January 2008

Link of the Week: Newscript.com

Each week, I’m going to offer up one of the many web sites I’ve found over the years to assist me in research, fact-checking, or writing. Some will be gems you’ve never seen or heard of. Others will be commonplace sites everybody goes to, but for which I’ve found a special use or hidden feature that I’ll share.

For my inaugural ‘Link of the Week,’ here’s one of the best all-around websites offering guidance on radio newswriting and delivery: Newscript.com

The site is written and maintained by Ohio radio newsman Michael Meckler. It’s a tribute to the good, old fashioned broadcast newswriting values of clarity, simplicity and concision. The site covers much of the same territory that I aim to discuss eventually, but for those who want an excellent, brief crash course in radio news, there’s no better place to start than this.

One more way to ‘decentuate’ the appositive

There’s one other way to avoid appositives that I forgot to mention.

You can make the noun and its description the subjects of two consecutive sentences, like so:

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says he’s now enjoying his retirement.
John Shalikashvili left the top spot at the Pentagon in 1997…

This works because English is highly asyndetic. That means the sentence structure carries much of the meaning, and so fluent speakers of the language understand how words, phrases and sentences relate to each other without the help of a lot of conjunctions and connective words. Thus it’s clear the subject of the second sentence, John Shalikashvili, is the same person as the subject of the first sentence, the Joint Chiefs chairman. (And incidentally, that previous sentence works just as well without the word ‘Thus,’ which is my point.)

Moreover, we’ll come back to ‘asyndetic’ when we talk about why you can completely do without ‘moreover.’

UPDATE: I am informed by a few authorities (i.e. broadcast writing books) I’ve consulted that this consecutive-sentences trick is a print construction and therefore bad. Listeners would assume the “Joint Chiefs chairman and Shalikashvili are two different people. Let’s just say I disagree, but concede there are some circumstances where the writer’s intention might be ambiguous (which is bad). You should be aware of that as you write, and use your judgment.

I’m negative about appositives

It’s often said about broadcast writing that it should sound conversational, but what usually goes unsaid are all the little technical things and thoughtful phrasing that go into giving written prose the feel of conversation. Those techniques will be a large part of my emphasis here.

One such important ‘rule’ (in quotes because, once well understood, rules can be treated as guidelines and cheerfully broken to achieve a desired effect) is avoiding appositives. An appositive is a word or phrase, set off by commas, that further describes the noun it follows. For example:

John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is now enjoying his retirement.

Appositives are incredibly common in print newswriting, but in my opinion, they should be incredibly rare in broadcast writing. The reason is, quite simply, that they are incredibly rare in conversational speech and a big red flag that what you’re hearing from your radio or TV was really intended to be read, not spoken.

So how to avoid them? The most common technique in broadcast writing is to turn an appositive into an adjective phrase:

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili is now enjoying his retirement.

With short phrases up to three or four words (‘Dayton fire chief George Smith says…’) this works very well, but in longer cases such as our example (seven words) it can be very awkward and, well, unconversational. So there are a couple of other options. One is to trim some syllables out of the phrase, if possible:

Joint Chiefs chair John Shalikashvili is now enjoying his retirement.

That works pretty well. But in cases where, for whatever reason, I can’t prune my description, I like to break it off into its own sentence.

John Shalikashvili is former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s now enjoying his retirement.

Even better (if time allows) would be a version that recasts the tense and adds a little information to eliminate the word ‘former.’

John Shalikashvili was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the mid-nineties. He’s now enjoying his retirement.

In both these cases, the phrasing seems pretty awkward when read in print. But try them aloud: you’ll see they sound much more natural than an appositive or even a long adjective phrase.

Note that this two-sentence technique is an exception to my ‘rule’ about blah to-be verbs, which I’ll expound on at a later date.

That’s quite a dangling attribution you’ve got there

One of the most common problems I see in newbie broadcast newswriting, especially among those who have prior print newswriting experience, is the dreaded ‘dangling attribution.’ That’s where the who-said part of a quote ‘dangles’ off the end. For example:

“That’s the last time we shoot first and ask questions later,” said Sheriff Williams.

This is one of those rare never, never, nevers in broadcast writing, for two simple reasons. First, it isn’t conversational. No one in the history of ever has used this construction in conversation (okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much). The second, related reason is that it makes it hard for the audience to understand who’s talking, the newsreader or the person being quoted.

The correct formulation for broadcast writing is:

Sheriff Williams said, “That’s the last time we shoot first and ask questions later.”

This way, the audience understands who’s talking when they hear the quote.

There’s an additional issue as to the best way to signal that this is an exact quote, or whether that’s even necessary, which I’ll get to in a future entry.

Now rechristened “Curran Events”

I’ve decided to rename this blog “Curran Events” (from its prosaic previous title: “Tim Curran’s Journal”). I figure, what good is it having an easily mis-heard last name unless you can exploit it for a pun once in a while?

I’m relaunching this diary as a Journalism Blog

So it turns out that, for a journalist, I’m not very good at keeping a daily journal. Perhaps that’s because even I was bored by the minutiae of my daily life. Imagine how the readers of this blog (if there were any) felt.

In the meantime, for the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking that there ought to be a way for me to share some of the practical wisdom about journalism that I’ve acquired over 25 years in the business. I’ve been ramming it down the throats of the unsuspecting interns who I train here at Sirius OutQ. But perhaps there are some j-students, working reporters, or even ‘civilians’ who would get something from my ramblings.

Well, ‘ramblings’ probably isn’t the right word. What I actually had in mind was more quotidian. Starting now, I plan to stop blogging my life (pretty much), and start blogging very practical tips, tricks, rules to follow and rules to break in the everyday practice of broadcast journalism.

These entries won’t be the kinds of things you get in journalism school classrooms, at least as far as I can tell from the J-school educated interns who come to me. I will have little to say about journalistic theory. Instead, they will be narrowly-focused notions, nuggets, peeves, tropes — and the occasional rant — about broadcast news writing, reporting, researching and delivery.

These will all by as seen from my unique perspective, which is that of a news director and anchor, supervising a very small newsroom, on a single channel, servicing a niche audience, on a national satellite radio service (too many commas, I know, but they’re there for clarity). That means many people may disagree, or think my views are too conventional or narrow, or not conventional enough. So take all these observations for what they are worth. Your mileage may vary.

Now, to begin. Again.