What’s in a word?

Language is always changing, so it’s no surprise to find a few new words in the latest edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Among this year’s additions are two media terms: vlog and webisode. But the simple fact that a word is in the dictionary doesn’t make it suitable for use in a news story. Some terms may  still need a definition, and others are better left unused when writing for a general audience. The trick is figuring out which ones.

The New York Times may have found some answers by scouring data from its Web site. The Times online has a “look up” function that allows readers to click a word to get a definition, so it was a simple matter to count the clicks and come up with a list. According to an internal memo obtained by the Nieman Journalism Lab, the top five words on the most-looked-up list were: sui generis, solipsistic, louche, laconic and saturnine.

Deputy news editor Philip Corbett’s memo notes that Times readers are an educated lot, but “they probably don’t carry an unabridged dictionary along with the newspaper as they take the subway to work.”

I’m not suggesting that we should ban these or any challenging words. Some uses may be perfectly justified. But let’s keep in mind why we’re writing and who’s reading, and under what circumstances. And let’s avoid the temptation to display our erudition at the reader’s expense.

Erudition. You know: ” extensive knowledge acquired chiefly from books,” according to Webster’s.


Journalism advice on YouTube

YouTube’s new Reporter’s Center is already getting lots of attention from journalism bloggers and the 30 or so videos posted there have already garnered more than 100,000 views.  

The YouTube Reporters’ Center is a new resource to help you learn more about how to report the news. It features some of the nation’s top journalists and news organizations sharing instructional videos with tips and advice for better reporting.

NPR’s Scott Simon does a good job on the subject of storytelling and both Katie Couric and Tavis Smiley offer interviewing tips.

Of particular interest to multimedia journalists are the segments on how to shoot breaking news with your cell phone and how to shoot interviews – both on-the-fly and in a more formal setting.

Writing better news stories

Tom Hallman, Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who conducts narrative writing seminars for the Society of Professional Journalism and writes a column for SPJ’s Quill magazine.  This month he wrote about what separates a great story from a good one, and though they’re geared primarily to print reporters, most of his comments make a lot of sense for those writing online and for TV stories, too.

1.  Distance – According to Hallman, stories suffer if your audience is kept at arm’s length by your writing.  “If you look at your notebook and have nothing but quotes, then you have a problem,”  says Hallman.  He believes you need to bring the reader in close with descriptions — of sound, gestures, perhaps the look of a room.  By focusing on all the senses “writers give the reader the chance to know the character, and that makes those good quotes even better because they’re placed in context.”

2.  Stories about things – Hallman says the best stories are built around people, not a spokesperson.

3.  Direction – Hallman says great stories give readers a sense “that the story is headed someplace, that something is about to unfold.”  He suggests you should know “what emotion you want your reader to experience.”

4.  Pacing – Don’t get locked into the two-sentence paragraph.  “Sentence length and paragraph blocking are two important ways we can slow a story, or speed it up.  A long paragraph followed by a short one draws attention to the short one.”

5.  Theme -” The best stories touch the universal.”

6.  Voice –  This doesn’t mean first person, rather Hallman says you strive to give your audience “a sense of the narrator behind the story.”

7.  Strong middles and powerful endings – Though openings are important, Hallman says, “The body of the story is where we keep the reader interested.  The ending is the payoff.”

Apostrophe love

Its really a shame the apostrophe doesn’t get it’s fair share of love. See the glaring errors? John Richards would. He’s a retired British journalist and founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, an organization devoted to just one cause: saving the much-abused little punctuation mark.

Richards told the Washington Post’s John Kelley that he sees errors everywhere and finds them “very annoying.”

I think that grammar is a valued part of our civilization. I don’t like any attempt to diminish it…The point is getting it right. If there’s two ways of doing something and one is wrong and one is right, why do the wrong thing?

The rules for apostrophes are simple, Richards says, so why not follow them? The Society’s Web site lists everything you need to know about how to use an apostrophe:

  • To denote a missing letter.  (It’s instead of it is.)
  • To denote possession (The dog’s bone.)
  • Never, but never, to denote a plural.

