“To be or not to be” The ultimate writing challenge.

When I ask journalists what they want to improve on most, I am usually told writing.  Yet the more newscasts I watch, the more I am struck by the sheer number of basic mistakes that make it on air. (Don’t feel badly, this even happens on the network level)  One cannot help but wonder if people are either that clueless about grammar and basic rules for writing to the ear, or if journalists are so overwhelmed they simply write anything and put it on air just to make deadline.

I understand no one is perfect (I’m not). That’s why so many of us have goals to write better.  But how do you actually improve your writing, especially when it’s obvious from watching newscasts, that there is next to no feedback on your work?  We will continue to provide ways to help improve writing. (Here’s a link to other writing tips in case you missed them.) Now let’s focus on “to be” and all of its forms.

Next time you have a few minutes print out several recent scripts you wrote and grab a highlighter.  Take that highlighter and mark off every time you use a version of “to be.”  Chances are your scripts will have a bunch of highlights. Here are some examples: “He was hit by a car.” “Protestors are being heard inside council chambers.” “He is facing murder charges.” “She was being given a plea deal.”  When writing conversationally, using “was,” “being” and “are” becomes a real crutch.

Now take a look at those sentences with a form of “to be” in them. When you read those sentences out loud to yourself, do many of them seem exaggerated or just silly?  How do you face a murder charge? Be active.  He is charged.  A car hit the man.  Protestors spoke during the council meeting. Prosecutors offered her a plea deal.  Hear the difference? Here’s another common example to explain what I mean.  Usually you will hear this phrase in news copy, “The investigation is continuing.”  Either it is, or it is not. You should say, “the investigation continues.”  The “is –ing” combination is among the worst you can do.  It is sloppy, wishy washy, and passive.  Anchors and reporters do not need to come across that way. Period.

An assistant news director I worked with years ago, would put together amazing writing seminars.  He would get you pumped to go write, then lay down this law:  “From now on, you cannot use any form of “to be” in your copy. No exceptions.” Think about that for a minute.  Look at your news copy.  Could you pull that demand off every day under intense deadline pressure?  That’s what my co-workers and I had to do.  Yes, it was extreme and very challenging!  But it made us all much stronger writers.  Eventually he did ease the mandate.  But by that time you were used to avoiding “to be.”

By doing this he forced us to use active voice. He forced us to take a stand in our news copy.  No room for winging it.  You had to know the facts. Think about it, you cannot really “couch it” much without using “to be.”  Our scripts were clear, concise and consistent.

So if you want to challenge yourself as a writer try to avoid or even drop all forms of “to be” even if it’s for one or two news blocks a day.  Reporters, try it once or twice a week when you are less slammed to ease into it if you must.  If going “cold turkey” scares you, at least dump the “is –ing” combination.  See what an impact it really makes.