Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Keep it simple!

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 11, 2007

Training to be a broadcast journalist is a bit like being taught a new language. When it comes to writing, you have to ignore all those rules you learned at school and university and the result is something between C++ and poetry.

One of the golden rules hammered into us is to keep things simple. And keep. Your sentences. Short.  Listeners and viewers can only take in a news report once. Even in the impending “on-demand” world, they’ll only want to take it in once.

So if you turn on the TV and radio you usually hear short sharp conversational sentences with all the fluff removed.


Admittedly, Channel 4 News tries to be different. It aims to be a bit more creative, but from what I gathered from chief writer Felicity Spector when she came into City a few weeks ago, it still has to be concise.

So, what on earth is this all about?

It’s a report on the Chinese president’s visit to Africa this week, by the usually excellent Faisal Islam: ex City student and Channel 4 News‘ business correspondent. It’s an interesting piece, but check out Faisal’s first line (watch it here):

“The Chinese presidents twelve day tour takes in eight nations including Sudan the most controversial of the host countries where Chinas unconditional aid policy has angered western governments many of whom say Beijing should use its economic weight to end hostilities in Darfur.”

Say what?

It’s 43 words long. That’s nearly twice the recommended length of any sentence for broadcast.  It could be broken down into no less than four separate sentences:

“It’s a breakneck tour for China’s president: eight countries in a dozen days.

But Hu Jintao’s been criticised for visiting Sudan.

Western leaders want Beijing to use its economic muscle to end violence in Darfur.

Instead in its eagerness for ties with Africa China’s giving aid freely.”

Admittedly that’s not great either. But I think it’s easier to understand, and a bit more conversational.

But it goes to show that even with the best journos working for the best stations, the basic rules sometimes still get broken.


7 Responses

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  1. Chris Doidge said, on February 11, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Seems his newspaper roots are peeking through.

  2. Emmanuel.K.Bensah said, on February 12, 2007 at 10:33 am

    Adam, couldn’t have said it better. It’s important that you give this type of observation for the discerning and budding journalist (like myself;-) ). Seriously, less is very often–in fact more often than not — more, and I thnk it’s fair to say that the BBC’s pretty much nipped this in the bud when it comes to broadcast journalism. Thanks!

  3. […] EDIT – Seems my journo buddies are also blogging about writing tips.  Adam Westbrook has written about how to keep language simple. […]

  4. James Laidler said, on February 15, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    Ooh dear that’s quite a bad (good?) example of TV writing gone bad. Channel 4 are doing this all the time and, as you say, they might just be trying to be different – but even when I’m sat watching intently with no distractions I get lost easily. Perhaps I’m just a bear of too little brain…

  5. Adrian M said, on February 15, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    Someone’s listening at the back…

  6. David Dunkley Gyimah said, on February 19, 2007 at 11:50 am

    I’ll tell you one thing and do another. In fairness I tell my Master’s students to keep it simple, but recognise a latent legacy of writing to suit my own. Yes 45 words even sometimes within my career as a broadcaster.

    The editor’s lithmus test is simple. If he/she can understand the piece, and they would rarely ask for a script from experienced pros, well that’s all good.

    If you’re starting out as a journo, your script will probaby be torched, if it doesn’t meet the broadcasters’ kiss rule on paper.

    The more experienced journos develop a natural, sometimes unnatural prose style that sees pauses and periods introduced into their delivery which otherwise bears no resemblance to how the script looks. It’s all in the mix really.

    So like most things, I’d say learn the rules. I still sometimes lean on mine, but at some point you’ll break em, because, well that’s what tends to happen.

    p.s I had 4 happy years as a freelance producer at Channel 4 News 🙂

  7. Jonathan Lindeland said, on May 28, 2010 at 8:35 am

    I came to this site by Google and just wanted to drop by and take some time to post a comment to say thanks for these great strobe lights. Thanks once again!

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