Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Dan Zar, a news producer for WXMI-TV FOX17 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Zar has also worked for the Post-Tribune in Northwest Indiana covering municipal government, breaking news, and feature stories. Previously he was an intern for WGN Morning News and a producer/reporter for Blue Island TV. He is a 2015 graduate of Columbia College Chicago.
By Dan Zar
OK, for all of you aspiring writers out there, here’s some concrete advice on how to write memorable scripts for those video projects.
As a news producer for Fox17 TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I’ve learned that audiences appreciate accurate scripts, with clear and simple language. Certain writing guidelines help to achieve that end. I’d like to share some of those guidelines here.
Note: These aren’t original ideas. In fact, I learned most of them in Professor Lillian Williams’ broadcast news writing course at Columbia College Chicago.
Even years later, I remember one of the first broadcast-style stories I wrote in that course. It was about how Ellen DeGeneres became even more famous overnight for taking a selfie at an awards ceremony. The writing challenge was to keep the story relatively short (compared to a newspaper article), to share the meaning of that transformational moment (rather than simply tell viewers what happened), and to by all means keep it conversational.
Since then, I’ve moved on the write hundreds of stories in broadcast style—everything from breaking news stories with serious implications for local residents to softer features with heart-tugging angles. All of them shared some common elements, designed to attract and to keep audiences glued to our station’s news shows. These tips work well for video scripts, and could be useful for almost any writing genre:
When you listen to TV news anchors, you’re hearing lots of examples of active voice writing. That’s one of the first things I learned in Professor Williams’ course.
In active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing the action. Here’s an example: The girl hit the object.(active) The object hit the girl. (passive) Notice that active voice is straightforward. It’s simpler. It’s transparent.
In my writing for the Fox station, I aim to write conversationally. Why? Because I want the audience to stay with us! I want people to feel like we’re talking with them, and not lecturing them. Therefore, I aim to write accurately, but simply.
How? I’ve disciplined myself to I write short sentences (with a little help from Professor Williams!). I avoid those long sentences with fancy subordinate clauses and mile-long prepositional phrases. That might work for the English teacher, but not for my everyday TV audience. I translate technical jargon into simple language. I round off numbers, unless the exact numbers tell the story better.
SELECTION OF SOUND
I remember that in Professor Williams’ course, we learned how to turn the “police talk” of press conferences into easy-to-understand-script. It’s not that difficult to do. An important step is to select the right sound bites, or short interview clips.
For example, let’s say that I’ve just finished listening to Chicago police describe what happened at the scene of a shooting. I’m racing to make the deadline for my script.
Should I select the following interview sound clip for my story? “Chicago Police Department was dispatched to the 400 block of State Street on reports of shots fired.” Absolutely Not! Why? The anchor/narrator tell you where the shooting happened in fewer words.
On the other hand, the audience would rather hear from a person affected by the shooting. Here’s a better sound clip: “My son just got out of the hospital for a kidney transplant and now he’s gone, I just can’t believe someone would do this to him!”
I could go on with dozens of other writing tips, but this trio gets you off to a good start.
As a news producer I try to think outside of the box. I don’t have an 8 to 5 job. I’m constantly looking for fresh story ideas, fresh angles. I’m also a fixer, too. I’m always solving problems, whether finding news sources or scouring for appropriate visuals. Also, I can have a show ready to go with just ten minutes to air, even though I must insert breaking news of an unforeseen nature. That’s what a news junkie does – roll with the punches, embrace the unforeseen.
But there’s one thing I’ve learned: Nothing works if the script isn’t written well. The same writing rules I described in this post can be adapted to your writing genre as well. And if I could add one more tip: Read your copy aloud. Your ear will catch awkward words and transitions in the script. Have fun!