Module JT050

Writing for TV

Module author

Kate Dawson

University of Texas and

Austin School of Film

Learning objectives

After you have completed this module, you will be able to:

  • Categorize a story idea into one of several categories: short documentaries, long documentaries, hard news, features, in-depth news, or personal profiles;
  • Build a news script for either hard news or feature stories by picking appropriate sound bites, organizing information gathered through reporting, and self-editing.
  • Recognize the difference between strong and weak broadcast writing;
  • Craft an effective broadcast sentence using the "one idea per sentence" rule and cutting down useless words;
  • Craft an effective script by cutting down useless phrases, using active voice, and present tense;
  • Avoid common writing mistakes;
  • Recognize how to embark on responsible crime coverage.

Chapter 1: News versus Documentary
1.1 Hard news
1.2 Features
1.3 In-depth news
1.4 Profiling people

Chapter 2: Building a News Script for Either Hard News or Features
2.1 Matching the mood
2.2 Introducing the talent
2.3 Exercise

Chapter 3: Picking the right sound bites

Chapter 4: Documentaries
4.1 Narrative-driven documentaries
4.2 Sound bite-driven documentaries
4.3 Building a documentary script
4.4 Soccer game example

Chapter 5: What makes good writing great?

Chapter 6: The one-idea-per-sentence rule

Chapter 7: Self-editing

Chapter 8: Cutting down useless phrases

Chapter 9: Introducing a sound bite

Chapter 10: Active voice versus passive voice

Chapter 11: Other points
11.1 Past tense versus present tense
11.2 Crime coverage
11.3 Common mistakes

Study points 2
Preview Writing for TV


Why Open School of Journalism believes that writing for TV is an important skill for journalists

If you realize that you've got as much talent as writers currently employed by broadcast media outlets, you've come to the right place. This module on TV writing introduces you to aspects of the process, preparing you for job openings in small and large markets. Discover your pace, style and voice employing techniques unique to various niches: news, entertainment, documentaries, public affairs and commercials. If you're adventurous, you may wish to master them all while completing your course of study.

Definition: Writing for TV requires a writer to understand and use basic script formats, industry terminology and techniques related to commercial and cable platforms. This includes data gathering and drafting news scripts, crafting promotional announcements and conceiving documentaries as well as understanding how each of these work within the framework of finite amounts of time. Your ability to learn to coordinate both audio and visual elements in conjunction with producers and on air talent starts with your mastery of these basics. 

Relevance: As broadband, cable, commercial and independently-produced television broadcast opportunities arise, the need for writers capable of taking a show from concept to editing to table reads is increasing. In today's economic environment, well-versed and trained professional TV writers can adapt themselves to various types of writing within the fast-paced broadcast media industry.


Overview of the module

News versus documentary. Students will learn to differentiate writing styles, formatting and appropriate sentence structure related to each genre. Toward that end, students are expected to understand theories behind the methodology of each type of media as well as mastering the synchronicity of audio and video as it relates to producing both types of programming.

Hard news. Investigating, researching and composing hard news stories requires a specific journalistic approach that employs the traditional "who, what, where, why, how" to story conception. Learn to gather relevant facts before formulating them into a script that is cohesive and fits time parameters mandated by the live news format. 

Features. Alternately referred to as lifestyle, filler and human interest packages, feature story writers can take liberties outside the parameters of hard news writing because tone and objectives used to write profiles and business features are unique. Feature stories can be expanded into documentaries or they may be used within a hard news broadcast to add human interest and a local focus to the program. 

In-depth news. TV writers assigned a "beat"—crime, politics, women's issues, local business for example—have opportunities to develop more expansive, longitudinal news stories that follow one issue or person. Learning to do this is an art unto itself; an in-depth news script could, for example, begin with the arrest of a criminal, at which point the writer may be assigned to cover the trial, sentencing and aftermath. 

People Profiles. People profiles can wind up as either hard news or documentary fodder. A one-hour, in-depth profile of, for example, the wife of a governor requires a TV writer to conduct multiple interviews with the subject, friends, family, work colleagues and people with whom the subject interacted over the years. Learn the techniques and protocols associated with doing this type of research followed by crafting the script or storyboards. 

Building a News Script for Hard News or Features. Students will learn fundamentals of script writing that include concept, pitch, proposal, format, technique, analysis, organization, workflow and presentation, all of which are required to write for TV. Story idea conceptualization and in-depth study on how to revise effectively are included in this curricula. Expect to learn how to format for TV, web and commercials and how to tailor script elements for on-air delivery by talent. 

Matching the mood. Every TV broadcast news director adheres to a set format, which means that scripts for news portions of a station's broadcast schedule must set a mood/tone. Learning to make this work is one of the most important aspects of writing for TV. For example, a TV news broadcast seen by the general public can convey a tone that's so distinct, it's unmistakable. You will learn to recognize these differences as they apply to your mastery of TV writing protocols. 

Introducing the talent. The job of the TV writer not only includes compiling, shaping, formatting and editing breaking stories, but the writer is also responsible for showcasing strengths, flaws, personality quirks and traits of talent delivering scripted content. As a TV writer responsible for oversight on broadcast, this module prepares you for situations that include the ins and outs of coordinating script delivery time between multiple personalities. Learn to script for one anchor, a team or a panel of on-air reporters. 