Alert contributors have sent the Society scads of photographic evidence of apostrophes being inserted where they don’t belong…

…and left out where they do…


Okay, maybe not. Even Richards admits that English is an evolving language, and some changes may be an improvement.  But he believes a lot of change is due to “laziness and ignorance.” And when journalists misuse apostrophes in news stories or TV graphics, they’re not just setting a bad grammatical example. They’re unintentionally sending a message that they don’t care all that much about getting things right. Not good.

I’m on Richards’ side on this. It’s not that hard to get it right. Let’s stamp out apostrophe abuse so we can pay attention to other egregious errors. Subject-verb agreement, anyone?

Developing a writing style

Is it ever okay to copy someone else’s writing style?  KARE-TV reporter Boyd Huppert, one of the finest writers in the business, says it’s actually a good way to develop your own.

TV writing advice

Writing is hard work, no matter what your medium.  As the German novelist Thomas Mann once said, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”  Journalist Gene Fowler joked, “Writing is easy.  All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Writing for television can be even more difficult, because you’re not just working with words.  So it never surprises me when excellent TV reporters say they’ve struggled with their writing, especially early in their careers.

Peter Rosen, who won the 2008 NPPA writing award, says writing for TV is about not writing; it’s about letting pictures and sound tell the story.  But the words still matter, and over the years Rosen has learned a few things about how to put them together.

Story planning tips

If you’re using the textbook, you’re already aware that planning is an essential part of the storytelling process. It begins as soon as you have some idea of what your story is about. Having a story plan helps you find all the elements you’ll need to tell your story well.

Peter Rosen, winner of the 2008 NPPA writing award, is a meticulous story planner. As a feature reporter for KUTV in Salt Lake City, Utah, Rosen edited his own stories and developed his own writing philosophy. “Writing isn’t about words for myself,” he says. “When it comes to writing, less is so much more.”

You can see some of Rosen’s work online here.

Writing opens and closes

For many TV reporters, the hardest things to write in any story are the opening and closing lines.  The result is that many of the stories you see on the air are really just middles.  They don’t get off to a good start and they seem to trail off at the end.

A few suggestions:

Think about opening lines from the minute you start reporting the story.  Look for possible opening shots all along the way.  Write possible first lines in your notebook; you should have several to choose from by the time you start writing.

But you’re still not ready to write if you don’t know where you’re going.  Have an ending in mind and know why you want to end there.  You may not have polished your last line to perfection before you begin to write, but you should know what you’re driving at and what video you’ll use.

Boyd Huppert, longtime reporter at KARE-TV in Minneapolis, is an award-winning writer who excels at opens and closes:

You can see how Huppert does it in these stories from his award-winning entry in the 2007 NPPA writing contest.  See how he uses the first sentence or two in each story to let the viewer in on the focus.  Notice the use of natural sound, and the ratio of sound to narration.  And listen to the way each closing line clearly says “the end.”

A fun writing tool

You know the old saying: A picture is worth a thousand words.  How about a picture of a thousand words (or more)?  That’s basically what you get from a “word cloud”–a visual representation of text, with the most frequently used terms getting the most real estate.  Here’s what Advancing the Story looks like in “word cloud” form:

At first glance, it looks like we’ve written more about newspapers than TV.  But the size of the word “watch” suggests that may not be the case.  One thing’s for sure: we’ve taken on a lot of different topics since we launched a year ago.

Creating a word cloud like this is a snap, thanks to a new free Web service called Wordle.  (Thanks to Angela Grant for the inspiration.)  It’s a fun toy, but it strikes me that it could also be a useful tool. How about plugging in a block of text–a news story, for example?  The resulting cloud could tell you something about your writing.  For example:

That’s a word cloud of my latest AJR column.  I think you can tell at a glance what it was about.  Try it with something you’ve written. What does the cloud say about your focus?  How about your choice of words?

The written word still matters

Yes, it’s a multimedia world.  But the most important skill any journalist brings to the job is the ability to write, says Geoff Dankert, assistant news director at the Fox station in Chicago, WFLD-TV. At this week’s NLGJA conference in Washington, I asked him what advice he has for young journalists looking for jobs:

The blog Dankert mentioned is online here.  See, even managers wear more than one hat these days.