About: Paul Skolnick
Paul Skolnick is CEO of New-Lede Media, a multi-platform news provider. He is a 35-year veteran of journalism, and has worked in every platform now in existence — print, radio, television and online. Find him on email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/paul.skolnick), or Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/paulskolnick).
Recent Posts by Paul Skolnick
I also said the simplicity was deceptive.
The deception comes not in learning the rules, but rather in sticking to them. Unlike novelists, who answer only to the demands of the marketplace, journalists have strict deadlines. Miss a deadline and you quickly become a former journalist. Given the pressure, it’s a wonder many stories even come out in prose! So how can you be expected to crank out literature under that kind of time constraint?
I wrestled with this when I was trying to improve my own writing, and I developed a technique I still revert to. Prose gets its polish from being reworked. But in the hot pursuit of a story, was I ever really going to get the time to rework it?
The broadcast correspondent Charles Jaco, a friend of mine for decades, wrote a few novels in the 1990s. I asked him if he enjoyed writing, and he said, he did, very much. He told me I hadn’t asked him the right question, which was how he liked rewriting, and he hated that.
We all hate rewriting, but it’s what puts the meat on the story’s bones. It’s what makes simple sentences sing. It’s what makes mundane script shine. Still, there was no way in the rough and tumble of a broadcast day that I was going to find the time to go over a story a second or third time. And there just wasn’t anyone else who could edit my stuff for me—not that there wasn’t anyone good enough, just that there was no one who wasn’t already working at capacity.
In the spirit of self-improvement, I decided to devise my own system for improving my writing. I started rewriting my own copy, sometimes in the newsroom and sometimes at home. It took me no more than an hour a week, much of it time squeezed from other things and some of it shoe-horned into odd lulls in my work day. Some people do the crossword puzzle over coffee. I often did copy-editing with my caffeine.
My process was pretty regimented.
- First, I’d work on stories that were several days old. The reason is that I wanted to get enough distance from them so that I wasn’t wrestling with me, just with some mangled words.
- Second, it wasn’t enough to re-read a script and mentally work through a rewrite. I forced myself to use a pencil or, even better, a red pen to strike through words, rearrange phrases, and reorder sentences.
- Third, I was ruthless. It was old news, so it really didn’t matter what it looked like when I got finished with it.
From my first pass through my past prose, my writing improved. Phrases that were close but not quite there, got there easily. I had a field day substituting the right word for what Mark Twain called “its second-cousin.” Structure that seemed like a good bet at first could almost always be improved.
I saw myself polishing my writing. But I really wasn’t improving it. I was rewriting old news. My marked-up scripts weren’t even good for wrapping fish!
But I noticed something was starting to change in the way I wrote my deadline stuff. Chronic errors I had been making started to get less chronic. I was cutting words before I put phrases on paper, picking more precise nouns and verbs and using fewer modifiers, and getting cleaner, shorter sentences.
It took me awhile to figure out what was happening. The effort I put into crossing things out, moving them to different places, and reworking my words had made me more aware of what was going into my stories before it went in. The time I spent wrestling with past scripts trained me for what to do in future scripts.
Was the hour a week I invested in my writing the most onerous thing I’ve had to do in 35 years in news? Not by a long shot! (The weekend overnight assignment desk will probably bear that torch for the rest of my life.)
After seeing my writing improve over six months, I figured if I wasn’t already at the Altar of Prose, I was pretty close. I slacked off the rewriting exercises. Soon, my writing slacked off. So I went back to sporadic rewrite sessions, and I’ve maintained them ever since. Some years ago, when I was asked to come up with rules for good writing, Solitary Script Rewriting became number four on my list.
It’s such an important exercise that I even put this through the rewrite wringer. Have a look here at how it improved.
- No sentence should have more than 20 words
- Write in the active rather than the passive voice
- Write to the picture
I was happy I could reduce a skill it took me an adult lifetime to become proficient at to three phrases (each under ten words).
The 20-Word Limit
Broadcast writing, as better practitioners of it than I have pointed out repeatedly, is for the ear, not the eye. The audience never gets to see the words as they would if the medium were text, so there’s no tracking back, no quick reviews. In broadcast, the words are there, and then they’re not.
