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Video Activist Handbook - Chapter 11

Write it Right - how to use words to tell a story #

Good, clear, journalistic writing may at first seem hard to do, but it's mainly a question of practice. The pointers in this chapter will help you to master this craft.

DOING IT BADLY!

The main thing here is not to use vague words and write stuff that is too hard for people to concentrate on, because the sentences are too long and full of so many sub-clauses that by the time you get to the end you can't remember how the sentence began, and then it has a hanging clause to finish off with.

WHAT"S WRONG WITH THIS?

The main thing [VAGUE VOCAB} here is not to use [DON'T USE NEGATIVE VERB-FORMS] vague words and write stuff [VAGUE - SAY EXACTLY WHAT YOU MEAN] that is too hard for people to concentrate on [DON'T USE PASSIVE VERBS], because the sentences are too long and full of so many sub-clauses that by the time you get to the end you can't remember how the sentence began, and then it has a tailing-off clause to finish off with. [TRAILING PREPOSITION "finish off with"] [SUBJECT KEEPS CHANGING during the sentence] [KEEP SENTENCES SHORT]

LET'S TRY THAT AGAIN.

Don't waffle. Grab people's attention with a firecracker phrase. Keep your sentences short. If you find yourself writing a sub-clause, try dividing the sentence into two.

AND AGAIN.

Keep your sentences short. Grab people's attention with a firecracker phrase. If you find yourself writing a sub-clause, divide the sentence into two. But most of all, don't waffle.

[IN A BOX]

WRITER'S DIGEST

1. Write in headlines.

2. Make it dramatic!

3. Look for a punchy or surprising phrase or two.

4. Be accurate.

5. Say when you're estimating.

6. Avoid vague generalities, like "community".

7. Avoid "weasel words".

8. "A cliche is never right, even when it is."

9. With each sentence you write, put your most important point at the end.

10. Re-draft until you're happy.

11. Sign off with your name and organization so that viewers can trust you. 

NOTES

1. Think tabloid. Don't recoil from this, especially if you've studied at a university. If you've ever written something like "on the one hand....on the other" you really need to study how popular journalists grab their readers' attention. Don a disguise and scan through Rupert Murdoch's "The Sun" in a newsagents (no need to buy it).

Writing like this takes a bit of practice, and the more you do it the easier it becomes. In activist circles, some of the best headline writers are the wizard wordsmiths of the 20 years' old magazine Schnews (http://schnews.org.uk)

2. What are the most scintillating facts in your story? Use them.

4. Be accurate.

If you don't know, don't speculate. "We've heard rumours that..." isn't journalism.

6. Especially avoid the "glittering generalities", eg "common good", "democracy", "freedom", "hope" etc. They seem so shiny because they represent vague values that nobody could possibly disagree with.

7. Weasel words are used by journalists when they want to give the impression that something something definite has been said when it hasn't. They are also used to exaggerate, to suggest that something is bigger than it really is (eg using the phrase "as many as...." or "up to....")

Avoid the passive voice: "It is said that..."

Also the unspecific, so untestable: "Studies show that...."

And the numerically vague: "Some people think that...."

Or how about this classic dodge from BBC commentator Clare Balding during the London Olympics:

"How many questions will there be about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she has ever swum before?"

8. What film director Robert Bresson meant by this is that we sometimes fool ourselves that cliches are OK, because they're true, right? So remember those sports commentators:

"At the end of the day, it's a game of two halves, Gary. Both sides have given 110%, and it's been a great advert for the game."

We can do better than that, can't we?

9. NOT "We ask: is the government making life worse for the homeless, as squatting today becomes a criminal offence"

BUT "On the day that squatting becomes a criminal offence, we ask: is the government making life worse for the homeless?"

10. Not even the most experienced journalist gets it right first time.

11. It's reasonable for people to expect you to own up to your report. Don't be shy!

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