Test Your Newswriting I.Q. Against Networkers’ I.Q.

September 30, 2008

Whether you write for TV, radio, print or the Web, you need to write right—to choose the right words and put them in the right order.

And you need to acquire broad general knowledge. One way to see whether you’re on the right path is to take a quiz more comprehensive than 20 Questions: it’s 21 Questions.

Here’s how you can take this test: spot the flaw or problem in each of these network excerpts before reading my comment:

“Now he, like I, is fascinated with massive construction projects.” (ABC World News, Sept. 8, 2008.) That’s a lapse in the anchor’s like-ability. Like should be followed by me.

“You’ve all been on the air and on the phones all day, and we appreciate you coming over to help explain it to all of us tonight.” (NBC Nightly News, Sept. 17, 2008.) A noun or pronoun before that gerund (coming) should be in the possessive. So you should be your.

“Out in the Atlantic, more trouble—a trifecta of storms headed toward the U-S coast.” (CBS Evening News, Sept. 3, 2008.) A trifecta, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, is “a bet or betting procedure in which one wins if one correctly picks the first, second, and third place finishers in a race.” So the script’s use of trifecta was wrong, even if the storms were in the horse latitudes.

“Nearly nine in ten Americans is a Christian.” (CNN, Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees, Dec. 31, 2006.) Is they? The script should have said, “Almost nine in ten Americans are….”

“He also lauded the city’s efforts in rebuilding homes, churches and schools.” (PBS NewsHour, Aug. 20, 2008.) Newspapers use laud in headlines because it’s shorter than praise. But you don’t hear people say laud—except when Elvis sings, “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy.”

“So a lot of numbers still to come tonight, Brian, but that’s a first beginning.” (NBC Nightly News, Feb. 5, 2008.) Delete the redundant first.

“There once was a day when Democrats held their convention that the Republicans would lay low, and vice versa.” (ABC World News, Aug. 26, 2008.) The G.O.P. would lie low. Better: “In the old days, when the Democrats or Republicans held their convention, the other party would lie low.”

“The problem is, they may not be going home for some time soon.” (NBC Nightly News, July 1, 2007.) For some time soon? Doesn’t sound like even an approximation of English. Maybe the writer meant anytime soon.

“At 16, with bad grades and a self-professed bad attitude, his father allowed him to drop out on one occasion.” (ABC World News Sunday, June 15, 2008). Strike self; only the person you’re writing about can profess or confess. Unfortunately, the writer uncorked a dangler and unwittingly made the father 16 years old. Better: “His father let him drop out once at age 16 when his grades were bad and his attitude, admittedly, was bad.”

“Having said that, if General Petreaus or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, say to you, “Hey, President Obama….” (CBS Evening News, July 22, 2008.) Should be says, not say, because or means one or the other.

“Drivers save money with an added bonus.” (NBC Nightly News, July 5, 2007.) Added bonus is redundant: a bonus is something extra.

“His final [better: last] stop, New York’s famed Yankee stadium.” (CBS Evening News, April 20, 2008.) Have you ever heard anyone say famed? I haven’t–except for broadcast newspeople. In any case, if you need to call a place famous, how famous can that place be?

“It was the first time he had ever sang with a band.” (ABC World News Sunday, June 1, 2008.) Sang should be sung.

“Also tonight, more than 22,000 people. That’s the latest death toll from that cyclone….” (CBS Evening News, May 6, 2008.) Don’t back into a story. Start by telling us who or what did what to whom. Would you ever tell a friend, “Three people. They were killed in a crash last night near my place”?

“In Iraq tonight, the U-S military fired guided missiles into the Baghdad slum of Sadr City today….” (ABC World News, May 3, 2008.) Tonight today? That abrupt turnabout could cause whiplash.

“But meantime, good morning to you, and Happy Memorial Day.” (NBC’s Today, May 29, 2006.) A grotesque greeting. Memorial Day is a solemn occasion when we honor the memory of the war dead. There’s nothing happy about it.

Meantime is always a good word to ditch. Although we say Good morning, some newscasters add the superfluous to you. No matter how many you’s or yahoo’s are out there, there’s no need for you.

“Her monthly premium is 100 dollars a month.” (CBS Evening News, May 31, 2008.) I heardya the first time.

“News was made on a front that is, of course, a major factor in this campaign, a vivid reminder tonight that Iraq remains a very dangerous place….” (NBC Nightly News, Jan. 9, 2008.) News was made? Clumsy. Whenever a story breaks, news is made. Would you ever write, “News was made today in Washington: Senator Jim George of Georgia abruptly resigned”? If news was made, go ahead and report it. And who needs a reminder that Iraq continues to be a dangerous place?

“Since being raised in late April, the crane had been inspected multiple times.” (CBS Evening News, May 31, 2008.) Multiple times sounds like something a bureaucrat would say; it’s not conversational. Instead, most of us would say several times or more than once. Best would be a specific number. And had should be has. Had been is past perfect, the tense before the past.

“A 17-mile stretch of California beaches are now closed to swimming until Monday.” (ABC World News, April 25, 2008.) The stretch is.

“Another developing story happening.” (CNN Newsroom, Feb. 28, 2007.) Developing + happening = overkill & absurdity. Most stories are developing: the bailout, the election, oil, Iraq, taxes, the weather and, as they say, a whole lot more. As for happening now, it’s hype.

Time’s up. Even if you got them all wrong, don’t despair; you still might be as good as the network writers, reporters and anchors who wrote those scripts. If you got 0 to 8 right, you do need help; if you got 9 to 16 right, you could have done worse but you should have done better; if you got 17 to 21 right, you should fill a critical need: copy editor.

© Mervin Block 2008

This is an expanded version of an article on newswriting published in April by Communicator, the magazine of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Mervin offers more writing tips at mervinblock.com. And still more in one of his books, Writing Broadcast News—Shorter, Sharper, Stronger.