I have taught you a lot of things over the past year about writing. Many of them have been higher level writing techniques, but what if you’re just starting out? What do you need to know? What do I as a copy-editor look for in a writer who is working on the newscast I oversee? This article will outline what you need to do to master the basics and then move on to the next level. I must tell you this is my favorite post so far. I think you’ll see why. I welcome your feedback.
When I first started writing so many years ago, my copy was long with complex sentences and thoughts. It was not conversational. Frankly, it needed a lot of help. These are common issues I see when someone is a new broadcast news writer. Usually the person hasn’t developed the skill of concision or figured out how to make the written word feel like natural conversation when it rolls off the anchor’s tongue. Let’s dive right in to address these challenges.
RESEARCH: First thing’s first. You can’t write a story without knowing the details through and through. How do you get well-versed? Do research about what you’re writing. Today, we have more options than ever before right at our fingertips to find information. You should be an expert of sorts on your story. After all, it is YOUR story. Once your initials go on it, you own it. It’s a reflection of you now.
Doing research may seem like something that should go without saying, but I can’t tell you how many times I have seen things that were written from the source copy the producer pasted into a story hours earlier. Well, some time has passed. Look up the story and see if it’s changed since the producer decided to put it into the rundown. I can guarantee you there is an update.
READ AND MAKE SURE YOU FULLY COMPREHEND EVERYTHING: Once you find information about the story you are writing, take time to not only read over all of it, but make sure you know what it means. I once gave a group of people the same information from which to write a story. Granted, it was a difficult read. If participants didn’t go through the material carefully and understand its meaning, they would have come to an incorrect conclusion, which is what happened to one member of the group.
DON’T OVERTHINK IT: Many times, people make writing way harder than it needs to be. They can’t get out of their own heads, make the task at hand insurmountable, and then they’ve rendered themselves helpless. When you start typing in this state of mind, YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES. I’ve seen it before countless times. Get out of your own head. In fact, clear your head of the nonsense and write. Did you hear me? I said WRITE! Here’s our new slogan – JUST WRITE IT! But Bridget, how? You’ve told me all of the things to do leading up to putting words on the computer screen, but how do I start? I totally get it. It can be tough to write the first words that will get you going in the right direction to tell a memorable story. So, I have outlined some steps to get you started.
- First, consider this question — what’s the main point of the story? That’s your lead line. Make it captivating and to the point. Don’t bog down the lead with every detail from the story. That’s what lines two through five are for. What if there are multiple facets of the story? There usually are. Stories are complex. They usually have a great deal of angles that you could choose to follow. What is the one that’s the most important to talk about today? If you are unsure, ask your producer or executive producer, but only choose one or two. Any more than that for a short story, like a v/o would be way too much information for something that’s likely only 20-25 seconds of the newscast.
- What visuals do you have? Graphics? Great, use them! Video? Great use it, but make sure it’s edited exactly to your words.
- What sound do you have? Music from the benefit concert. Great make sure you pause to hear it full and then run it under the anchor’s copy for as long as it makes sense.
- How long should the story be? That depends on your news station’s mission. Many stations like a high story count, which means shorter stories. That means a v/o story is likely any where from 15-25 seconds. A vo/sot is 30-45 seconds. Just make sure you know what your station’s goals are in that regard.
- Finish strong. Either tell us what the next thing we can expect, tease ahead to future coverage and be specific about it. “We’ll have more later” is not good enough. “We’ll show you exactly how the city plans to pay for the new stadium tonight at ten.” You can also finish up by teasing to your digital content, but again, be specific. If you haven’t heard the memorable reason “more on” should not be used from a consultant or your news director, let me be the first to explain it. “We have more on our website.” More on. Drop the “e”. It’s a moron tease. It says nothing about what you have and won’t make the viewer jump online to go see what “more on” means. Why would I waste my time without knowing what the payoff is going to be? It’s a throwaway line, and it’s useless. You’re better than that!
Now that you’ve written your first script, breathe. The first one is done. It’s behind you. That was a big feat! Ready to do it again? Good! This time though, the expectations are higher. You already have one script under your belt, now this one should be even better. But how do you improve and continue to take your writing to the next level? Here are some things that I as a manager love to see writers do. These tips also helped me.