To make sure it’s understood means stripping a sentence to its basics. Commas—tell-tale signs of clauses and appended phrases—are warning signals. They’re telling you there’s more than a single idea at work. If you see commas, it’s time to rework the sentence to get rid of them. Ted Feurey, a news legend I was lucky enough to have as a teacher and mentor, told his students that if they couldn’t express a single thought in under 20 words, they needed to think about selling shoes for a living. (Ted was nothing if not brutally honest!)
The 20-word limit doesn’t apply to text, where a dependent clause or a prepositional phrase can make for a nice flourish. Because of that, much of the writing we all started learning with wide-ruled paper and thick pencils has to be unlearned. At the very least, it needs to be sent to the corner. Broadcast writing doesn’t read very well in the text world. It appears choppy and incomplete. But again, it’s not meant for the eye. It’s meant for the ear, and it works very well in that medium.
Passive Voice and the Backwards Sentence
The Passive Voice forces sentences to move in the wrong direction. Our ears are attuned to a consistent flow in English that moves forward. It goes from Actor to Action to Acted Upon. In an Active Voice sentence, those things are called Subject, Verb, and Object. Let me give you an example:
The boy hit the ball.
“The boy” is the actor. “Hit” is the action. “The ball” is the acted upon.
If we change the sentence to the passive voice, we can see how it gets turned around:
The ball was hit by the boy.
In this sentence, “ball” is the subject, “was hit” the verb, and “boy” a prepositional phrase that modifies the verb and also is the object. Subject-verb-object remain in the right order, but Actor-Action-Acted Upon is turned around. It has become Acted Upon-Action-Actor.
That combination is awkward, because it forces us to pick the parts of the sentence, commit them to memory, and then reorder them after we hear the whole thing to the simple pattern we were expecting. It’s also awkward because the passive voice takes more words—the verb requires an auxiliary verb (some form of “to be” and the subject requires a preposition (“by,” in this case) to explain the relationship of the Actor to the Action.
That makes the sentence a lot of work. When a listener is asked to do a lot of work, he or she quickly becomes a non-listener. Talk about backwards motion!
There are some ancient grammar lessons rolling around inside all of us that can cloud this rule. Think back to what in my day was called junior high school and is now known as middle school. Whatever the name, we all know it as the time we were forced to diagram sentences.
Voice is not the same thing as tense. Tense tells us when something happened—past, present, or future. Watch how it changes all within the active voice:
- The boy hit the ball. (past)
- The boy hits the ball. (present)
- The boy will hit the ball. (future)
Voice is a grammatical indication of transformation—the active voice tells us who made the transformation, the passive voice only that a transformation has happened.
In our active-voice example, “The boy hit the ball,” we know from the start who turned the ball from an un-hit state to a hit one. It was “the boy.” In a truncated version of our passive-voice example, “The ball was hit,” we have no idea who made the transformation, just that it somehow happened.
Writing to the Picture
This is how the rule is often stated, but I think it’s a very bad way of doing it. It’s hard to understand. What it means is that you need to explain what the viewer is looking at before you explain why the viewer is looking at it. The writing coach Mackie Morris, who spent years making the rounds of TV newsrooms, stated the rule as “Touch and Go.” Fewer words, to be sure, but it still doesn’t make the point for someone who doesn’t already get the point.
Here’s an example of how it works. Decades ago, in a documentary for affiliates about how CBS News works, Correspondent Charles Kuralt—a wordsmith of the first order—opened with a close-up shot of a watch. His opening words were, “It’s a gold Tiffany watch. They give you one of these when you’ve been at CBS for 20 years. I got mine last year.”
What Kuralt needed to say was that he’d been there for two decades. But first he needed to explain the shot. He needed to let viewers know what they were looking at. He did it in five words. Then he needed to explain why it was significant. He “wrote to the picture,” first saying what was on the screen and then explaining why. He “touched” the picture, and then “went” on. Touch and go!
This, again, is an easy rule to remember, but a hard one to put into practice. We had drilled into us in that same lifetime of writing that started with one-inch lines that we needed to start with a topic sentence and then bolster it with facts. Well, in text, that’s still a good way to do it. But it doesn’t work as well when we’re writing for the ear instead of the eye. This is established principle in logic, where it’s known as “inference from the lesser to the greater.”
