I was adding to the cliché list the other day when it hit me, so much of TV news writing is so staid, so predictable. Frankly, it’s tired and cliché. Why? In So Cliché! How to avoid overused phrases, I listed some reasons why we use these phrases when writing news stories. But there’s even more to it.
Recently I tweeted this question: What shows do you watch to get inspiration for your writing? I got the typical answers: NBC Nightly News and the FOX Report with Shepard Smith. Notice, in the question posed, I used the word, shows not newscasts. What else do you watch?
Two shows that have influenced my writing greatly are “West Wing” and “Mad Men.” Yes, fiction. Why? Because these programs really revolve around conversations. They are not fast paced action thrillers by any stretch. The words are understated, yet profound. You feel a relationship building with the characters. They become real to you. Still, we don’t really know any of these characters completely. Sometimes, hours later, a part of the conversation you watched really hits you. You have an “Aha!” moment. You can’t stop thinking about how the exchange between the characters went in a given episode. When it comes down to it, television news is a conversation between the anchors, reporters and the viewer. That conversation should also have some intimacy. We should not have to beat the viewer over the head with overstated lines. The viewer wants to hear what we have to say. They are taking time out of their busy days to learn from you. We forget to honor that sometimes. Heck, with so much talk about ratings, we forget viewers come to us. We don’t have to hunt them down. We just have to give them something appealing, and they come to us. Then, hours later, they call friends and tell them about the thing they saw or learned that haunted them. Word of mouth is still the best advertising.
Two great authors, and former journalists can also give you an idea of the power of understated writing: Rick Bragg and Malcolm Gladwell. They have different writing styles than you use when slamming out a vo. But look at how they explain interesting ideas with simple and very conversational writing. When you read their books you feel like you are sitting down and talking with them. Both write non-fiction. You feel an intimacy. Techniques they use are very translatable to TV news writing. For example: They ask questions. You will see Malcolm Gladwell set up a scenario in a sentence or two, then simply write, “Why is this?” Then he lets the situation play out. You can use that technique in cold opens, intros to reporter packages and even teases. The viewer becomes engaged, starts thinking through the situation for him or herself and feels a connection. Rick Bragg is brilliant at showcasing irony. Irony is a crux of storytelling (read Storytelling on a dime). Both are masters at describing conversations they have had. The way they let those conversations play out, can be used when writing packages. The biggest thing they do, is let people speak for themselves. Too often we cut off sound bites just as the viewer is being hooked. The viewer doesn’t get a chance to connect with the characters in our stories. These authors understand how to give you just enough from a character that you have to stop and think about this person. Again, it’s intimacy.
A final thought, neither the shows listed above, nor the authors I mention use long sentences. The writing is very simple and direct. It’s similar to what’s spelled out in the article Short and sweet, the 7 words in a sentence rule. Every word should count in some way. When you talk with someone about an important issue, you choose your words carefully. You look for connections. Writing for TV news is no different. So try and keep it simple. Overwriting does no good.