We all have news wording that makes our skin crawl: “area residents,” “alleged” and “budget woes” to name a few. Recently on Twitter a group of us started listing phrases that make us cringe. Then one producer tweeted, “What do you use instead?” Great question and we’re going to give you some answers.
First we need to discuss why these phrases come up so you can better understand how to avoid them. In seminars you are taught that these phrases are formal language and not written for the ear. That’s often true. It can be hard to write on a computer screen and imagine the words actually coming out of someone’s mouth. There’s more behind writers using these so called “crutch phrases” though. Because they are used so often, they have become a sort of news slang. They seem dependable when you write. In fact it almost becomes expected that you will write this way. Take music for example. Thanks, in part, to tons of country and rock songs the term “ain’t” is now in the dictionary. Think about it. If you start singing songs in your head, it won’t take long to come across one with “ain’t” in the lyrics. Many of the songs have amazing phrases, cadence and messages. Yet the lyricist throws in “ain’t?” It seems likes “ain’t” is expected in a song. Now consider news copy. The clichés we’re talking about are news writers versions of “ain’t.” They are slang terms that some writers use as crutches because they hear them all the time. Where? In newsrooms, all day long. Ask a reporter for a headline as he/she runs to a fire. Chances are you will be told fire is at such and such address and “completely destroyed” the building. We simply use these terms all the time. But that does not mean they should end up in our news copy.
Writers (and by that we mean everyone who writes: anchors, producers, associate producers, reporters even assignment editors) also use these phrases because they are writing in a hurry. When you are slamming information into the assignment file or into a script just to get the show done, you are going to use terms you are most familiar with. That’s how the mind works. You might call it: “News slang under duress.” Then a writer comes along for the next retread and ends up not comfortable with the story. He/she clings to the news slang already in the script to avoid possibly changing the meaning of the copy. Now you see how the cycle repeats over and over.
So how do you break the cycle of “news slang under duress?” Discipline. It begins with you printing out the news copy you write once every week and reading it over at home when you are more relaxed. Have your highlighter ready and mark your “crutch phrases.” Then work to eliminate them one at a time from all of your writing. Write the “crutch phrase” on a notecard, then write three alternate types of wording. Post the notecard somewhere on your desk at work. That way, when you are slamming, you have quick options to avoid the clichés.
Many of the worst news clichés are easily avoided when deleting one word: “completely destroyed” becomes “destroyed.” “Clouds of uncertainty” becomes uncertain. “Brutal murder” is “murder.” Most of this “news speak” is used while trying to provide an image. “Clouds of uncertainty,” “brandishing a firearm,” “budget ax,” “hanging in the balance,” even “hit the nail on the head,” all put pictures in your mind. These terms are not how you provide images in TV news. You have video to provide the images. Moving pictures are what separate us from newspapers and radio. Remember when “writing for the ear” as consultants say, you are also writing to, or complimenting, the video. (We explain how to write to video more in depth in Can you picture it article.) Your words do not need to put images in a person’s mind. Again, this is not radio or the newspaper. Your words need to get someone to look at the TV screen to see the images you are showing. Your words also provide perspective.
Providing perspective means you need to understand what you are writing about. I saw this repeatedly as a producer and an EP. If the writer, be it a reporter, assignment editor, anchor, producer or associate producer did not understand the content, the copy became cliché. When we are uncomfortable, we cling to crutches. If you are unclear in understanding the story, you must ask for information before writing it.
Now let’s address the comment from the producer on Twitter asking what alternates to use for the crutch phrases. Since writing for television news is always under duress, we at survivetvnewsjobs.com will start posting alternatives to consider until we build up an extensive list. (Cliché list) Want to help us get that list built up quickly? Throw some of the phrases you hate into our Tweet feed, at @survivetvjobs. Here’s to making sure all of our copy isn’t “so cliché!”