The reason this is essential in broadcast writing is that seeing a watch on the screen and hearing Kuralt say he’s been at CBS News for 20 years is a sensory disconnect. The image doesn’t match the words. When the two collide, the viewer’s mind tries to process it and, not being able to, stops trying. The result is a viewer on his or her way to something else.
So those are the three rules. They may look simple, but that’s really an illusion. It’s hard work to make writing look easy. In future posts, I’ll provide some ideas on things you can do to start improving how you say what you say.
It usually starts about 10:30 at night, a stream of tweets about what’s on the news at 11, sent by the people who will be doing the news. In the trade, we call these kinds of promotional announcements “topicals,” because they highlight the topics of stories.
And, I’m sorry to say, there’s not a single bundle of 140 characters that works.
They don’t make me want to turn on the TV. They don’t make me want to see the stories. They don’t make me like the people who are tweeting them any more than I already do. And I must say, these messages are being sent by people who, because of the 35 years or so that I spent in TV, are friends, gifted colleagues, and damn good journalists. But I have to conclude these folks just don’t get it.
The reason these topicals don’t work on Twitter or Facebook or Google+ is because they’re the wrong message in the wrong medium. Social media isn’t a promotional platform; it’s a conversational one. So someone—in this case, a whole lot of someones I happen to follow or friend or “like” in the Facebook sense—got the idea social media was like doing a tease. It’s not. It’s much more like making a personal appearance.
There’s a particular drill to a personal appearance on behalf of a TV station. Any of us who have been called upon to speak at a service club or chamber of commerce luncheon—which by now has to include everyone who has worked at a television station for more than a month—know exactly what that drill is. It’s involves listening, interacting, and engaging with real people.
These are the very things lacking in the tweets I get at 10:30 at night, or the status updates a friend posts six hours ahead of time to let me know what’s going to be on the news at 5 on the East Coast. Think about it: these “topicals” don’t even work on getting your mother to watch anymore.
They were devised by marketers as a way to hold an audience from a drama into the newscast that follows. And after deluging these kind viewers for three or four decades now with topicals, proofs of performance, interstitials, and every other form of promotional announcement, the promos pretty much lost their punch. Can you imagine phoning a friend at 10:30 at night and saying, “Tonight, we’ll have the story of a child lost for hours, pet adoptions, and all the sports and weather”? If it worked, television marketers would have resorted to robo-calls decades ago!
And yet, social media remains the fastest, best, and most economical way to build a television audience. Ask Conan O’Brien, who sustained an audience on Twitter for seven months, from the cancellation of his NBC show to the start of his TBS show. Or Alabama meteorologist James Spann, who amassed more than 80,000 followers and friends on social media to tell them about the tornadoes moving through the area in May. Or NBC News cameraman Jim Long, based in Washington, DC, whose 40,000 followers get many behind-the-scenes looks at our nation’s leaders.
I can get the topicals elsewhere, but I can’t get you. I can’t get your phrasing, I can’t get your wit, and I can’t get your insights. It’s not about shouting, “Me, Me, Me.” It never was. It’s about engaging.
Last week, Facebook + Journalists released the first round of results from a study of the most effective uses of the site for news. Twitter’s guide on the same topic came out two weeks earlier. Both are worth reading—and following—to keep up with how people are using the platforms. Some simple changes to what you’re posting—like asking questions of those who follow you in your posts, or engaging with them in comments, about linking to your stories already posted on the station’s website. Maybe it’s changing the times you post.
Economists explain the choices people make in the marketplace with the “value proposition.” It basically means a consumer is always weighing what’s being provided against the price being asked to determine whether to enter the transaction. Is a ticket to a ball game with $1,000? Not to most people, but possibly to some. Should I buy a BMW? It costs more than most other cars, but some (especially the guy in the BMW commercials) might say it confers a certain status on those driving it. This is the value proposition in action. Some have made it less ominous by reducing it to an abbreviation—WIIFM—“what’s in it for me?” Everyone asks it all the time of every transaction, whether it’s buying a bottle of wine or deciding to read your Facebook status.
As broadcasters who are learning a new communications landscape, we have to be conscious of it as well. It’s how our followers judge us, how they decide whether to keep following us, and—here’s the commercial part of the proposition—whether they should watch us.
If you can’t explain the benefit to your followers of every single social media message you send, it’s best not to send it at all.