Thursday, July 11, 2019

5 W’s and an H of Newspaper Writing

by Julie Lavender @JLavenderWrites

What’s black and white and read all over? I know, I know—it’s an old joke, and it’s really only funny when asked verbally, because the homonym “read” gives away the answer. A newspaper is black and white and read all over!! (You can recognize the joke as outdated, also, because most newspapers sport color photographs these days!) 

But, the joke lives on and is still accurate today. Newspapers, though no longer the only means of obtaining current event information and probably the least likely source for most, continue to be read all over the country and world. Thus, newspaper editors are in constant need of fresh material to fill newsprint pages, and that’s where the freelancer comes in. 

Novice and experienced writers seeking those elusive credits to add to the resume are likely to find success with a local newspaper. As mentioned before in this column, newspaper credits are often easier to snag than magazine or book credits. And that’s because of the copious amount of material needed to fill a paper on a daily basis and the need for “boots on the ground” reporters who can seek out local stories desired by the publication’s readership. 

So, with that information summarized from previous articles, let’s get started on what you need to know to gain entry into newspaper writing. 

The most important part of any newspaper article is the first paragraph, called the “lead.” Newspaper articles use what’s called the inverted pyramid approach, with all the important information in the very first paragraph. 

Sadly, many people often read one or two paragraphs of a newspaper article and if it doesn’t grab them or excite them enough to want to finish, that’s all they’ll read. All the important info needs to be in that first paragraph for those readers who won’t finish the entire article. But better yet, the paragraph needs to have the details in summarized form and hopefully the reader will want to find out the rest of the details and keep reading. Your lead should pique the interest of the reader, enticing him or her to do just that. 

Typically speaking, the lead should give a synopsis of the entire story and answer five ‘w’ questions and an ‘h’ question – Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

The who, what, when, where, why, and how should be in the first paragraph, and really and truly, that’s usually only one sentence with all that info. For example, here’s the first sentence of a newspaper article I did: ”Bulloch Leadership sponsored the fifth annual Chocolate Run in which participants walked or ran a five-mile course downtown on Saturday and raised $43,000 to benefit the Open Hearts Community Mission homeless shelter.”
  • Who – Bulloch Leadership
  • What – Fifth-annual Chocolate Run
  • When – Saturday
  • Where – five-mile course downtown
  • Why – to raise money for homeless shelter
  • How – participants walked or ran

That’s the whole first paragraph. That’s called the lead. A lead should be between twenty-five to thirty-five words long, but definitely no longer than forty words. And, if it gets too wordy or stringy for one sentence, turn it into two sentences to give the 5 w’s and 1 h, but keep it in the first paragraph.

Then, the next several paragraphs elaborate on those details that you’ve mentioned in the lead paragraph and give additional information of lesser importance. . That’s the general journalism rule, but it’s often adhered to more stringently with an actual “news story.” 

Human interest stories or profile pieces may not be quite that strict with the lead. For example, my story about a 90-year-old gentleman began this way: “Joseph Montgomery of Newington, Georgia celebrated his 90thbirthday in a rather unusual way. On a cold Sunday morning, January 7, Montgomery gave away gifts on his birthday instead of receiving them.”

As so often happens, rules are made to be broken in the writing world, but most newspaper editors want the lead in the first paragraph.

To recap, the most important part of a newspaper article is the “lead” – that first paragraph, which is usually just one or two sentences, twenty-five to thirty-five words tops, with all these questions answered: who, what, when, where, why, and how. You may notice that not all current event articles will have a definitive “how,” and that’s alright, but include that info if it’s pertinent to the news event. 

Join me for more tips and techniques for newspaper writing in the next column. Meanwhile, keep reading your local newspaper, cover to cover. Pay close attention to the first paragraph of each article, especially those on the front page. See if you can find the who, what, when, where, why, and how of each article in the first paragraph. Are all of the questions answered in the very first sentence? Or is the info included in two sentences? Look at the pictures that go along with the articles and compare the tagline – the caption below the photo – and you’ll often see the same format: one sentence with all 5W’s and one H included. 

Until then …. 
  • Who? Julie Lavender 
  • What? Will share more newspaper writing advice
  • When? On the second Thursday of next month
  • Where? On Edie Melson’s ‘The Write Conversation’ website
  • Why? To encourage you to become a newspaper stringer
  • How? By contributing current event articles and human interest stories to your local newspaper.


Julie Lavender read newspapers all over the country while her husband served as a Navy entomologist for twenty years. She wrote for the children’s section of the Denver Post for four years. Currently, she reads and writes for her local newspaper, the Statesboro Herald, back in their Georgia hometown and loves the interesting people she meets as a journalist. Julie also writes for GuidepostsPublications, other magazines, a couple of homeschooling blogs,, and many compilations. Combining her education degree, love of homeschooling, and joy of celebrating, Julie wrote a devotional entitled, 365 Days of Celebration and Praise, a party planning book called, Creative Sleepovers for Kids, and three teacher resource books for the religious division of Carson-Dellosa. Julie and David are enamored with their four adult children, one son-in-love, and one gorgeous grandson. Keep up with Julie on social media and at her blog at


  1. Excellent advice; perfect timing. Thanks, Julie.
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

    1. Thank you, Jay! Those high school English classes were right on the money about this!

  2. This is great, Julie. Whenever I have to write a little press releasee, I always run those through my mind. Thanks!

    1. Some things I learned in high school have been long forgotten, but this definitely stuck with me and it was long before I had any idea I'd write for a newspaper in my future! Thanks for joining in the conversation!

  3. I think, great advice for the opening paragraph of every chapter too Ms. Julie Give readers enough to cause them to want to read the next paragraph, next page, etc. Well done ma'am.

  4. Thank you for this great information. :-)