THE WRITE STUFF
Five Steps to Better Writing
by Deborah Potter
We've all heard the complaints. We've even voiced them ourselves.
Can't anybody write anymore? What was that reporter thinking when
he described a community that was "gripped in a veil of controversy?"
And the anchor who said spectators at a baseball game "hurled
racial epitaphs" at a player must not have been thinking at
No dispute -- much of what we hear on the air these days is badly
written. And news directors despair because they can't seem to improve
it. Producers who spend hours fixing bad copy face the same problems
from the same writers, day after day. No one seems to learn. And
guess what? They won't learn, if no one teaches them. Because good
writing is not magic. It's a craft. It can be learned and it can
be improved. But first, everyone has to know that it matters. That
means offering regular feedback about writing, not just about how
your on-air people look and sound. No question that television is
a visual medium, but the words do count. Those words are the public
voice of your station, and if you want anyone to tune in and believe
what they hear, you need to care about what's being said.
Praise good writing and you'll get more of it. But let's say you
haven't found much to praise. What then? Begin by sharing these
five steps to better writing.
Step one. Take time at the front end to understand the story. Candy
Crowley of CNN puts it this way: "The less time you have to
write, the more time you should take to think about it." Try
telling someone, in six words or less, what your story is about.
If you can't, you'll have trouble writing it.
Step two. Choose the information that will tell the story best.
Avoid what one of my colleagues calls "the cramming impulse."
Select specific details - the brand of the beer, the make of the
car - that will bring the story to life. Leave the rest out.
Step three. Organize your information in a logical way. Make an
outline, if that helps. Keep related facts together. Answer questions
as they come up. Know where you are going before you start.
Step four. Tell it, don't report it. Imagine that every story you
write begins, "Hey, Mom, guess what I just found out?"
Or, "Honey, you won't believe what happened today!"
Step five. Rewrite. Revise what you've written by looking at it
backwards. Really. Look closely at the end of every sentence, paragraph,
and story. That's where you want to have the strongest words, because
they'll make the biggest impact. Crisp endings are one simple way
to sharpen your writing. Fade-outs are for pictures not words, but
too often we hear sentences that trail off instead of concluding.
Consider these examples from local television newscasts. When describing
the death of a cancer patient, an anchor declared that "today,
she died of the disease." When reporting on a chrysanthemum
show, the reporter noted that visitors could see "50 varieties
of the flower." And when teasing the next story, the producer
promised "the latest on that situation." Drop the last
three words in each of those sentences, and what do you lose besides
Wasted phrases, jargon, clichés - they add clutter, not
meaning. Overwritten is not well-written. As Charles Osgood says:
"Bloated words and phrases don't penetrate. Well-chosen, well-ordered
ones do." So put your writing on a diet, and think of adjectives
as empty calories, particularly the adjectives so overused in broadcast
news: senseless, horrible, tragic, ironic, and the like. Mark Twain
put it best: "When you catch an adjective, kill it." And
he wrote that more than 100 years ago, folks. Imagine what he'd
say about writing for television, where pictures make adjectives
even more expendable.
What you really need on this diet are verbs, active verbs that
add energy to your writing. With the right verbs, you do more than
convey information, you build understanding and make your audience
care. Consider the difference between a story saying that a bus
was involved in an accident, and a story that tells how the bus
skidded down an embankment, rammed into a guardrail and flipped
into a ravine. Active verbs in the active voice are the hallmark
of writing that communicates clearly. But many writers I talk to
aren't clear about the difference between voice and tense. The simple
answer is that tense tells you when, and voice tells who. "The
Olympic torch is being carried by a local man," is written
in the present tense, but the passive voice. "A local man carried
the torch last night," is past tense, active voice. Got it?
Think of it this way. In the active voice, the subject comes before
the verb. In the passive voice, it comes afterwards, or not at all.
For example: "A meeting will be held at the school tonight."
Or: "The body was found at eight this morning."
You have to do more reporting before you can write in an active
way. You have to know who's meeting or who found the body, which
means you have to ask. So one payoff in a newsroom that values good
writing is stronger reporting. Besides, just think how much time
you can save if you leave out all those words you don't need.
(This article was originally
published in RTNDA Communicator magazine, 1997)