Tips for TV News Writers

From Joel DeSpain, Public Information Officer, Madison Police Department, and award-winning former reporter for WISC-TV Madison

  1. Write to your video.  See dog, say dog.  Make sure what you write matches what’s on the screen.

  2. Have a good idea how you’re going to structure your story before you sit down to write.  Beginnings and endings are very important.  Know what your opening video will be, and what your closing video will be.

  3. In the field, think of transitional devices that will carry your story from “a” to “b”.  Work as a team with your photojournalist.  If you plan to write something, tell the photographer while you are shooting.  Don’t write something for which you have no visuals.

  4. Remember: people are always the story.  Find good people, you’ll have a good story.

  5. Don’t “over-write”.  Let the pictures and sound carry the story whenever possible.

  6. Be conscious of your pacing.  Keep the story moving.  Long carts and long SOT’s are often story-killers.  Work together with your photojournalist and listen to their ideas!

  7. Sometimes it’s good to do some foreshadowing: plant a few things along the way, so that when completely revealed, there will be a surprise for the viewer.

  8. When appropriate, sweeten the piece with some music. 

  9. Be fair with people.  Try to capture the essence of what they’re telling you.  Few things get sources as angry as when they think you’ve taken them out of context.

  10.  Treat all you encounter with respect.  You are at all times an ambassador, not only for your news organization, but for your profession.

 

Professor Jim Hoyt, who for years was head of the Journalism Department at UW-Madison, is no stranger to the inner workings of the TV newsroom.  Professor Hoyt has trained many of the best TV folks working in Wisconsin today, and has put together ten really useful tips to help make you a better news communicator:

Lessons from the Professor

  1. Our listeners and viewers are almost always doing something else in addition to listening to our newscasts.  Think about it.  They’re in a busy and active household, they’re talking to someone, driving a car, or engaging in any of dozens of activities.  Because they are constantly distracted we have to write (a) to get their attention and (b) to communicate the information with great clarity.

  2. We’re writing for the ear, which is a terribly inefficient organ for receiving information.  Newspaper readers can go back and re-read a sentence they don’t understand.  If our listeners don’t understand a key point in a story, they’re lost, and our newscast has failed.  It is impossible to write too clearly!

  3. To be clear we must write as we speak – conversationally.  This means using relatively short declarative sentences, active voice, precise nouns and adjectives, and clean grammar.  That’s the way we talk, so that’s the way we should write.  Again, remember our listeners cannot go back and re-hear the story.

  4. We must always remember we’re storytellers.  That’s our job.  Our stories should be coherent, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  They should not simply recite facts and figures.  They should explain the meaning of those facts.

  5. The lead is the most important part of each story.  It should not be overburdened with too much information – that is, it shouldn’t tell the whole story.  It needs to get our listeners’ and viewers’ attention and let them know what the story is about.  Then, when they decide to listen, they should hear the heart of the story.

  6.  The information in our stories should be meaningful to our listeners.  Sometimes to do that we can leave out unnecessary numbers.  A student once wrote that the flight deck of an aircraft carrier was 950 feet long.  After I said I couldn’t visualize something that long, she reworded it: “It’s longer than three football fields.”  Perfect.  She didn’t need the big number to make her point clearly.

  7. Our newscasts must be current.  On both radio and television our audiences hear our stories at the same time we deliver them.  We should take advantage of that, by emphasizing how current our stories are.  For the most part we write in the present tense.  When appropriate, we can – and should – use phrases such as “at this moment,” or “it happened just five minutes ago.”  That way we emphasize one of the most significant advantages our media have.

  8. We must, however, also be careful of these immediate time references.  Translate all times, if they are needed, into local time.  Don’t say, “It happened at noon, eastern time.”  Say, “It happened at eleven o’clock this morning.”  Or better yet, “just a half hour ago.”

  9. Attribute.  And attribute first.  Our audiences want to know who is responsible for information in our stories.  We need to tell them, and we need to tell them before we mention the information.  A good broadcast writer will write, “President Obama said the end of the recession is now within sight.”  That way the audience knows who said it when they hear it.  It’s too late if we tack the attribution on after the statement.

  10.  Always keep necessary reference materials close by.  They can by in print or on-line.  We all need pronunciation guides, atlases, dictionaries, historical references, and directories of local, state, and national officials and offices.  We don’t need to know everything, but we do need to know where to find everything.

 

One of the best-known television newswriting coaches, Mervin Block, has a list of 33 top tips on his website, including one which says “Don’t parrot source copy”.  All too often, young newswriters take a fax or e-mail from a source and essentially copy and paste it into the copy editor, without taking the time to read, understand, and RE-WRITE the copy.  Another one of his tips is “Write the way you talk”.  All police reports and many news releases are not written the way people talk.  No one would ever say “conveyed to a local hospital” but you hear it frequently on TV news stories, because that’s what it said on the police report.

Forcing present tense is another mistake made by many writers and consultants who don’t understand the difference between present tense and active voice.  Block and many other TV newswriting coaches say “use active voice and active verbs”, but caution against unnatural writing like “Five people are killed tonight in a house fire”.  One of Block’s best tips is “Read your copy aloud.  If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.  The art of writing lies in rewriting what you’ve already written”.

Award-winning reporter Jenna Sachs of Fox 6 TV Milwaukee says “the reporter is not the focus of the story.  If you have lots of good sound, use it.  Don’t feel the need to track everything.”