What to write in yearbooks – The Journalist’s Guide to Yearbook Writing

what to write in yearbook - banner

What do journalism and yearbook writing have in common? A better question is, what don’t they have in common?

Not only must writing for a yearbook adhere to the principles of tight news writing (no comma splices or flowery sentences, please), but it also requires tightly honed interviewing chops, leads that hook a reader in, and, well, all that is to follow. Let’s take a closer look at how to get yearbook journalism right.

How to Select the Right Kinds of Topics?

what to write in yearbooks - select the right topics

To make your yearbook readable, your students will have to pick topics about which, well, people want to read. Here are a few ways to do just that:

01. Know your audience

Do the students of your school flock to basketball games, or are chess matches the talk of the school? Is there a dish served in the cafeteria that everyone knows is vile? Is there a class that students can’t wait to attend?

The more students know about their audience, the more relevant their proposed topics will be. Let this knowledge guide not only the yearbook’s overall coverage, but also the phrasing and references made. That dish that everyone hates in the cafeteria, for instance, might not be right for a feature article, but student readers will be sure to laugh when a writer refers to it in a story.

02. Pick newsworthy items with longevity

Content also feels relevant to readers when it’s notable and timely. For a yearbook, for which there is a lag between the time an article is assigned and the time it appears in the publication, this means choosing to feature events that were significant in the year, but that also have enough longevity to them so that they’re not irrelevant by the time the yearbook is published.

For instance, this might include a feature of a big new event at the school, like the launch of a school-wide organic garden to supply the cafeteria. In contrast, this would not include items like the need to register for national exams, something that is more relevant for a publication put out more frequently, like a school newspaper.

“Feature events that were significant in the year”

03. Feature news items that had an impact on the community

At its heart, a yearbook is a deep look at a community. As such, readers will want to know who did what this year. Which clubs launched exciting new initiatives? Which sports teams wowed the crowds? Who wiped the floor with the competition at an academic meet? Have your students look for important impacts both big and small.

04. Look past bias

Every editor, despite their best intentions, will harbor some kind of bias, and every writer will too. It’s important not to let this bias affect what is — and isn’t — covered. While it’s crucial to feature stories on the school’s biggest events, make sure your students seek out the quieter clubs, sports, events, and students for stories that are important but may lie off the beaten path.

05. Hold pitch meetings

Oftentimes the best stories come from the bottom up. Have your student Editor-in-Chief gather the editorial team to pitch story ideas. Have them look for ways they can get the most out of one idea, whether by blowing it out into a series or exploring that idea from multiple angles.

You might also consider having a pitch page on your school site so that the community can submit ideas as well for your student yearbook journalists to follow up on.

The Principles of News Writing

what to write in yearbooks - make your stories pop

Writing news stories is a special kind of craft — one that takes effort to master. Here are a few great principles to emphasize to your students.

06. Know the structure of a good news story

As any journalism teacher and journalist worth their salt knows, news writing is structured like an inverted pyramid.

In the story’s lead, the writer offers the most important information. This is where to answer the who, what, where, when and how of the story. It gets right to the point in about 30 words. Most importantly, a good lead will include a hook to capture the reader’s attention. This might be an engaging description, a thought-provoking quote, a burning question, or an outstanding fact.

The body of the story, which follows the lead, is the real meat. This is where the writer will delve deeper into the details of the story, according to the sequence of events or the logical flow of the issues at hand. In fact, if the lead lays out the most interesting tidbits of the story, the body is where the true telling of the story really begins. It’s like saying, “Okay, we got you with the hook! Now sit down to business.” We’ll get background and evidence, as well as any accompanying photos and interviews needed to flesh the story out. Overall, the body of a news story should be constructed chronologically, increasing tension (if relevant) as it goes. The body can range in length, depending on how much room you have to work with.

“Okay, we got you with the hook! Now sit down to business.”

Note that sometimes, if the story is particularly complex and the lead requires two paragraphs, the writer might need to do a quick review of what has been discussed so far before the body. However, it’s best to save this for highly complex stories.

Finally, in the tail end of the story, the journalist will wrap it all up. This might include the journalist’s own analysis of the situation, or the summary of an industry expert. It might also include further questions for exploration.

