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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

Conciseness is Key


Writing for TV news is different from any other style of writing.  Prose allows for long, flowing sentences with flowery word choices.  Fiction writing usually deals in the past tense, along with newspaper style writing.  Those styles also accommodate the passive voice, i.e. "The man was shot by the police."  But since a news audience does not have the luxury of reading the words off the page, the writing must be simple.  

If someone reading the newspaper is confused, he or she can go back and reread a sentence or paragraph to clarify a tricky detail.  However, if a TV viewer is confused by a sentence, not only will he or she probably never understand it, but the viewer will also probably miss the next few sentences in the confusion.  

To avoid this problem, broadcast writing is usually pared down.  Sentences are short.  This is because, if an anchor reads an extremely long sentence, sometimes the viewer might forget how the sentence began by the time it ends.  One rule I've learned is to keep one thought, or one piece of information per sentence.  It also helps to write with the active voice.  To follow the previous example, "Police shot the man."

This doesn't mean that broadcast writing can't be creative.  In fact, the best writers are the ones who can write simply and creatively.  This is most effective since it clearly conveys the information, yet also draws the viewer into the story.  Given enough time, it's not too difficult to come up with a catchy or clever way of telling a story.  The challenge is doing it on deadline.  

When the clock starts to count down, the pressure starts to mount.  All of a sudden writing becomes exponentially more difficult.  Granted, some thrive under the gun, but most do not.  One key to avoiding this problem is to begin writing early, copy edit shortly after and rewrite scripts before they're forgotten.  I can improve my writing simply by tackling assignments as they come my way and start checking them off the list as opposed to letting myself be distracted, putting off writing or rewriting copy.  It's simple really, the earlier things are completed, the less things we need to do in the minutes before the show.  That means less stress in the newsroom and less stress in the studio.  Put all of this together and it's a recipe for a well-written and well-executed show.  

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