First of all, we do what we do to build the movements; to make links with people and to get across our political ideas for debate. We do not want to be sued, we want to break stories and write clear reports from the movements, we want our writing to be consistent, and we want it to be clear and free from error, we want to emulate the best of our tradition, we want to use language which is effective and accessible.
For all these reasons, we need to have these books sat in a pile next to our computers. Before starting to write a news story we need to read the Mirror or an article from the Foot books quoted below, in order hear the tempo of clear, short news stories. Do not emulate The Guardian. It is confused, dull and pretentious – much like its politics. It is written in this style because it has nothing new or original to say.
Below are the top ten absolute golden rules - and reading list of books. Paul Foot followed all these rules. They are a craft but they are being lost. They make stories accessible and clear. This is not about what I like or think is right. I have invented none of these rules and it took me a decade to make them habitual.
1) The very first word of a story must be interesting. “Almost 100 people” is the worst start to a news story. Hit the reader on the nose: “Feminists….” “Activists…..” “Environmentalists….” will at least mean feminists, activists or environmentalists will read the story. Think of the most active and engaging object or person in the story. This might be the most engaging way to start the story. Write about people. Don't write about statistics unless there is no other option.
2) No more than 30 words in the introduction. A maximum of one comma in the introduction. Only make one point in the introduction. The most interesting point – which will not always be the most important. Do not say ‘yesterday’, or ‘last week’ or ‘according to the Guardian’ or mention any other publication in the introduction. The fact the story is not ours and is not new is bad and as such should be hidden as low in the story as possible.
3) The first two paragraphs have to include the following information: who, where, what, when and why. I would strongly suggest there is a link from one of these facts to another story on the site. People are only likely to read two paragraphs. The third paragraph should be a quote. Preferably from a Counterfire person with a link to a theory article by them on the subject.
4) The least interesting parts of a story come last. A sub-editor should be able to slash the last one / two / three paragraphs from the end of the story and it still make sense. I would make sure the last paragraph links to anther story. If they really have read all the way to the end, they’ll stay on the site for ever.
5) Only make one point per sentence. Mostly only have one sentence in every paragraph. Try to never use commas. If you are using two commas you are probably constructing a sub-clause. In reporting this should be made into a second sentence. Read through every sentence and strike out every word which is not necessary. Words like “that” litter copy. Do not use “but” at the beginning of two sentences in a row. It sounds like you can’t make up your mind. Never use the same word twice in a sentence, with exceptions such as "the". Only use "and" twice if listing things. If you want to list four things do it like this: "apples and pears, oranges and bananas".
6) Never use passive sentences. They are dull and are used by people who think they are writing in an academic, thoughtful style. They are apprehensive, indecisive and the opposite of what our politics should sound like. We write “Socialists are more likely to live long and happy lives, according to a new report.” We do not write, “According to a new report, Socialists are likely to die of boredom before finding out what the report says.” If you have a comma half way through a sentence it is likely to be a passive one.
7) Opinions should be expressed through quotes. One of the most common objections to left wing publications it that they ‘screech’ at people – often this is unfair. However, it is very easily avoided by putting the most obvious statements of opinion in quote marks from someone else on Counterfire. This also means people will agree with what we are saying as identifiable people they will hopefully meet in the real world. If would be useful if we can then have a picture of the person you are quoting so people start to recognise and identify with them.
8) Avoid cliché and words very familiar to left activists. We will have to be careful not to adopt phrases and mannerisms from each other – this is how sects behave. This is much more easily done in writing. Go back through the story and strike out any repetition. Keep an eye on stock phrases you use too often.
9) When reporting a meeting pick out the most interesting thing the speaker says and then report this as news. So we would say: “Soldiers serving in Afghanistan are increasingly demoralised and desperate to get home, Private Joe Glenton told a packed meeting in London yesterday. Do not say: “Over 100 people packed into Friends Meeting House yesterday for a Stop the War meeting with Joe Genton.” Never mention the weather when reporting a protest, never make excuses for it being small. If there are not many people there, then mention this towards the end of the story. If there really are no people there, don’t report the event.
10) Spell out institutions in the first instance (unless the abbreviation is universally understood) and then use initials after. “The National Union of Students (NUS) will today send postcards to MPs.” Think what the abbreviations mean when writing sentences. Organisations are a single object. Their names are singular. The NUS is doing something. The Home Office is introducing new rules. Don’t assume knowledge but at the same time use rules to help not hinder you to write. Some people state the useless as per: “Marx, a leading Marxist”. I kid you not.
Good luck and enjoy writing.
McNae's Essential Law for Journalists (Paperback)
The Newspapers Handbook (Media Practice)
Guardian Style (Hardcover)
The Full Stop
Eats shoots and leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
The Standard (Paul Foot)
Articles of Resistance (Paperback)
Words as Weapons: Selected Writings, 1980-90 (Paperback)
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
David Harvey, Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, Owen Jones, Nina Power, Sanum Ghafoor, Andrew Murray, Laurie Penny, Lindsey German, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Paul Le Blanc, Terry Eagleton, Paul Gilroy and more...
By Lindsey German
By Neil Faulkner
By Chris Nineham
By John Rees
By Lindsey German and John Rees