Broadcasting: When writing for TV news, less is definitely more

On the 50th anniversary of BBC News Vin Ray describes how the finest reporters let the pictures tell the story
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Jeremy Bowen was positively modern. For him the laptop was the preferred weapon. John Simpson was - is - of the old school: pen, paper and, unusually for a journalist, beautiful handwriting. But nothing had prepared me for Martin Bell. If he ever did write a word, I never saw him do it. As a producer in the early Nineties, I sat in edit suites with all three of these characters, and many others, but I never saw anyone work quite like Bell.

He would consider the pictures, ask the picture editor to lay them down, and then ask how many seconds he had. Then he would leave the room and walk up and down outside, muttering. Eventually, the white suit would re-emerge, armed with a short, sharp phrase that summed up exactly what he wanted to articulate and perfectly "caressed the pictures", as he liked to say.

It would be unfair to say that Bell talked nonsense; but as a correspondent he often wrote nonsense. If you put a Martin Bell script on paper, it wouldn't make much sense. But allow it to complement the pictures and sound he was working with and he often created a masterpiece of television.

Writing for television demands clarity, brevity and restraint; it is, perversely, often the art of not writing, or underwriting, and allowing the pictures and sound to tell the story. In television, words are the servants of pictures. It can be deeply frustrating and counter-intuitive for reporters, especially those newly arrived from newspapers. At the heart of that frustration is a contradiction: in television, you can communicate a lot more by saying a lot less.

Great writers have the confidence to leave things out and produce work of great clarity; hesitant writers include too much and confuse the viewer. Those who have mastered the art can deliver storytelling that is clear, engaging and enlightening; those who have mastered their subject have the confidence to simplify it without distortion.

The best writing for TV news is in the tradition of Hemingway: a simple, spare and lucid style interrupted with some memorable phrases. It has short sentences with no sub-clauses to clutter them up, and uses the pictures to show the audience rather than tell them.

Memorable writers are often just one step ahead of cliché. When a ceasefire in Bosnia was ignored, Martin Bell began his report with the words, "Ceasefire, Sarajevo-style", over pictures of intense fighting. It was fresh and original; it has felt like a cliché each of the many times others have adapted it since to describe failed ceasefires.

Can you learn to be a great writer? It's not easy. As Mark Twain said, "There's no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing", and some people seem born with great phrases in their heads. But there is one thing I would say about all the great writers I have known in broadcasting: they have all been great readers. There is always a book tucked under their arm.

The French philosopher Pascal once apologised for writing such a long letter: "I didn't have time to write a short one." He understood television before it was invented. Looking back over 50 years of TV news, so much has changed; but the art of great writing hasn't. It will continue to separate the best from the rest, as it always has done.

Vin Ray is the BBC's Deputy Head of Newsgathering

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