What makes for an interesting story? That’s an important question and if we are going to prepare our students to be professional communicators, we should be having this conversation with our students in many of our classes.
Today, I am going to share an in-class activity that I have done the last few years in my writing class, COMM 335 Writing Across Platforms [see all posts about this class | see the syllabus]. That activity asks students to identify the most interesting part of a news story. Here’s how it works. But first, some background.
In my writing class, I teach students how to write news releases. We talk about things like the inverted pyramid, headlines, leads, formatting, and AP style.
It is the lead, perhaps, that students struggle with the most. So we examine leads, talk about different types of leads, and spend a good amount of time working on our leads.
While I introduce leads during the part of the class that we are working on news releases, knowing how to write leads is an important skill that stretches into other types of writing. Think of an interesting blog post that you read. How did it start? What grabbed your attention? Did you get a clear sense of what was at stake; what the important information was?
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of having Andrew Springer [@springer], who is now the senior director of digital development at NBC News, visit my class. My students were participating in writing pieces for a project of his, WeHeartWV.com. But he and I also sat down outside of class to chat about creating content for the web, changes in news consumption, and more. During that time, he suggested I assign my students an activity: re-write the lead of a news story that has been published by a well-known news source by focusing on the most interesting part of the story.
Andrew, no doubt, knows his stuff. And I was very appreciative of his generosity with this idea. So a big, big thank you to Andrew for sharing this idea and helping me better prepare my students.
The following year, when the time came, I started implementing this as an in-class activity. I also required students to re-write the headline to continue to practice their headline writing skills. I think the assignment really helps the students see that there are may ways to see a story; that there are many interesting avenues into any situation.
The thing is, that a good news lead and a lead that will grab someone’s attention in an online post are not always one in the same. By focusing on what makes a story most interesting to the student, the student gets the opportunity to literally re-write the news the way they would have told it. I believe the practice of looking for the angles on a story is helpful to the students as they look for the angles in the news releases they are writing. It helps them learn to turn the story on its side and see what aspects of it are appealing while also gaining more practice constructing headlines and leads.
In a way, I also think this activity provides relief because I have gotten the sense from some students that they feel that there is only ‘1 correct way’ to write the news release assignment they are working on. I want them to see that they could read three different articles about the exact same news event and find three entirely different approaches.
I have really loved this participation activity and have continued to dedicate a day of class for students to work on this activity as I come around and offer assistance and feedback. The activity usually takes about 50 minutes for students to complete. I talk students through their headlines and leads in class and offer suggestions. But I also read through all of them after class and give each student a few words of feedback, focusing on the most important thing I would like them to take away as they continue to work on writing effective headlines and leads.
Download a copy of the in-class activity below or see it on SlideShare.net. You will note that I have selected several well-known news outlets from across the country as well as the news aggregator Google News. Feel free to modify these to your liking. I chose a range of credible sources plus the news aggregator to give students a range of choices. But you may want to focus on your local or regional news. This is the first year that I hand selected the news sources. In the past, I would let students choose their own news sources and some students would only focus on sports news, soft news, or sources that may focus less on news and more on editorializing. This year, I was happy to find that by pointing the students to sources all of the students picked fascinating, hard news stories. Because of this, I think the exercise went better.
One last thing to point out is to be sure to explain to your students what you are looking for. You are not asking them to re-write the existing lead but rather to find an entirely new lead based on what they find interesting. In the past I did not take the extra step to emphasize this point and some students simply re-wrote the existing lead.
What activities do you have to help students learn to write headlines and leads? Please share them with readers via the comments below.