Note the differences from and similarities to classic academic essay writing. There are introductory, body, and conclusion paragraphs, as well as a clear, logical flow of arguments. But those arguments — and the evidence for them — are more fluidly integrated into the story. What’s more, the best news stories appear to be told by the subjects themselves, rather than by the authoritative author.

what to write in yearbooks inversed pyramid

Inverted pyramid Image via Pinterest

07. Let Stories Evolve

Sometimes, finding the real heart of the story is difficult to do. Writers may start research for a story thinking it’s about one thing, only to find themselves pulled in another direction. There are a few ways editors can approach this kind of situation.

First, they can allow their student journalists to follow their interests. If a student journalist has an intuitive storytelling sense, this will lead to much more interesting and compelling stories. As the student’s story diverges, make sure to brainstorm other possible directions it can go. Oftentimes, the best stories or series of stories evolve from a single story idea that was well-conceived but not quite the core of the story.

08. Finding Credible Sources

More often than not, the most credible sources are those that are closest to the story — that is, people who have witnessed the story with their own eyes or even lived it. However, at times that also makes them the least reliable, as they will of course be biased. In that sense, finding credible sources means finding multiple sources to tell different sides of the story. It’s also important for the student journalist to do background research on each interviewee both to establish their trustworthiness in other situations and to pinpoint their agenda. Once the latter is known, it’s easier to spot when a source is manipulating a journalist for their own gains.

This will likely not be an issue for yearbook reporting, but when there is a sensitive topic at hand, it’s also important to protect the privacy of the source when requested. Doing so can make a story better, as it allows the source to speak freely without fear of repercussions. However, it can also put a story at risk for the very same reason, as a source can feel free to slander. Ensure that journalists always keep a skeptical eye, even when the source is charming.

09. Getting an Interview Subject to Open Up

Just because a student journalist has found a prime interviewee, doesn’t mean that interview will go without a hitch. According to this excellent guide from the storied Columbia School of Journalism, there are four main principles when it comes to snagging a good interview:

  • Be prepared! Get to know the background of the subject and any organizations they might be representing ahead of time. This will help keep the conversation going when it hits lags, as journalists will always have a subject they’re familiar with to bring up. It will also ensure student journalists are preparing intelligent, relevant questions — questions they may have been pondering themselves anyway — that the subject will organically be compelled to answer.
  • Establish a good relationship. Even hard hitting reporters know that they have to cozy up to subjects to get them to open up. Don’t start with the hard and serious questions. Rather, start with simple conversation until it seems the subject is ready to get down to business.
  • Ask questions that are relevant to the source. Journalists know not to ask questions that the interview subject wouldn’t have any chance of knowing or caring about. For that matter, instruct students not to answer their own questions when they talk, or formulate questions in such a way that there’s no way for the interviewee to respond. Ask questions that will lead either to clear answers or to interesting conversations. And of course, emphasize the importance of follow-up questions to ensure the accuracy of the response.
  • Listen and watch attentively. Sometimes, interviewees say more with their body language than with their actual words. What’s more, observations of the person’s demeanor can make for interesting descriptions for the story.

In addition to these principles, it’s important for students to know the mechanics of an interview. Recording the interview on a smartphone is usually all that’s needed. If interviews will be conducted over the phone, there are also apps that can do this, though recording through Skype is often an easier option. In accordance with privacy laws and journalistic ethics, students should always let their interviewee know they’re being recorded. Students should also be prepared to take copious notes in addition to recording orally. This will help them mark what will need to be followed up on or expanded upon, and to draw their own attention to the most interesting aspects of the interview.

10. All About Those Quotes

How can a journalist pick just a few prime quotes from what may be an hour-long interview or more? It can be tough. Oftentimes it can be useful to let the most intriguing quotes guide the story. At other times it’s best for the journalist to structure the story separately and then integrate quotes in. Good quotes will help the journalist tell the story from multiple points of view. They will also offer interesting information that advances the story, rather than simply repeating what other interviewees have said or what’s been written in the prose. Students should stick to shorter quotes that get quickly to the core of the issue. Editing of a quote is acceptable but only to fix basic grammar issues, like when the verb tense the person was speaking in doesn’t match the verb tense of the story, or when the subject of the sentence needs clarification. Changes like these should be put in brackets. For example:

“Then [we went] to the store to grab some milk,” reports Smith.