Exercise: Observe evening news broadcasts on at least five commercial and broadcast networks and keep a journal with comments about each program's script delivery, pacing, story mix, features and personalities. Compare and contrast the data you have gathered after synthesizing your notes and reactions. Determine which best suits your writing sensibilities and explain why. 

Picking the right sound bites. Auxiliary to writing TV scripts for news and documentary broadcasts is the interface of on-air delivery scripting and the insertion of "sound bites," short pre-scripted and shot vignettes that support a news or film feature and are injected into the final script to add variety and substance to the final product. Learn how to identify, research, shoot, edit and integrate both archival and recently-shot sound bites into news and documentary productions. 

Documentaries. By its very definition, the documentary presents historical, political or social subject matter to a viewing public in an informative, factual manner. TV writers may still take creative license when they "document" events and experiences, often interweaving archival news footage with interviews based on an original script. Learn tips on working with editors and producers to merge elements into the final program. 

Narrative-driven documentaries: You hear them all the time, but may not be aware of the fact that one person is narrating the story as it unfolds before your eyes. Learn specific scripting techniques that reflect a set point-of-view that allows the TV writer to build a script that takes the viewer from introduction to conclusion. Learn to maintain continuity within the script and understand the importance of picking the right "voice and personality" for voice-overs that drive narrative-driven documentary scripts. 

Sound bite-driven documentaries. Are you familiar with the definition of a sound bite? It is a pithy statement excerpted from an audio or video source that's inserted into a news story or documentary to support the tone of the script and add authenticity to the production. Does this mean that one can string together a bunch of sound bites to create a program? Hardly. This module shows students how to weave sound bites into a script to produce a cohesive finished product that makes sense to the viewer. 

Building a documentary script. There's an art to building a documentary script that's both formulaic and creative. Students must learn to integrate the two. Toward that end, discover ways to formulate storyline ideas, undertake character development, explore segment-driven scripting and learn to understand the importance of dialogue as delivered by the narrator and/or sound bites selected to keep the story moving forward. 

Soccer game example. You already know that this sport is internationally popular, that soccer players come from all walks of life and that coaches and spectators have different viewpoints. Learn to select just one if you hope to craft an authentic documentary that makes sense. By interviewing all parties—players, coaches, spectators—you gather facts that support your thesis (e.g., Why do fans lose control over disputed soccer calls?) and integrate interview sound bites into the script. 

What makes good writing great? Five factors contribute to great TV writing: Identifying a timely topic of immediate interest to viewers, building the significance of the news item into the script (four children died in a local apartment fire), using proximity to drive interest (it's local thus it's of interest), the story involves people we want to know about (prominence) and all news stories must include an emotional component or why report on it? Learning to look for and use these five components is critical for TV writers. 

The one-idea-per-sentence rule. You may recall this from your high school English class; prepare to revisit the one-idea-sentence rule as you rid your paragraphs of multiple-idea sentences that can be difficult to deliver and comprehend when placed into the format of broadcast news or documentary programming. 

Self-editing. If you only recall two words after completing your TV writing module, make them "bright" and "tight." Your ability to strip sentences down to bare bones can make or break a TV writer's career, so learn the art of self-editing now. Everyone writes long. It's the process. But an overabundance of words hogs precious air time and can be the quickest way to lose a TV writing job. 

Cutting down useless phrases. Did you write it twice when once would have been adequate? There's no time to pile repetitive and useless phrases into a script that relies on exact timing to meet broadcast standards. In this module, you will learn to scrutinize every sentence you write, scanning it for redundancies, so every sentence counts. 

Active voice versus passive voice. Revisit this basic English language concept as you master another art that's critical to dynamic TV scripting. Here's a cue to recall when differentiating the two: Sing Marvin Gaye's song, "I Heard it through the Grapevine." That's active. Try replacing the lyric with "It was Heard by Me Through the Grapevine" and you'll be singing the R&B hit in a passive voice. Use this module as your opportunity to learn how to differentiate the two so your future scripts benefit from your wisdom. 

Other points. The nuances associated with the craft of writing for TV change continually, and those changes filter down from news rooms to journalism classes. Your ability to stay in touch with the newest theories and practices is critical to your professional future. That stated, expect to focus on the following as you learn to conceive, edit and polish your scripts and sound bites:

Past tense versus present tense. "Place in time" is critical to putting your news story in the proper context. There are only three basic tenses: simple present, simple past, and simple future. TV news writers rarely have problems differentiating them, but arise when tense shifting rears its ugly head. This common problem—experienced by all writers—requires you to comb your finished scripts for tense shifts so your copy isn't ambiguous or confusing. 

Crime coverage. Since the first CBS-produced forensics-focused crime series debuted decades ago, news producers and writers were forced to adopt new ways of news gathering crime-related news that include scientific and forensic data. Learn how to work within the context of this science-driven genre to craft news items that are factual, intelligent, timely and relevant, keeping in mind the importance of lead time between information gathering and broadcast deadlines.

Common mistakes. This TV writing module covers common mistakes made by those who write for TV.