COPY POINT: Effectively Using “How, Where, When, etc” in teases

You’ve all heard my thoughts on our over-use of “How, Where, When, etc” in our story sells.  You know “Drunk driving crackdown, We’ll show you what cities are involved.. “,

Today, I want to point out how those words can be used effectively to create a truly unique content promise.


How, Where, When teases often do not work because they promise what viewers already expect in our story.

This one tantalizes with the prospect of insider knowledge.  The underlying message is that it will be new, fresh news.

COPY POINT: On The Loose

The first step to breaking free from journalese is to stop using words and phrases that come to you automatically; force yourself to replace them with language you would use in a one-on-one conversation.

Exhibit A – “On The Loose”.

It has it’s place – “There is a snake on the loose in my apartment. There is a moose on the loose in the city.”

I get it. But do we want to have criminals “freed from their confinement and roaming aimlessly.”

Why do I suspect the criminal is hiding, running, plotting more crimes – it would indeed be a rare criminal just roaming around aimlessly.

Let’s add “On The Loose” to the words best saved for escaped animals and look for words that do a better job of explaining the comings and goings of our criminals.

COPY POINT: Nasty Overuse of the word “Nasty”

One of the goals of COPY POINT is to dispose of overused words and hyperbole.  I’ve just uncovered another one spreading faster than a pandemic. The word is nasty.  These are some of the many ways we have used it in the past 30 days:

Nasty storms
Nasty Flash Flooding
Nasty consequences (Debt Ceiling)
Nasty Spill (on shirt)
Nasty Surprise (lottery ticket)
Nasty Sore Throat
Nasty Spring(the entire season)
Nasty Road conditions
Nasty Start (holiday accidents)
Nasty Gashes

A good half of these don’t fit any dictionary definition of the word,


1. physically filthy; disgustingly unclean: a nasty pigsty of a room.
2. offensive to taste or smell; nauseating.
3. offensive; objectionable: a nasty habit.

OTNB IDEA: How about “storms packing 69 mph winds, a sore raspy sour throat, icy road conditions, unwelcome surprise..”.   

 Adjectives can add to understanding in a story, or clutter our copy. Let’s re-commit to precision of language and temporarily put “nasty” on hold.

COPY POINT – Perfect Present Tense

Who, What, _____, Where, Why… Wait a Minute!!

Anyone watching television these days must be asking what happened to WHEN. Somewhere along the line television headline writers forgot that we need to know when something happened.

You’ve heard it:

A Homeless man dies in a fire in Murray.”

“Golfers get Quite a Surprise when a plane lands on the ninth green”.

“An Earthquake Rocks the Philippines” we are told a full day after the event.

Now I know no one is deliberately trying to deceive the viewers, but we are creating more news-speak. Our attempts to improve our writing by making it more active and immediate are a great concept, but our results miss the mark.

Adding to the problem is that we then revert back and tell the rest of the story in past tense. If you watch FOX NEWS, they sometimes manage to get all three tenses of a verb of being in one sentence.

A long-time friend of mine Scott Libin at Poynter used to offer this suggestion for breaking the habit. Try talking that way to somebody in person and see what kind of funny look you get. “Come to think of it,” he says, “that’s probably the way a lot of people look at their televisions while the news is on.”

COPY POINT – Blaze vs. Fire

Eds. Note: Broadcast writing is meant to be read aloud. So, this COPY POINT does not apply to web or newspaper writing.

One of the beautiful tools that writers of novels and other written forms of media employ is the use of “Elegant variation”.

Elegant variation is carefully crafted prose that avoids repetition of words that catch a reader’s attention. Unfortunately, grabbing the viewer’s attention is one of the goals of broadcast writing.  Many well meaning journos unnecessarily use a variety of synonyms for the word FIRE.  The result is turns out something like this:

The fireball flew across the room. Impervia dodged the blaze, but Myoko didn’t; flames washed across her face and her hair began to burn. She tried to put out the fire with her hands, but her coat-sleeves ignited with a burst of smoke and light…

Nothing wrong with any of those words, but they are so unnecessary, especially for folks who never talk like that in the newsroom.  

So, unless you are talking about blaze orange or blazing a trail, if it’s a FIRE you are talking about. Call it a FIRE.   Nothing wrong with a banner that reads BAD BLAZE, but let’s not force our anchors into synonym hell with blaze, conflagration, inferno, , incandescence, inferno, pyre, sea of flames, searing, sparks, tinder, or, up in smoke.

COPY POINT – Suspect

The use of the word “suspect” has been all over the board lately.  Best practice is to not use police jargon at all, but when we use it, take an extra second to make sure we are using it correctly.

 Suspect is the person police are looking for in a particular crime. They have been named, arrested, charged, or in some way, implicated.

 Better would be, “ The man ( or woman or child ) the police are looking for.. “

 Crimes are committed by robbers, rapists, thieves, men, women, bad guys, gunmen, thugs…etc. They are not committed by suspects.

 “The robbers tied up the couple and then ransacked their home.”

 There is no such thing as an UNKNOWN suspect. To look for a suspect, police must know who they are, or something about them.

 “Police are talking to neighbors to see if any of them saw the suspect rapist running from the area.

 “Police have no suspects”- That’s correct.  Avoid “the suspect can be seen beating the store owner on surveillance video.”  The video shows the ROBBER beating the store owner!

COPY POINT : Accidents or Crashes?

Highway Safety professionals are gravitating away from calling the collisions between two vehicles “accidents” . Instead, more and more, they are calling them “Crashes”.

 I recently asked at DOT official why. He says its because rarely is the collision an “accident”. Almost always someone did something wrong.  Less than 15% of crashes are the result of environmental or road conditions.  85% of the time, driver error or negligence is involved. 

“Accident” may be a polite way to refer to a traumatic event, so often when we report them someone has died.  But, in fact, most are really just “crashes” .

View the entire “COPY POINT” series here.

COPYPOINT: Using age in your copy

Those of you who have worked closely with me know I am a stickler about writing.  We must write clear and easy-to-understand sentences.  

Sometimes, we sabotage that effort with the words we choose.  That’s why, from time to time, you will receive COPYPOINTS from me.  Here is the first:

 Let’s avoid starting sentences with the age of the subject of the sentence. i.e. “26‑Year old Kevin Hirschfield was shot to death while..”

 Its a non‑starter.

No one talks like that. (Except on TV and at the police station!)

If age is important, take the time to explain why. 

Example: Hirschfield, who is 26, is much older than the teens who attacked him.

 Unless someone is very old, or very young, their age probably can be relegated to a place deeper in the sentence, or the story.