These changes should not change the meaning of the quote and should instead be made for grammatical purposes only. As always, make sure not to censor quotes. Any changes will need to be cleared during the fact checking process, which we’ll cover more extensively below.

“Good quotes will help the journalist tell the story from multiple points of view.”

11. Point of View and Voice

Except in the case of personal essays, news stories should always be written in third person. For a yearbook publication, however, it’s perfectly acceptable — and encouraged — to keep the writing casual and fun.

Generally it’s best to keep the sentences short, but it’s fine to add a fun voice to it. Alternating the length of sentences will also keep readers intrigued. That said, students should make sure to stay objective as they go and, when possible, tell different sides of the story.

12. Fact Checking and Other Ethical Guidelines

Fact checking is an essential part of the editing process. Editors should email or check all quotes with interviewees over the phone, as well as any sections of the story that refer to items the interviewee has mentioned. This does not mean sending the entire story to the interviewee. Doing so too often results in the interviewee nitpicking and trying to dictate the course of the story. Instead, have students send only the snippets that are relevant to them. Determining how much the interviewee can alter of their quote can also be a tricky subject. Generally, if a quote is wholly inaccurate, it’s important to let the interviewee change the quote so that they don’t feel misrepresented or libeled. However, if the quote is accurate, it’s best not to agree to changes in the interest of finding truth for the reader.

“Compare the information given by multiple sources.”

Another important way to fact check is to compare the information given by multiple sources, and for students to do direct research themselves into these claims, whether online or at the library.

Fact checking also includes ensuring that no sections of the story were plagiarized. The plagiarism checker from Grammarly is an easy one to use. Just copy and paste the text into the box and the checker will search the web for any similar sounding stories. This guide from Politifact goes into greater depth on the important principles of fact checking.

Another important ethical guideline to adhere to: make sure to avoid any conflicts of interest. If the basketball and football team have a vicious rivalry, it probably doesn’t make sense to send a basketball player to cover the homecoming football game. Doing so is sure to result in bias. At the same time, sending a current football player to cover the football game is also a conflict of interest, as that player has too much at stake to be an objective reporter.

13. Nail the Mechanics

Of course, proper grammar and spelling should be used throughout journalistic pieces. This extensive set of guides from OWL at Purdue go into great depth about AP style, which is used throughout the journalism world. In general, it’s often best to use a “Hemingway Approach”: that is, it’s best when sentences are short and to the point. Showing the story rather than telling it through quotes and observations is far more powerful. Perhaps most importantly, opt for strong verbs rather than an excess of adjectives.

14. Mix Article Types

Portraits, interviews, reports, personal essays, columns, and features. Yearbooks are more interesting with a wide range of story types, which not only mix up the approach to story construction but also have a way of mixing up the content. That is, student journalists may find themselves more drawn to writing one form of article type than another, or that different stories are better told in different ways. Through portraits, a student journalist can go in-depth with a subject about the issues that matter most to them — and hopefully, to yearbook readers too. With interview pieces, students can explore a wide range of opinions on the topics of the day. With reports, students can review the facts of what happened this past year. With personal essays and columns, students can relive the year through perspectives that match their own, or explore what the year was like through the eyes of a student who is very different from them.

Together, employing a wide array of story types will make your yearbook more compelling and diverse.

“Yearbooks are more interesting with a wide range of story types.”

How to Promote Team Unity?

what to write in yearbooks - promote team unity

Putting together a yearbook requires tight teamwork. Journalists and designers need to be on board with editors, and editors need to listen to their journalists and designers. There will be moments of high stress as deadlines approach, and scrambling when a journalist is sick for a big event and needs someone to cover for them.

How can you ensure your students get along?

