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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sorry Scripts (Part 1)

“You’ve got to walk it like you talk it”: That was one of the first rules I would teach young writers that would come into the WCIX newsroom. News writing has to be conversational. Period. No exceptions.

When I first started my transition from electronic graphics to news writing, reporter Dave Levine taught me an important lesson. I had written a 20-second story about a child who was electrocuted in a pool. My information came from the Associated Press, which sent across information that the electrical current had somehow “coursed the pool”. I included those words in my story, prompting Dave to pull me aside. “What does that mean – coursing the pool,” he asked. I tried to explain the meaning of the words, but that’s not what he was asking. He was trying to point out that nobody speaks that way. If you, the viewer, has to stop and think about the words that were just spoken, you’re not going to be able to pay attention to the next line. Or, the next story.

Our job is to explain what we mean in an easy-to-understand manner, while making it clear to the viewer why he or she should care. If we’re writing the lead to a reporter’s package, then it’s our job to set it up – not give the story away – while giving the viewer a reason to keep watching. In other words, don’t follow the examples I’m about to show you. Don’t try this at home, boys and girls, and above all, don’t try these at work!

(Click images to view them full screen)

This 1985 lead to a Daisy Olivera package breaks several news writing rules. First and foremost, it gives the whole story away! There’s no reason for anyone to keep watching! Secondly, it’s written in a passive voice, not an active voice. If you’re going to start a script with the words “this Saturday”, it better be the Saturday coming up, not the Saturday that just passed! And then there’s the little matter of this lead being basically one long, long, long, 41-word sentence. Needless to say, I had to toss this aside and start from scratch. Next!

Well, at least this one is short, but that’s where the compliments end. “Another weekend and with it a fine array of fun things to do and see” – who ever says “a fine array of fun things”? Have you ever used the word array in a sentence? “Here’s what our entertainment editor Don Stotter suggests for the tourists and residents”. Exactly to whom is he speaking? Could this possibly have been worded in a clumsier way?

I remember this one well. I think Joyce Evans meant to say “scrambling”, not “scrabbling”. Then-producer Mayco Villafana looked at the line about the shortage of cars causing confusion, and then told Joyce, “your lead is causing ME confusion”. (To be fair, Joyce was a good writer who was just having a bad day. I think that’s probably the case with most of these examples.)

Former reporter Mark Tudino really topped himself with this stinker of a lead. “A rash of rock-throwing incidents has cops on the Florida Highway Patrol...and surrounding agencies are now going to help in trying to find out who’s doing the throwing.” Not only does the first part of that sentence make no sense, but nobody I know would ever say “a rash of rock-throwing incidents”. If Villafana was still at the station, he would have told Mark “you’re giving ME a rash!”

And then there’s this lead to a movie tie-in that was left for me by a special projects producer. Not only is it painfully long (two pages!) but it’s totally convoluted and boring. It also includes the line “The answer is… maybe yes”. Which is it, maybe or yes? Did I rewrite this bad boy? The answer is DEFINITELY yes, not maybe yes!

To those whose examples I’ve cited: remember this is all in fun. Your scripts are the reasons why there are producers and editors. Thanks for keeping me employed all those years.

Next week: more “sorry scripts"... and the one and only John “Hambone” Hambrick.

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