Writing a TV news script is a lot harder than you might think. Even those skilled in journalism struggle if they have to turn a story meant to be read into a tight script that needs to be heard. However, you can perfect your TV news writing style if you learn the basics.
Be Sure to Write for the Ear
Always read your script out loud in a conversational tone so you can judge if an audience will be able to understand it. Unlike a newspaper story, your broadcast audience only gets one chance to understand your story.
Also, beware of words that sound alike but mean different things. For instance, words like cite" might be confused with "site" or "sight" and should be avoided. You may have noticed when listening to a newscast that short sentences are easier to digest than long-winded sentences. Just be sure to make your sentences sound lively and interesting—as opposed to flat and monotone.
Avoid the 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 helps distinguish between verbs and subjects. For example, an active sentence would be, "The burglar fired the gun," as opposed to a passive sentence such as, "The gun was fired by the burglar." You can see in the passive sentence that viewers have to wait until the end of the line to know who did what.
Use Present Tense Wherever Possible
TV news is timely as opposed to print news writing that relates a bigger story, putting facts and information into context. In other words, a 6 p.m. newscast must sound fresh and "of the moment." You need to bring the viewer into the news piece as it's unfolding.
For example, let's look at a mayor's news conference that you covered at 2 p.m. that afternoon to appear on the nightly news. You might want to write, "Mayor Johnson held a news conference earlier today."
However, if you shift the focus of the sentence to the subject of the news conference, you end up putting the sentence in the present tense. This gives it more immediacy and makes it sound less stale. For example, "Mayor Johnson says he intends to slash local taxes by 20 percent. Johnson made the announcement at a news conference."
That example above works because it starts out in the present tense and creates the hook, then shifts to past tense.
Write Stories for People
It's easy to get mired in what your writing and forget who you're writing for—the people watching your newscast. Viewers need to feel your stories are directed at them, or else they'll turn away. When writing, it's a good idea to pretend that someone is sitting across from you. Direct the story to them.
Let's say your local department of transportation announces plans to overhaul several major thoroughfares in need of repair. Don't just present the institutional information the DOT provided you with. Transform the information into something of consequence for the viewers at home.
For example, you can say, "Your drive to work or school will soon be smoother, thanks to a big project by the DOT to fill in potholes and uneven streets suffering from wear and tear." This way you've telling viewers how an upcoming project will change their lives—for the better.
Befriend Action Verbs
In news writing, verbs are your best friend. Verbs are the part of speech that adds life and verve to your stories.
For instance. Instead of saying, "Residents are requesting information." Say something like, "Residents want to know." That slight change makes the information more compelling.
If you can, always avoid words like "is, are, was, and were." All of these dilute the impact of the action. "
Be Careful With Numbers
Numbers are hard to absorb, especially if there are a lot of them. Try to make your point with a number or two, then move on.
"The company's profit was $10,470,000, then fell to $5,695,469 a year later," is just too much information. "The company's profit was about 10 and-a-half million dollars, then fell to about half that the following year." The last example gives the viewer the information without having to listen to every last digit.
Sell the Story
In most cities, there may be only one or two local newspapers but several TV stations all vying for an audience. That means a news writer has to be a salesperson and sell the product as something 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. The viewer likes this story because he or she feels someone is championing for them. It personalizes it and brings it home—even if a viewer doesn't have children.
If you can combat the perception that all newscasts are the same by leading the segment with, "We have an NBC exclusive of Kim Kardashian with the woman she got pardoned from prison," viewers will flock to your TV station because you've set yourself apart.
Move the Story Forward
A good TV news story ends telling the audience what will happen next.
"The school board will take a vote on whether to cut teachers' pay at its next meeting a week from today" doesn't leave the audience hanging and, it forces viewers to tune in next week.
If you wrap-up the segment with, "We will be at that meeting and tell you the outcome of the vote," your viewers know your news team is on top of the story.
Different Parts of a Script
Let's look at five steps you can take to break down a TV News script. A good example is Pope Benedict's retirement announcement because it was a historic event—no matter what religion you practice. If the story looks at footage of people responding to the Pope's retirement in St. Petersburg Square, you could write the script as follows:
- The first line informs the audience about the main point of the story. If you only had one line to tell your story, it would be, "Pilgrims began arriving at St. Peter’s Square on Monday, February 11, following an announcement by Pope Benedict that he's resigning at the end of the month."
- Provide a line or two of background information that adds context to your first line. For example, "The 85-year-old German-born pontiff said he is no longer strong enough to fulfill the duties of his office, becoming the first pope since the Middle Ages to take such a step."
- Next, go back to the pictures being broadcast and what's happening in your story as the news of the Pope's retirement spreads. You could say, "Thousands of people from all over began arriving at St. Peter’s Square."
- Next, expand on the scene by saying, "People of all religions prayed for the pope and wished him well.
- Last, wrap-up the story with concrete information. For example, "The Vatican's spokesman said the pope would step down at 1900 GMT on February 28."
Video may seem like the sexy part of a newscast, but it's the crisp news writing that brings it to life and brings in a bigger audience.