  • Make clear roles and responsibilities. Oftentimes, squabbles occur when no one is sure who is supposed to do what, so everyone is doing everything. Such an environment leads to lots of stepping on other people’s toes. With clear roles and responsibilities, collaboration is much easier because every person knows the area in which they have the final say. It also creates ownership. When a task falls within a certain area, there is no doubt who will take it — it is just taken and done.
  • Make sure all areas are covered. To assign roles, it’s important to know exactly what areas need to be covered, down to the most granular detail. Who will collect content for the printer? Who will do the big, structural edits, and who will be in charge of word counts? How about fact checking? Again, knowing this creates ownership.
  • Emphasize the need for collaboration across silos. That said, there of course needs to be collaboration between those occupying these various roles. For instance, a photographer will need to accompany a journalist to a big event, and a designer will have to understand the intent of just about every journalist on the team.
  • Teach the Three Levels of Unity. The Three Levels of Unity is a concept developed by business leader Michael Hyatt. In this article about creating the kind of team unity that creates results, Hyatt parses the difference between acceptance (the lowest kind of unity), agreement (where people might agree with a leader but have no personal stake in the outcome of that agreement), and alignment (when team members are really with a leader). To achieve alignment, Hyatt recommends first educating the team on the differences between the three levels of unity, so everyone knows what you’re striving for. From there, Hyatt recommends that leaders “clearly articulate your vision, strategy, and program.” After all, the team can’t be on board if they don’t have a clear sense of what being on board means. It’s also important to create an environment that encourages dissent. Not only do better ideas arise from the group, but from a psychological perspective, team members will also feel more invested if they’re actually heard and feel as if they can see their views in the final decision. Lastly, when those decisions are made, they should be announced fully to the team rather than executed surreptitiously, and all rationale should be explained. This is crucial for getting team members not to simply obey but to engage and invest. In other words, to align.

Making It Readable

what to write in yearbooks - make readable stories

Last but not least, it’s important that student journalists make their work visually readable. Yes, the designer will help tremendously here, but it’s also the student journalist’s and the editor’s responsibility to construct pieces in such a way that their work will intuitively attract a reader’s eye. To do this, take a page out of both traditional news writing and online journalism (i.e. blogs). Have writers parse their pieces with bolded headers and bolded and numbered lists. Readers are becoming increasingly visual and used to scanning on the internet, so give them the tools to do so.

Don’t shy away from pull quotes and side bars with key facts and figures. Make good use of the photography team’s good work by integrating photos throughout longer pieces.

In Short: Journalism and yearbooks go hand-in-hand!

Creating student journalists may be hard work, but it’s worth it. Your students will learn essential principles of good writing, and they’ll be proud of the work that they produce. As a quick review, here is a checklist of journalism lessons to drive home, or all the way to the press:

  • Take the time to pick compelling topics. Knowing your audience, picking newsworthy and impactful items, looking past bias, and holding pitch meetings are all great ways to do this.
  • Master the craft of news writing. Study the structure of a traditional news story, including the inverted pyramid approach. At the same time, don’t let structure keep a story from evolving.
  • Make good use of credible sources. Know how to spot credible sources, and always look for multiple angles for a story.
  • Learn the art of the interview. Do research ahead of time and know the right kind of questions to ask to get interviewees to open up. Once the interview has been obtained, look for compelling quotes that provide interesting information and that advance the story.
  • Always write in the third person. Doing so allows the journalist to explore multiple points of view and to maintain objectivity.
  • Fact check. Make sure quotes are adequately representative of what the interviewee said. Double check every claim made. Ensure there is no plagiarism in the story.
  • Nail the mechanics. Adhere to AP style.
  • Mix it up. Have students try out different genres of news writing to keep their writing interesting and to tell stories from different angles.
  • Build team unity. Doing so is something that must be done consciously and practiced. Make sure leaders know how to encourage feedback.
  • Make it readable. Even journalists — not just designers — should know how to construct stories that are scannable on the page. Bulleted lists are key.

With these tips, your student journalists will create impressive yearbooks in no time. If you have any other tips or experiences to share with us, feel free to leave a comment below!

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Leah Anne Levy is an author, journalist, editor and former educator living in Austin, TX (USA). As the former Managing Editor of a major education website, she continues to cover education, the mommysphere, marketing, tech and the lifestyle sector for numerous publications and corporations through her company, Just Start Storytelling. She is currently shopping her first book, a middle grade fantasy/humor novel titled The School for the Intolerably Strange.

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