That term is suspect: When to use the word and when to avoid.

By now most of you know we have a cliché list of words and phrases you just should not use.  “Allegedly” is one of the very worst, and we explained how to get around it.  Now let’s talk about another very overused, and obviously misunderstood term: “suspect.”

By definition “suspect” means: “to think (a person) guilty without having proof.”  It is a term police, lawyers and judges use.  Viewers get the essence of it, quite possibly more than most newsies.  I say that because when you watch an a-block in most newsrooms around the country, you hear “suspect” being used, in a way it should not, constantly.

Here’s a common example, when describing a convenience store robbery with surveillance video. “Here you see the masked suspects approaching the counter with guns and demanding cash from the register.” Um, no.  “Here you see the robbers pointing guns at the cashier.”  The people with the guns, who then take handfuls of cash from the register are not “suspects.” They are the people who did it.  Police may not know their names yet but, you can see in the video, they are the “robbers.” The people in the video are guilty, the video shows proof. You see them committing the criminal act.

Now here’s what to do, if the person is not wearing a mask.  As we explained in “Getting around allegedly” if you see the person doing it and police confirm that’s what happened, simply attribute it.  “Police say you are watching a man rob this store.”  “Suspect” is not going to help you here. The man is seen holding the gun.  State the facts.  Attribute to police.

Inexperienced writers, if you are unsure, exercise caution.  These concepts take a while to grasp.  Remember, you must attribute.  Words like “suspect” do not really protect you.  Saying for example, “Police call Joe Schmo a suspect.” can still create problems.  You can say police have identified a suspect and not show a face or say a name.  Remember, unless the person is a public figure, the name is less important to viewers than the fact investigators are moving forward and possibly solving the crime.  The safest bet, is to wait to say a name until there are charges.  Once a person is arrested, they are no longer simply a suspect.  So saying “Suspect Joe Schmo is charged with.” is not a protection.  The term suspect, has to be used clearly, not as a crutch phrase.

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The one word that leads to most clichés and bad writing.

Chances are your biggest crutch word is “it.”  A simple, seemingly throwaway word.  Yet, “it” causes so many problems with news copy.  That’s because “it” is a big catalyst for exaggeration.

Write any of these lately?  It’s not known.   Or how about It’s been called… a parent’s worst nightmare, the worst storm, a disaster, a terrible tragedy, a brutal murder.  Do your ears hurt yet?

Why is “it” such a catalyst?  The definition of “it” is:  “Used to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified.”  When you use that word in news copy, are you following the definition all the time?  Most of us can honestly say no.  Newsies often use “it” as a word to dodge something we really do not know or have ability to explain.   Hence the “it’s not clear” or “it’s not known” crutches that so often end up in news copy.  The worst place to use “it” is in your first line of copy.  You need a declarative sentence that clearly states what you are talking about without using a nebulous word like “it.”

So what’s the work around?  Making sure you understand the facts.  Then if you do use the word, you will do so with the actual definition in mind.  That will mean an end to the potential exaggerations, and stronger news copy.  Great reasons to dump “it.”

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Do you overwrite?

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.

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So Cliché! How to avoid overused phrases

We all have news wording that makes our skin crawl: “area residents,” “alleged” and “budget woes” to name a few.  Recently on Twitter a group of us started listing phrases that make us cringe.  Then one producer tweeted, “What do you use instead?”  Great question and we’re going to give you some answers.

First we need to discuss why these phrases come up so you can better understand how to avoid them.  In seminars you are taught that these phrases are formal language and not written for the ear.  That’s often true.  It can be hard to write on a computer screen and imagine the words actually coming out of someone’s mouth.  There’s more behind writers using these so called “crutch phrases” though.  Because they are used so often, they have become a sort of news slang.  They seem dependable when you write.  In fact it almost becomes expected that you will write this way.  Take music for example.  Thanks, in part, to tons of country and rock songs the term “ain’t” is now in the dictionary.  Think about it.  If you start singing songs in your head, it won’t take long to come across one with “ain’t” in the lyrics.  Many of the songs have amazing phrases, cadence and messages.  Yet the lyricist throws in “ain’t?”  It seems likes “ain’t” is expected in a song.  Now consider news copy.  The clichés we’re talking about are news writers versions of “ain’t.”  They are slang terms that some writers use as crutches because they hear them all the time.  Where?  In newsrooms, all day long.  Ask a reporter for a headline as he/she runs to a fire.  Chances are you will be told fire is at such and such address and “completely destroyed” the building.  We simply use these terms all the time.  But that does not mean they should end up in our news copy.

Writers (and by that we mean everyone who writes: anchors, producers, associate producers, reporters even assignment editors) also use these phrases because they are writing in a hurry.  When you are slamming information into the assignment file or into a script just to get the show done, you are going to use terms you are most familiar with.  That’s how the mind works.  You might call it: “News slang  under duress.”  Then a writer comes along for the next retread and ends up not comfortable with the story.  He/she clings to the news slang already in the script to avoid possibly changing the meaning of the copy.  Now you see how the cycle repeats over and over.

So how do you break the cycle of “news slang under duress?”  Discipline.  It begins with you printing out the news copy you write once every week and reading it over at home when you are more relaxed.  Have your highlighter ready and mark your “crutch phrases.”  Then work to eliminate them one at a time from all of your writing.  Write the “crutch phrase” on a notecard, then write three alternate types of wording.  Post the notecard somewhere on your desk at work.  That way, when you are slamming, you have quick options to avoid the clichés.

Many of the worst news clichés are easily avoided when deleting one word: “completely destroyed” becomes “destroyed.”  “Clouds of uncertainty” becomes uncertain.  “Brutal murder” is “murder.”  Most of this “news speak” is used while trying to provide an image.  “Clouds of uncertainty,” “brandishing a firearm,” “budget ax,” “hanging in the balance,” even “hit the nail on the head,” all put pictures in your mind.  These terms are not how you provide images in TV news.  You have video to provide the images.  Moving pictures are what separate us from newspapers and radio.  Remember when “writing for the ear” as consultants say, you are also writing to, or complimenting, the video.  (We  explain how to write to video more in depth in Can you picture it article.)  Your words do not need to put images in a person’s mind.  Again, this is not radio or the newspaper.  Your words need to get someone to look at the TV screen to see the images you are showing.  Your words also provide perspective.

Providing perspective means you need to understand what you are writing about.  I saw this repeatedly as a producer and an EP.  If the writer, be it a reporter, assignment editor, anchor, producer or associate producer did not understand the content, the copy became cliché.  When we are uncomfortable, we cling to crutches.  If you are unclear in understanding the story, you must ask for information before writing it.

Now let’s address the comment from the producer on Twitter asking what alternates to use for the crutch phrases.  Since writing for television news is always under duress, we at survivetvnewsjobs.com has posted  alternatives in an extensive list. (Cliché list)  Here’s to making sure all of our copy isn’t “so cliché!”

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