint were precious. Nothing could be long-winded. I had to work according to the inverted pyramid – a method of placing the most important information in the intro and then added information of lesser importance as I went along.

This allowed the setter to cut from the bottom. So with a hard news story it was very important to be concise and get all the most important information into the first few paragraphs.

One of my own techniques when doing a hard news story is imagining I am coming home and seeing my mother: “Mom, a bus smashed into a mini cooper in town this morning killing an entire family.” Or imagine you are talking to your friend on the telephone and want to share the news of the day: You wont believe this. Loyisa Gola has released a compilation of all episodes of the Late Night News in Joburg today.”
We often speak clearly but get confused when we have to write.

Below is an intro of a hard news story I broke two years ago with no frills.
Mangaung — Minister Trevor Manuel will not stand for re-election to the ANC’s top body, the National Executive Committee. (see www.zubeidajaffer.co.za for the full story.)

You could be speaking to a friend: Did you hear the news? Trevor Manuel will not stand for re-election to the NEC.

But by far the most important thing to remember is that a carpenter does not become a master carpenter without practising. It’s not rocket science to write well. It just takes practice.