Last time, we talked about writing print news stories – the kind you would find in your morning newspaper. Today we’ll talk about how broadcast copy is different, and why.
Write for the ear: I have a confession. While I was writing my fake Sotheby’s story for the last installment, I was wincing. No, actually, it was worse than that. As I typed that hard news lede, every fiber of my being was screaming, “NONONONO! This sentence is too damned LONG!” That’s because, in broadcast news stories, the shorter your sentence is, the better. Keep in mind that someone is supposed to be reading your words aloud. If the sentence is too long, the news anchor will have to pause partway through it and take a breath – and guaranteed, he’ll breathe in the wrong place and screw up the flow. So do yourself a favor and keep your sentences to between ten and 20 words.
You’re absolutely right – 20 words is not very many, and ten will hardly get you started (especially if you interview some self-important person whose title is five or six words long, but I digress). That’s why you must stick to subject-verb-object sentence construction. Any subordinate clause needs its own sentence.
Write in present tense: Radio and television news are nothing if not immediate. Using past tense makes it sound like you’re delivering old news. So all your verbs should be in present tense. For attribution, use “says” instead of “said.” And for the love of all that’s holy, keep the word “yesterday” out of your lede.
Write conversationally: Contractions are pretty much verboten in print news stories, but they’re encouraged in broadcast. Sentence fragments are also okay. It’s partly to save a word here and there, and partly to make your anchor sound friendlier.
Oh, and if an event is tomorrow, say “tomorrow” instead of the day of the week. That’s to avoid having your listener miss the rest of your story while trying to remember what day it is.
Write tighter: “Write tight” is exponentially truer when writing for broadcast. Most people read aloud at a pace of about 250 words per minute. Do the math: A typical news story read by a radio anchor should run only ten to 20 seconds; if there’s a sound bite in the middle, the story might run 30 seconds, including the 15 or so seconds for the sound bite (which you have to introduce). The time constraints are similar in TV, although a package (consisting of the reporter’s voice-over and a couple of sound bites) might be closer to two minutes long. Still, two minutes is only 500 words.
Annoy your pet: The best way to find out whether your broadcast story works is to read it aloud.
To sum up: If I were writing the Sotheby’s story for radio, I might do it this way: “Sotheby’s has confirmed a manuscript found in an attic is a draft of a Shakespearean play. The manuscript goes on the block tomorrow in London. The opening price – 225 million dollars.”
(Just for fun, I timed it. It clocked in at eleven seconds.)
Journalism style, in general: If you’ve done any technical writing, you might already own a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook. That’s pretty much the style bible for print journalism (there’s even an app for it!). For broadcast style, the AP publishes the Associated Press Broadcast News Handbook.
But if you don’t already have an AP Stylebook, don’t stress over it. As long as you follow these tips, your fictional news story should pass muster. And my hooch budget will thank you.
Lynne Cantwell has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. She also taught introductory TV production at American University. Lynne’s vast overeducation includes a journalism degree from Indiana University, a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University, and a paralegal certificate. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Her third novel and her first urban fantasy, Seized: Book One of the Pipe Woman Chronicles, was released in March. You can learn more about Lynne at her blog, her Facebook page, and on her Amazon.com Author Central page.