Sometimes, when you sit down at a blank screen, it’s hard to know what to write. And then I remember the advice I was given on my first day as a reporter, after being allocated a desk (plain, wooden, stained, wonky back leg) a typewriter (Adler, pale blue, size of a badger) a spike (a spike) and a sheaf of reports about the latest meetings of the local branches of the Women’s Institute.
‘Write an intro,’ explained Max, the chief reporter. ‘Put down all the facts in order of importance, and when you come to the end, stop.’
I listened enthralled. I was a reporter. I was going to write a story on a typewriter, like they did in the films. ‘Right, right, right,’ I said, ‘And what kind of a conclusion do I write?’ One of the senior reporters sniggered. Max sighed. And so I learnt the basics of writing copy.
Intros: short, snappy, and as up to date as possible. Not, for example, Last week Mrs Rothwell presided over the tea at an interesting meeting of the Drayton Bulgy women’s institute. Max pointed out, with commendable patience, that the fact that one of the members had set fire to their hair was possibly the item that would most grab people’s attention.
Body copy: expand intro, keep sentences short and to the point. If you have a quote, put it in the third par. One of the members, Lydia Parsnip said: ‘At first, Mrs Smith had no idea she was sitting too close to the candle display. However, there was no great harm done as organ player Marjorie Snitterfield threw the fire bucket over her.’
Last few pars: whatever is most expendable. Next week’s talk will be on dolls’ underwear through the ages. This is because, in the days of hot metal, working out exactly how much space a story would take was an inexact science, relying on an em rule, a facility with numbers, and the hope that the subs hadn’t spent too long a lunchtime in the Swan. If, when the comps came to make up the forme (the metal template for the page) the type didn’t fit, the story would be cut from the bottom up and the extra type would get melted down to make type for another story.
Nowadays, computers can make copy fit to within a gnat’s arse (traditional piece of newspaper terminology there, for you) but the basic rules still apply. Tomorrow’s talk will be Lace doilies: Fact or fiction?