Write Like You Speak
This column is part of Tim Knight’s series of Master Classes on the craft of Broadcast Journalism. Knight is a former head of TV journalism training at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
Speak as the common people do; think as wise men do.
Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in few words.
Even at a time when words line up in languid octets on relief-less screens it’s good to remember that to write is also to scream, to bleed, to shoot, to spit …
- Montreal Storyteller
More than a billion people — one out of every five people in the world — can communicate, for better or worse, in English.
A lot of us deliberately do it for worse.
Far too many politicians, public relations flacks, social scientists, bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors, priests — and journalists — use institutional, coded, formal, language to:
- Mask meaning.
- Create confusion.
- Foster ambiguity.
- Disguise ignorance.
- Obscure the truth.
Good writing does the exact opposite.
Consider the verse below, on the left, from Ecclesiastes. And compare it to George Orwell’s famous modern translation on the right. Orwell admitted that he was writing a parody but claimed “not a very gross one”.
|I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.||Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.|
Recognise any of the language in the right-hand column?
The journalist’s job is go all the way. To:
- Reveal truth
- Create clarity
- Uncover meaning.
- Transfer knowledge.
- Bring understanding.
But that isn’t exactly what happens in your average TV news story. In fact, very little happens at all.
It’s not the fault of the medium. TV is a marvellous medium for passing on information and explaining what that information means.
The problem is us. The journalists. It’s how we use TV. Particularly, how we write for TV.
When I lead writing workshops for working TV journalists I first ask the participants for their guidelines. On workshop after workshop they come up with the same list:
- One thought to a sentence.
- Conversational language.
- Strong, simple words.
- Active verbs.
- No jargon or codes.
Every group I’ve ever worked with — inside and outside journalism — offers these same guidelines. South Africans agree. Americans agree. Spaniards agree. Jamaicans agree. Inuit and Irish agree. French and Finns agree. Mohawks and Mauritians agree.
It’s an amazing and heartwarming example of international — to say nothing of inter-racial — solidarity.
The problem is that almost nobody follows these guidelines.
Maybe you don’t. Maybe you believe everyone else should write this way. But not you. You’ve got your own style.
I’ve got news for you. Novelists and playwrights and lyricists and poets and other independent artists have a right to their own style.
TV journalism writers don’t.
The only acceptable style for TV journalism is the style that’s best for the viewer.
Back to the guidelines every journalist agrees with. With explanations. And a couple of my own additions at the end:
One thought to a sentence — Take it literally. Not all the time because breaking rhythm at the right time can be an excellent thing. But certainly, nearly all the time.
This guideline sounds much better than it looks.
One thought = one sentence is the absolute basis for good TV news scripts. Particularly when the words are voice-over narration and have to compete for attention with pictures. The sentences may look choppy and unattractive on paper. But a good performer turns them into poetry.
One thought to a sentence gives you a choice in the performance. Using long sentences, particularly including subordinate clauses, doesn’t.
All you can do with long sentences is take a deep breath at the beginning and read them as written, seldom thinking the thoughts or feeling the emotions.
Conversational language — Other versions of this same guideline are “write like you speak” and “write for the ear, not the eye” and “write it as you would tell it.” But, in fact, you’re not looking for real conversation — that’s too messy.
What you want are words and sentences that are close to real conversation, are cleaned up to get rid of repetition, really bad language, and false starts, but still sound like real conversation.
The script should sound like the language used by reasonably literate people when they talk to each other socially about things that matter.
Reasonably literate people incidentally (excluding some university professors) normally speak in sentences containing no more than one thought.
Strong, simple words — words with guts and power. Even elegance and beauty. Taut, vivid, tangible, edible, potable, smellable words coming together to make images.
Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin words (unless, of course, you’re writing in Latin). Words appropriate to the meaning and circumstance of the story.
Which means different words for stories about the Moscow ballet and winter fishing off Cape Point. Short, simple words instead of long, pompous words.
Active Voice — “The mouse kicked the elephant” rather than “the elephant was kicked by the mouse.”
No clichés, codes or jargon — Particularly, no journalistic clichés, codes or jargon. Like “tight security” and “world class” and “party faithful” and “bottom line” and “ongoing” and so on.
Avoid euphemisms (the substitution of a weak, soft expression for a strong, tough one.) People don’t pass away. They die. Avoid outworn metaphors (“Achilles’ heel”, “fishing in troubled waters”, “playing into the hands of” etc.).
And a couple more guidelines.
Chronological structure — Respect cause and effect when designing the story.
Chronological writing is by far the easiest for the journalist to perform and the viewer to understand. This guideline applies to individual sentences as well as complete stories.
For instance, “He knew that he was history when he saw the vampire glide into the room” is better written as “He saw the vampire glide into the room and knew that he was history.”
Write first what comes first. Then what comes next. Until you get to the end. Which is an excellent time to stop.
Less is more.
George Orwell, who knew something about writing English, put it this way in Politics and the English Language:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
The viewer only hears the words once. There is no second chance. So the viewer must be able to grasp, process and file their meaning away immediately.
When the words and sentences — whether on-camera or narration voice-over — are muddled, complex, literary, ambiguous, illogical, passive, weak, coded or out of recognisable chronology the viewer simply ignores them.
And watches the pictures instead.
Or turns us off entirely.
If the viewer turns us off we have only ourselves to blame. There can be no excuses.
After all, we cover the most fascinating subject in all the world — people.
Anyway, by definition, the viewer can’t be wrong.
This column is adapted from Tim Knight’s book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition on Amazon and lulu.com
It’s the tenth instalment in Tim Knight’s Master Classes for The Journalist on the craft of broadcast journalism. Earlier columns were The Business of Social Journalism, How to Interview (parts 1 and 2), The Unknown SABC Story (parts 1, 2 and 3), Storytelling Is Magic, Screw The Inverted Pyramid and The Curse of the MAMCWWM.
Next week in this series, Knight explains how to take ownership of the written words so the script disappears.