PRACTICE: You won’t get any better at your craft unless you practice it. Get some AP wire copy, and write a broadcast script from it. I kid you not, I used to keep a binder full of everything I had ever written – radio scripts, television copy, web stories – you name it, it was in the binder. I cringed when I went back to read it years ago, but it was a good reminder of where I started and where I am now. I didn’t get here without practicing and getting tons of feedback. Find someone you trust to read and critique your writing for you.
LISTEN: When that person you trust — or anyone else — gives you constructive criticism, listen to it. Be humble. Take the advice and use it to become a better writer.
That’s not the only time I want you to listen. I also want you to hear the copy you write come out of the anchor’s mouth. What does it sound like? Does it seem forced? Is it conversational? Close your eyes to limit other distractions and really take in the copy. Did the anchor stumble? Was there something that was unclear in that script, or was it cumbersome coming off of the tongue? Does that story come to life – even without the visuals because remember, your eyes are closed. Did you use descriptive words? Were you effective at your use of natural sound? For example, can I hear waves crashing or school bells ringing?
TALK TO YOUR ANCHOR: The third thing I want you to do that falls under the listening category is before you put a single word on the paper, go talk to your anchor. Well, it’s more like the anchor talks, and you listen. I feel comfortable saying ALL anchors have things they like or don’t like; words they’ll say or won’t say. There are nuances to their styles. They all have a sort of swagger or energy that you can either help come to life with your writing, or you can kill it if you’re not in tune with it. Some of the nuances you’ll learn in time, but some of them you can get out ahead of by just sitting down and having a conversation with the person who will be delivering your words. And don’t think this is a one-time talk. Oh no! It’s a daily discussion. “Hey, I tried something in the lead story script. Will you look at it and see what you think?” How about this one: “I really need you to punch that word in that script at the end of the show. I put it in bold in the prompter.” Think about it this way. An actor doesn’t deliver lines without some direction from the producer or director on the vision for the storyline. It’s the same premise here.
WATCH AND READ: So, we’ve done a lot of listening. Now I want you to watch and read. You have to watch other newscasts besides your own. See how other people are doing what they do. How are they crafting their works of art? How are they incorporating sound, graphics, and other visual elements to help tell the story? What creative tactics are they using?
Reading other news articles and books helps as well. How are the writers helping you visualize the story, even though they may not have the images to help them tell the story? They are likely relying heavily on descriptive writing – really giving you a sense of what the scene looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels likes. You can take a page from their book and really immerse yourself in descriptive writing. See how you can incorporate it into your copy. You can also brush up on your descriptive writing by reading my blog on the topic here: →→→→→
READ OUT LOUD: There’s one more thing I want you to read. Read your own copy out loud. I preach this all the time. I’m almost sick of hearing myself say it — almost! You have to read your script out loud to audition it. See how it flows off of your own tongue before you hand it over to an anchor. Did you get through it without stumbling? Oops, there’s a super long sentence that you had to stop and take a breath before you could finish it. Guess what’s going to happen on air? The exact same thing. Fix it. Likely the sentence it too complex with way too many thoughts crammed into it. Simplify. Often, short declarative sentences are better than long sentences with multiple prepositional phrases. The short sentences are also easier for a viewer to comprehend. Reading out loud will also help you catch any grammatical issues. Sometimes our eyes and brain play tricks on us. You’ll see a word that needs to be in the sentence, but it’s not actually there. You have accidentally omitted it, but your mind thinks it’s there. When you read it out loud though, you’ll stumble and realize you left out a word.
This is a lot to process. I understand that, but it’s all necessary to become the writer you want to be and someone news managers want to hire. Don’t expect to become an overnight sensation. It took me years to become a good writer, and I’m still learning every day. You must continue to hone your skills, learn new ones, and put them into practice, or like anything — they get stale. You’ll get frustrated at times. You’ll want to do the equivalent of crumpling up your paper and tossing it across the room, except you’re on a computer in a newsroom. But perhaps the biggest piece of advice in this entire post, I saved for last. Don’t give up. Believe in yourself. You CAN do it! Try hard. Fail. Learn from it. Listen to sage advice and constructive criticism. Make the changes. Pick yourself up and move on to the next script and nail it! I’m pulling for you. Go get ‘me!