Change Your Words – Change Your World

Whether you are writing a news story on deadline, creating an impactful brand for a client, or getting someone’s attention with an email – the words you chose provide the emotional direction. Think its all about the visual?

In the video below, an already compelling message is magically transformed. You will hang on to the end.. of that, I am sure.  Let me know what you think.

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 – 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!

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.