Five ways to write a more concise script

By Andrew Gibson
What advice do you have for writing more concise scripts?
The ability to write a concise, informative script is one of the most powerful tools journalists can have in the digital age. "Script" might seem specific to radio and TV, but you'll also need one each time you produce a Web video or create an audio slideshow.

Knowing this, it's important to remember the differences between writing for the eye and ear. Inverted-pyramid stories happen in space. The entire text of a print article sits in front of a reader, meaning a person can skip around it while easily referring to earlier information if something doesn't make sense.  Putting the most important information first means anyone can leave the story early and informed.

Conclusion: Readers can cruise through a lengthy inverted-pyramid story and still "get it."

Audio and video stories happen in time. The entire story isn't in front of people at once, so they can't quickly decide what's worth listening to or watching. Also, these stories can lose coherence if people jump around within them because the most important information isn't always first.

Conclusion: People often have to consume the entire length of an audio or video story to "get it."

That's why it's imperative for you to write concise scripts. You're deciding how much time people must set aside from their day to watch or listen to it. To help, here are five conciseness tips, several of which I learned while completing my first convergence-reporting team story last week.
  • Be ruthless with sound-bite selection. People repeat themselves a lot. The second half of a sentence might simply rephrase the first half. Pick one.

    A tip Amy Simons, ONA Mizzou adviser and Missouri School of Journalism assistant professor, gave me is only to include sound bites if they express opinion or offer anecdotes. A reporter's job is to pare information and write only what's essential to the story. There's no need to have someone else deliver hard facts unless that person gets right to the crux of it. 
  • Sentence fragments are sometimes best. Consider this made-up example:
    Interviewee: "I would be devastated if the supermarket on the corner closed."

    Reporter narration: He would be devastated because it's within walking distance of his house.

    Interviewee: "It only takes me five minutes from the time I leave my front door."
    Removing "he would be" from the reporter's line makes it shorter, more ear-friendly and more suspenseful.

  • Read your script out loud. Kerry Leary, a senior Mizzou convergence-journalism student, said it best on Twitter:
    I've also learned reading a script aloud can indicate how interesting it is. If you find your mind drifting in the middle of your narration, your writing might be boring.
  • Let video be your guide. In a perfect world, you'd have B-roll of everything you talk about. And, as I learned this week, you can never have enough of it. But inevitably, time will limit how much you gather. Some facts are vital enough that reporters will include them regardless of whether there is video to illustrate them, but if you're on the fence about whether to write something, ask yourself if you have visuals to back it up. Your answer could be the tiebreaker. 
  • Scrutinize your use of "that." This tip also comes from Simons. Every time you write this word, second guess yourself. Does the sentence lose any meaning if you take "that" out?

    The media-writing book Working With Words also lists this tip in its "conciseness" section. Here's an example from the book.

    "He said that he would" has the same meaning as "he said he would."
What advice do you have for writing more concise scripts? Drop us a comment below.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user William Brawley

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