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Tips for writing for broadcast

This is an excerpt from Sports Broadcasting With HKPropel Access by Kevin Hull.

Broadcast Writing Style

Writing for broadcast is different from how people are taught to write their entire lives. Writing a 30-second VO is almost the complete opposite of writing an 11th-grade history paper. With that in mind, there are multiple differences between broadcast writing and traditional writing.

Write for the Ear, Not the Eye

Broadcasters must remember that when writing for radio or television, the script is being written for the ear, not the eye. If there is something unclear in a print or online story, the reader can go back and reread the confusing part in order to get some additional clarification. However, in the world of broadcast, there is only one chance to hear the story. Unless someone is recording a sportscast, the first time hearing the story will be the only time to hear the story.

Therefore, the best advice for a journalist when writing a story for broadcast is to picture each script as a conversation with the audience and both keep it simple and “write like you talk” (Butera, 2015). If two friends were chatting over breakfast and one asked, “What happened at the Tigers game last night?”, the friend’s response would not be a complicated play-by-play description of the contest. Instead, a quick, easy-to-comprehend conversational recap would make more sense (Butera, 2015). That same idea is true for broadcast writing (see Script Formatting section later in this chapter for guidelines for punctuation and capitalization).

Option A: THE TIGERS LOOKED GREAT. THEY SCORED 21 POINTS IN A ROW AND WON 35–7. CHAD SMITH SCORED THREE TOUCHDOWNS.

Option B: THE TIGERS BEAT THE SHARKS 35–7 AFTER CHAD SMITH SCORED ON TOUCHDOWN RUNS OF 14 YARDS—25 YARDS—AND 8 YARDS. THE GAME WAS TIED AT SEVEN APIECE BEFORE THE TIGERS SCORED THREE STRAIGHT TOUCHDOWNS IN ORDER TO GET A LEAD THEY WOULD NOT GIVE UP.

While both are technically correct, Option A sounds much more like something that two friends would say to each other. Option B is much less conversational, and therefore is less pleasing and perhaps confusing to listen to. Therefore, Option A would be the correct broadcast style because it is more conversational and, therefore, would be much easier for the audience to understand when listening at home.

Option C: TICKETS FOR FRIDAY NIGHT’S FOOTBALL GAME ARE SELLING FOR 20 DOLLARS EACH. THAT’S MORE THAN THE USUAL 10 DOLLAR PRICE BECAUSE THIS IS A PLAYOFF GAME AND THE PRICES ARE DECIDED BY THE STATE INSTEAD OF THE SCHOOL.

Option D: IF YOU’RE PLANNING ON GOING TO THE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF GAME THIS FRIDAY—GET READY TO PAY A LITTLE MORE. TICKETS ARE 20 DOLLARS INSTEAD OF THE USUAL TEN. THAT HIGHER PRICE IS DECIDED BY THE STATE BECAUSE THEY ARE IN CHARGE OF PLAYOFF TICKETS.

Again, both are technically correct, but Option D is much more conversational. Additionally, Option D personalizes the story for the viewer. If possible, broadcasters should visualize that they are talking to just one person, instead of an entire audience. If there is an opportunity to personalize a story (IF YOU’RE PLANNING ON . . .), the broadcaster should take advantage of that. One television broadcaster wrote, “You should treat every news story as if it were a one-on-one conversation at the dinner table with your viewer” (Butera, 2015, p. 11).

Short, Simple Sentences

While a high school English teacher might encourage students to write long and flowing sentences, full of descriptive language and multiple details, that is not proper broadcast writing style. Instead, broadcast sentences should be short and contain only one idea in each sentence. One suggestion is that sentences should be between 8 and 12 words (Butera, 2015).

Option A: THE HEAD TENNIS COACH AT EAST HIGH SCHOOL IS HEADING TO SOUTH HIGH. ZOEY SMITH WILL BE THE NEW HEAD COACH AT SOUTH STARTING NEXT SEASON.

Option B: ZOEY SMITH—THE HEAD TENNIS COACH OF EAST HIGH SCHOOL—WILL LEAVE THAT JOB AT THE END OF THE SEASON TO BECOME THE NEW HEAD TENNIS COACH AT SOUTH HIGH SCHOOL.

Option A has one thought in each sentence, while Option B has all of the information contained within one longer sentence. For broadcast writing, Option A would be the better choice because it has short, quick sentences that are easier for the broadcaster to read and easier for the audience to understand when listening to the story.

Option C: THERE WILL BE NEW SECURITY MEASURES AT THE STADIUM THIS WEEKEND AND EACH PERSON ATTENDING WILL HAVE TO EMPTY THEIR POCKETS AND GO THROUGH A METAL DETECTOR.

Option D: THERE WILL BE NEW SECURITY MEASURES AT THE STADIUM THIS WEEKEND. EACH PERSON ATTENDING WILL HAVE TO EMPTY THEIR POCKETS AND GO THROUGH A METAL DETECTOR.

