20 Writing Tips For TV Packages
By Judy Muller
- THINK!!! Do not begin until you know how you will organize the story. Make sure you know the key points you want to make – and then leave all the extraneous details OUT.
- Begin with a strong opening sentence – one that grabs the viewer and sets up the point of the story. The most important sentences in your package are the first and last (that goes for the video, as well).
- Identify the SOTs you plan to use, and in which order –BEFORE YOU WRITE A SINGLE WORD! Your script will then be the connective tissue that ties them together.
- Write in the ACTIVE VOICE.
- Write the way you talk. That means short, declarative sentences with very few clauses. Wherever your track contains three sentences or more, figure out a way to cut it down to two sentences. It’s almost ALWAYS possible.
- Choose “emotional” sound bites over “informational” sound bites. You don’t need the librarian to tell us how many libraries will be closing because of budget cuts. You can give that fact in your track. You need the librarian to express dismay over losing her job and what that means to her family.
- Avoid clichés like the plague.
- Try to connect your SOTS to your track with seamless writing that sets up the SOTS without PARROTING what they will say and by coming OUT of the SOTS by writing a clear transition.
- Stand-ups should be at least two sentences long and serve one of several purposes: as a transition in the story, to cover a point for which you have no video, or to demonstrate something.
- Avoid lazy writing, as in: “Many people say…..but others say..”
- Thou shalt not use the words “Closure” or “Tragic.” When people are grieving the death of a loved one (say, a child), the idea of “closure” is insulting. If you have to TELL me something is tragic, you have failed as a storyteller.
- Do not end on a SOT –it’s lazy. Try to write one or two lines of track that play off the last SOT, if possible. Writing elegant last lines is an art form and takes practice. Any variation of “only time will tell” as a last line should result in banishment from the newsroom.
- When in doubt, leave it out. Don’t speculate. Stick with the basic facts of the story. If you think you have a cute pun to use, don’t. And never, never weigh in with your opinion, as in: “Hopefully, the Smiths will one day rebuild their home where ashes now smolder.”
- Don’t use words you wouldn’t say in conversation. When we are talking to friends, we don’t call a robbery “a heist” or refer to snow as “the white stuff.” Also avoid all references to “Mother Nature.”
- Avoid meaningless attributions. Beware of overused terms such as “officials,” “analysts” and “experts.” Attribute the idea to a real person.
- Don’t ask rhetorical or hypothetical questions, such as “Have you ever wondered…?”
- Don’t overwhelm your viewers with too many names and numbers.
- KNOW HOW TO PRONOUNCE UNUSUAL WORDS AND NAMES. Write difficult words and names out phonetically so you don’t stumble.
- READ YOUR COPY OUT LOUD after you have written your script. If it sounds like “writing,” change it!
- Even though you are on a tight deadline, REWRITE if necessary – cut out excess verbiage (i.e. “words”), make sure the facts are CORRECT!!
Judy Muller is a reporter, commentator and professor at USC’s Annenberg School For Communication and Journalism. She is a former correspondant for ABC News and Nightline.