This guest post is from one of our regular contributors Adam Myrick. Here he shares four of the most useful writing tips he learnt from one of his mentors.
Michael Cogdill had been at WYFF News 4 for nearly a decade when I was assigned a desk in the newsroom just feet from his in the fall of 1998.
Michael had recently been named primary evening anchor alongside Carol Clarke. He was entering his professional prime. He was also someone I had watched on TV since I was in my early teens.
I was less than a year into my professional career; serving in a barely above entry-level position in the WYFF4 newsroom. I held down the evening assignment desk and wrote scripts for stories in the 11:00 newscast. Michael had to read those scripts on the air. Translation: Michael changed those scripts - A LOT - before he read them (or what was left of them) on the air.
For some reason, Michael decided to invest some time in me. I am grateful he did. He became my writing mentor. He critiqued, instructed and coached. He would print my scripts, make handwritten edits and respectfully slide them across my desk with a, "Take a look and see what I did in a few spots." He shared writing wisdom with me that's still valuable in my career more than two decades later. Here are four Cogdill writing tips to help you, no matter where or what you write.
Write in active voice
I'll never forget Michael saying he was planning to challenge himself by writing a multi-part sweeps series and not use the passive voice at all in his script. He did it!
Here's the best way to think about active voice versus passive voice.
Active: The boy kicked the ball.
Passive: The ball was kicked by the boy.
Active voice is always easier to read and understand.
Michael's rule of thumb he shared with me is, "Pretend like you're telling your grandmother about the story. Use the same words you would use with her." Over the years, I've stretched that to the other end of the age spectrum. I want what I'm communicating in oral remarks or writing to be understandable for anyone age 9-90.
There are a number of ways to up the conversational tone of your copy. The easiest way is to simply use words with fewer letters and syllables. Here are some longer words to avoid and their shorter, more conversational alternatives:
• individual - person
• residence - home
• initiate - start
• finalize - end
• utilize - use
One Thought Per Sentence
Michael shared these letters with me in 1998 as a way to remember one of the golden rules of newswriting: OTPS or One Thought Per Sentence.
I share these letters and the precept they represent in virtually every training session I lead all these years later. When writing for the eye or the ear, you have to keep it simple. One thought per sentence is a guideline that helps you avoid complex and run-on sentences.
I'm no grammarian; however, I know when fewer clauses and phrases are in the way your message is more likely to directly impact your audience just as you intended.
Attribution before assertion, or assertion before attribution.
I saved this one for the end because this is where we really get down in the writing weeds. I can still remember Michael teaching me this one when he slid one of my scripts about news out of Vatican City back across my desk to me.
I had written something similar to, "The Pope supports the people on this side of this controversial issue, according to a Vatican spokesman."
Here's where we get down into the weeds.
That structure is known as assertion before attribution. In other words, what's being said is said (and heard) before who said it.
It works fine in print. Not so much for broadcast. When writing for the ear, attribution should come before the assertion.
Michael changed that script for me that night to, "A Vatican spokesman says the Pope supports the people on this side of this controversial issue."
It's a simple flip of the phrases...but much easier for an audience to hear.
Michael retired from WYFF-TV in 2021. He's on to new ventures and challenges now. He's republished a novel, She Rain, which he originally penned and released several years ago. He has also authored a children's book expected soon.