How to Write a News Script for TV News
Writing a news script for television seems simple until you try. Experts in English or print journalism often struggle with turning stories into tight scripts that are meant to be heard, not read. While you'll spend your entire career perfecting your TV news writing style, mastering the basics of how to write a news script will provide a foundation for success.
Write for the Ear
Read your script out loud. Is it easy to understand just by hearing it one time only? Unlike print stories, a TV news audience has one chance to understand the entire story.
That's why words that sound alike but have different meanings create stumbling blocks for the ear. Words such as "cite", "site," and "sight" should be avoided if possible. Short, punchy sentences are easier for the ear to digest than long, complicated sentences that are full of dependent clauses.
Avoid Passive Voice
Passive voice writing jumbles up the usual sequence of subject, verb, object in active voice writing. This sounds like a lesson from English class, but it really makes a critical difference in broadcast news writing.
An active voice sentence is, "The robber fired the gun." You see the subject, verb, and object. A passive sentence is, "The gun was fired by the robber." The object and verb came before the subject. Viewers have to wait until the end of the line to know who did what.
Use Present Tense Where Appropriate
TV news is designed to sound like "now." That's another big difference between broadcast and print news writing. A 6 p.m. newscast needs to sound fresh as if the news is just unfolding.
But what if the mayor's news conference you covered happened at 2 p.m.? The natural tendency is to write, "The mayor held a news conference earlier today."
By shifting the focus of the sentence to the subject of the news conference, you can put the sentence in the present tense and give it extra punch. "The mayor says he wants to slash taxes by 20 percent. He made the announcement at a news conference."
That example starts out in present tense for the hook, then shifts to past tense. It's important not to simply force the present tense into every sentence you write. It would sound awkward in a 6 p.m. newscast to say, "He makes the announcement at a news conference that happens at 2 p.m."
Write Stories for People
It seems obvious, but it's easy to allow a script to veer away from focusing on the people who are watching your newscast. If viewers sense your stories don't directly affect them, they will turn away.
Therefore, when the state department of transportation announces a huge infrastructure improvement project that involves replacing bridges around your city, you may be presented with institutional information. However, you should transform it into something personal and meaningful to the people at home.
For example,"Your drive to work or school will soon be safer and easier, thanks to a big project to make our city's bridges better." This way you've taken the information and told viewers how it could change their lives. Dissect press kits, graphs, and data before you start writing to determine why your viewers will care about it.
Action Verbs Add Verve
In news writing, you can't do much to the subject or object of your sentences, but you can spice up your verbs. They are the part of speech that can bring life to your stories.
Look at a story to see whether you can switch a sentence that says, "Residents are requesting information" to "Residents want to know."
Using "is, are, was, were" weakens the impact of the action. "Residents want answers" sounds better than "Residents are wanting answers."
Be Careful With Numbers
Numbers are hard on the viewers' ears, especially when there are a lot of them. Make your point with a number or two, then move on.
Instead of, "The company's profit was $10,470,000, then fell to $5,695,469 a year later," you can simplify the line. "The company's profit was about 10 and-a-half million dollars, then fell to about half that the following year." The viewer gets the idea without having to hear every last digit.
Ideally, you should take big numbers and translate them into something meaningful for the audience. Besides pointing out that the electric company is raising rates by $3.5 million, take the time to say that the hike means a typical customer will pay $200 more a year. That's the number that affects people the most.
Skip Cliches and Journalese
Even experienced news writers fall into the trap of writing the same tired words and phrases such political candidates "throw their hat into the ring."
Those empty terms make your news writing seem shallow. Replace them with words that normal people would use in conversation.
Reporters often use journalese when they are confronted with the cliches of other professions and merely repeat what they hear. A police officer may say a shooting suspect "fled on foot." It's a TV news writer's job to change that to "ran away." The law enforcement, government, and healthcare industries have their own way of speaking, which shouldn't be repeated on the air.
Write to Video
Many TV news stories are read as the audience watches video playing on the screen. Connect the words to the video as if you were leading a tour group.
That requires you to know what is going to be on screen as the viewers hear the script. Once you have that information, the rest is easy.
If you're talking about an embezzlement suspect while the video shows that suspect walking down the street with his lawyer, say, "The suspect, seen here on the left walking to the courthouse with his lawyer." That reference to the video keeps the viewer from wondering which of the two people on the screen is the suspect.
A line like, "Watch what happens when firefighters try to get the kitten out of the tree," forces the viewers' eyes back to the screen. Remember, some people have the news turned on while cooking supper. You need to keep them riveted to the television.
Sell the Story
Print journalists may groan at this basic aspect of TV news writing. In most cities, there's one newspaper but several TV stations providing news. That means a news writer also has to sell the product as something different and superior to the competition.
"When the school board said there wasn't any money for classroom computers, we decided to dig for answers." A line like that demonstrates that the news team is aggressive, and is taking action to get to the truth.
"We are the only station with video of the brawl inside the college cafeteria." A TV station uses its scripts to combat the perception that all newscasts in a city are the same.
While this isn't pure journalism, this is a basic part of news writing that is common at most TV stations. A newscast is also a television program that not only competes with other newscasts but also all TV shows that are on the air in the same time slot. Sell the coverage as something special.
Move the Story Forward
A TV news story doesn't have a "the end" at the bottom of the script. The end of your script should usually tell the audience what will happen next to the people involved.
A line like, "The school board will take a vote on whether to cut teachers' pay at its next meeting," lets the audience know what developments to expect next. Leaving that fact out leaves the audience hanging.
"We will be at that meeting and tell you the outcome of the vote," is good to add so that your viewers will return for updates. That line reinforces that your news team will stay on top of the story.
Different Parts of a Script
In order to understand how to break down a TV News script let's go back to the Vatican's Pope Benedict following his historic retirement announcement. If the news story is about the actual announcement with footage of people responding to the Pope's retirement in St. Petersburg Square, your script should be broken down into the following segments:
1. Your first line should tell the audience exactly what the main point of your story is. If you only had one line to tell your story, this would be, "Pilgrims began arriving at St. Peter’s Square on Monday, February 11, following an announcement by Pope Benedict that he would resign at the end of the month.
2. A line or two of background which provides context to your first line. For example, "The 85-year-old German-born pontiff said he no longer had the strength to fulfill the duties of his office, becoming the first pope since the Middle Ages to take such a step.
3. Go back to the pictures being broadcast and what is happening in your story as the news filtered out. You could say something like, "Hundreds of visitors and pilgrims began arriving at St. Peter’s Square."
4. Next, paraphrase the scene saying something like, "They offered to pray for the pope and wished him well.
5. End with another line or two of background to help wrap-up the story. For example, "The Vatican's spokesman said the pope would step down at 1900 GMT on February 28."
A lot of effort goes into a 30-second script. Even though TV news seems to be all about the video, crisp news writing will help make your TV station the market leader—and could be the key to boosting your career in the process.