Since people seem to like lists, I figured I would come up with one of my own. Whether you are writing television news, a script for a corporate video or a scipt for an online newspaper video, the words need to be more than just a dry recitation of facts.
Video and narration should complement each other. There used to be a saying when it came to TV news writing, “see dog, say dog.” I have always disagreed with that statement I believe it should be “see dog, say pekingese.” The narration, or voiceover should add information that is not readily available through the visuals. Yes, you can see it’s a dog, but can you tell the dog’s breed? Seeing a dog and saying, “this is a dog” is what I call ‘mickey mousing.” Who cares? Tell me something I don’t know.
First and foremost, remember you are writing the words to be spoken, not read. A good VO talent or reporter will speak the script, not read it. Yes, they will say the words that are on the page, but they will not sound like they are reading. The best way to accomplish this is to write in the active voice. That means, Subject-Verb-Object. Here’s a recent lead in a New Jersey paper that was the lead story on the local page.
A group of independent candidates running for seats on the Borough council has begun campaigning for the November election.
Wow! Just think, political candidates campaigning for an upcoming election! Who’da thunk it? First, its in passive voice, evident by the use of the to be verb (has been). Second, where’s the news? The writer buried the lead in the fifth paragraph.
The independents have announced their campaign with an introductory statement listing their priorities, which include bringing “accountability back to the council,” fiscal responsibility and stopping what they characterize as “overdevelopment.”
Now that’s the news. So, to put this as the lead and using active voice you could write something like:
Independent candidates for Borough Council say they will bring “accountability back to the council’ and stop what they call “overdevelopment.”
Now it’s got the lead where it should be and is in active voice.
I promised you a list, so here goes:
- Active voice. Subject-Verb-Object.
- Don’t bury the lead.
- Short Sentences (It’s the way people speak).
- Simple words. (You are writing for the ear).
- Words complement the video. (see dog, say pekingese).
- Edit interviews to the “point.” (don’t let them go on and on, edit it down to the real point and script around it).
- What does it mean? (Explain things in simple, easy to understand language. For example, if doing a story on a change in the value of the US dollar you could tell the viewer, “Last year this bottle of beer cost you $1.50, This year that same bottle will run you $2.25.”).
- Acknowledge unanswered questions. (There are times you won’t be able to get answers to an important question. don’t ignore it. Let the viewer know, you know there isn’t an answer.)
- Active Voice ( I cannot stress this enough!).
- Break any or all of these rules to make it better.
So that’s my list.
There are some who seem to easily take this to the next level. I will give you an example. A reporter friend of mine,Dan Fiorucci, was working in Philadelphia a few years back. The Philadelphia International Airport had recently enlarged the women’s restroom to reduce the lines. There were the requisite interviews with staff and patrons, at the end though, is where Dan subtly took it to the next level. His cameraman had gotten a beautiful shot of the Ladies’ room sign. It was one of those translucent, smoke brown plastic signs with the international symbols on it, and as Dan’s voiceover intoned “…reflects well on the airline…” you became aware that one of the airline’s jets was reflecting in the sign. Dan didn’t make it campy, it was subtle and it worked. This was a perfect example of the visuals and narration complementing each other. the narration wasn’t over the top, and the reflection in the sign was subtle as well. I believe if you didn’t hear his words you might not see the reflection.
To wrap it up, write as people speak. If you walk through a working TV or radio newsroom, you will undoubtedly see reporters staring at their computer screen with their lips moving. They are reading the script to see how it speaks. If you do this you will soon find out how difficult some of those long, rambling sentences, filled with dependant clauses, are to speak.
A good friend and colleague who anchors at WNBC-TV in New York often reminds me of some advice I gave him years ago. He says he found it invaluable.
“Just describe what’s happening.”