By Christopher Jones-Cruise, RTDNA Contributor
Should broadcast news writers write like they talk? Jeff Butera thinks so.
Butera is the primary news anchor at WZVN-TV, the ABC affiliate in Fort Myers, Florida. He joined the station in April of 2012. He’s received a Murrow Award for hard news reporting and three Emmys. He has reported for stations across the country, including in Huntsville, Phoenix, Tampa and other parts of Florida. He grew up in Orlando.
Butera has taken over the writing and updating duties for the book “Write Like You Talk: A Guide to Broadcast News Writing.” Ed Sardella published the first edition in 1984 and continued to update the book until 2014. Sardella was for 30 years the primary news anchor at KUSA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Denver. Thirty years after the first edition was published and ten years after he retired, he turned the project over to Butera. Sardella said he had worked hard to try to “eradicate the scourge (of bad broadcast news writing) from the earth.”
As regular readers of this column know, I criticize news anchors, reporters and writers for using expressions heard in broadcasting but almost nowhere else; it’s a language that has come to be called “journalese.”
Butera says, “Far too often, anchors and reporters use words and phrases that you only hear in television news, but never in real life.”
In most cases, we should just write like we talk. Not always, no, but too often we speak journalese without thinking about it, just because (almost) everyone else in the business is doing so and if they’re doing it, we think we should.
“Young journalists, working in newsrooms for the first time, see and hear (journalese) being used and assume it’s the style they’re supposed to use," Butera says. "So they begin to adopt these non-conversational words and phrases, perpetuating the cycle.”
I have urged for years that we, as Butera puts it, “Resist the urge to adopt the language the television news industry has created, which sounds so different from ordinary conversation patterns.” Like me, he especially dislikes “blaze” and “no word yet."
In his book, he includes lists of cop-speak and clichés that are “infecting news copy,” and urges the reader to “immediately banish them from your copy.”
In a telephone interview, Butera told me, “Good writing is crucial,” to a newscast. He says “What is lacking in most newsrooms is an appreciation for strong writing.” He laments that many new broadcast journalists enter a newsroom unprepared as a result of “not getting a lot of guidance,” either in broadcasting school or in previous assignments.
He notes that, while he got a great deal of broadcast news writing training at the University of Florida, many colleges that teach aspiring broadcast journalists “are just not focused on the writing.” He says it’s essential for broadcast journalists to focus on their writing as much as on their appearance and presentation: “to better-respect your viewer you should just talk like your viewer.”
He also notes that good writing can be good for your career, calling it “one of the most important ways to differentiate yourself. There are lots of people who look good on camera and have good voices, but there are not as many people who can write well.”
He uses a Twitter account, @WriteLikeUTalk, as “a fun place to continue to talk about good broadcast news writing.” He urges his 400+ followers not to “fall into bad habits and formulaic writing.”
Although just 12 chapters and 151 pages, “Write Like You Talk” is overflowing with concise, to-the-point, highly useful examples and targeted criticisms. The authors have packed a lot of great content into a small package. They give you just what you need, and no more. The book is at times snarky, always snappy and highly readable. There is no fluff here -- the book is full of practical ideas; it’s topical and realistic, wholly non-theoretical, recommending “nickel words” over “quarter words.” It’s like having a personal coach look over your shoulder as you write on deadline. I’m a huge fan of this book and recommend it without reservation. I’ve been writing broadcast news off and on for nearly 40 years and yet I have learned a great deal from this book that will help me improve my national and international newscasts.
The chapters include Achieving a Conversational Style; Verbs; Adjectives; Pronouns; More Do’s and Don’ts of Broadcast Writing, and Attribution.
More than just a compilation of criticisms, however, the book is packed with information every new and veteran broadcast journalist and news writer needs to know, including Writing the Story; Writing to Video; Sound Bites; Writing Teases; Writing the Package, and Writing for the Internet. These chapters make the book a great reference tool; you can dip into it anywhere for an eye-opener or refresher, advice or instruction. There is something to learn from every page.
You’ll even get lessons on grammar and tenses that are a lot less painful than the ones you endured in school, and much more practical!
The book is suitable for news writers and reporters in any size market, including, sadly, the network level. Every broadcast news writer and reporter should have it, and every newsroom should have multiples copies (because they’ll keep getting “borrowed”). Broadcast journalism students will be far ahead of their peers if they read and apply the principles of this valuable book.
This brief review hasn’t even begun to discuss all of the resources in the book.
At the back of Write Like You Talk is a Workbook with 18 exercises, each containing 3-6 questions. This part of the book alone is worth the price. The exercises are suitable for a weekly staff meeting or training and a great tool for journalism professors. In fact, the book and Workbook could easily be substituted for a few semesters in broadcast journalism courses. News directors, HR managers, producers and consultants will also benefit from reading this book. This is the best twenty-four bucks any broadcast journalist could spend. Mentors could do no better than making sure those they are helping develop a broadcast news career have this book in hand and read it regularly.
Learn more at: www.WriteLikeYouTalk.com and on Twitter: @WriteLikeUTalk. You can also contact Jeff Butera via his station's website, on Facebook or his work Twitter account.
Christopher Jones-Cruise is a reporter at the Voice of America's Learning English branch in Washington, DC. His views are his own.