These two examples are practically the same. However, turning Option C into two sentences makes Option D the better choice for broadcast writers. Short, simple sentences allow for easier understanding by the audience and also give the reporter a chance for a natural pause in between the two ideas when reading for broadcast.

What Is Happening Now?

Broadcasting is a medium in which the audience is expecting to know what is happening right now. The newspaper contains yesterday’s news, while broadcasts focus on what is happening in real time. When starting a script, it is important to talk about the aspect of the story that is still current. That does not mean that a reporter should make up a “false present” in which broadcast writers make news that is not actually happening now seem current (Butera, 2015). This is not a natural way to talk and can make the broadcaster seem foolish. For example, if an athlete broke the world record in the long jump in the afternoon, someone would never describe it hours later as “Michael Jones jumps for a new record.” Instead, the broadcaster should talk about what is currently happening: “There is a new world record holder in the long jump.”

Option A: THE MARLINS LOST THEIR THIRD STRAIGHT GAME LAST NIGHT.

Option B: THE MARLINS LOOK TO SNAP THEIR THREE-GAME LOSING STREAK TONIGHT.

Option B is today’s news. Instead of focusing on what happened last night, the broadcaster is updating the information to talk about what is going on today.

Talking about what is happening now is especially important for the first sentence (also known as the lead sentence) of a broadcast script. The opening line of a story is never about something that already happened; instead, the first sentence should talk about what is happening right now.

Option C: ALL THE TICKETS FOR SATURDAY’S GAME WERE SOLD EARLIER THIS WEEK.

Option D: SATURDAY’S GAME IS SOLD OUT.

Option D tells the audience what is happening right now—the game is sold out. While Option C is correct, it gives the impression that the news happened hours ago and there is nothing new to report.

Option E: THE EAGLES WERE CONSIDERING MAKING A CHANGE AT QUARTERBACK.

Option F: BRYCE SIMPSON WILL REMAIN THE STARTING QUARTERBACK FOR THE EAGLES.

Option F tells the audience what is happening right now—Simpson will be the quarterback. Option E is in the past tense.

Don’t Overuse Numbers and Statistics

It is nearly impossible to talk about sports without using numbers and statistics. For many, the statistics are what make the games interesting. However, broadcasters must be careful not to overuse numbers when writing the script because those numbers can lead to confusion for the audience. For example:

IN SUPER BOWL 49, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS QUARTERBACK TOM BRADY WAS 37-OF-50 FOR A 74% COMPLETION PERCENTAGE. HE THREW FOUR TOUCHDOWNS AND TWO INTERCEPTIONS. HIS TOUCHDOWN PASSES WERE FOR 11 YARDS—22 YARDS—4 YARDS—AND 3 YARDS.

This script contains a great deal of information that would likely be of interest to the listener. Despite that, there are simply too many numbers for the audience to process and understand completely. Since broadcasters are writing for the ear, they need to keep the script as simple as possible, and that can be done without relying too heavily on numbers.

TOM BRADY THREW FOUR TOUCHDOWN PASSES IN THE PATRIOTS SUPER BOWL WIN.

Fans are more likely to remember that one important fact than they are all the information provided in the first example.

Use Active Voice

When writing for broadcast, journalists should use active voice instead of passive voice. In active voice, the subject acts upon the verb (I drove the car). In passive voice, the subject is the recipient of the verb’s action (The car was driven by me). By flipping the order and adding the preposition by to the sentence, the sentence goes from active to passive (Traffis, n.d.). Broadcast writing stresses what is happening now, and active voice helps to achieve that style of writing. Active verb sentences can be created using the following format: Subject—Verb—Object (Butera, 2015).

Option A: Jimmy Henderson ran the football for 135 yards.

Option B: The football was run for 135 yards by Jimmy Henderson.

Option A would be the better choice for sports broadcasters because it is written in active voice.

Write to Video

For television broadcasters, the video is a key part of a written story. One good rule of thumb is: “If I see it, I should hear it. If I hear it, I should see it.” If a reporter is talking about a big play in a baseball game, the video should be showing that play. In a package, if a reporter is specifically talking about a certain person, the video should be of that person as the reporter is talking. For example, if a reporter in a package says, “Scooter Johnson is leading the team in scoring this season,” then the video should be video of Johnson as that line is being said. If a key piece of video needs to be pointed out, the reporter can write specifically to that video. If counterfeit tickets are being sold for a football game, the reporter could hold up the fake tickets and say, “These tickets are the fake ones that students need to be on the lookout for. You can tell they are fake because they don’t have a hologram on them.” By saying “these tickets,” the reporter is referencing the tickets in the video. The reporter can then show a close-up of the tickets to demonstrate that they do not have a hologram on them.

More Excerpts From Sports Broadcasting With HKPropel Access