Good television is all about finding – and telling – good stories. Apart from understanding the art of making video you also need to develop good writing skills for many jobs in television.
Our last post focused on excellent advice from an experienced TV screenwriter but what about the factual entertainment side of TV production? Many factual and multi-item TV programmes eat up ideas and stories in much the same way as newspapers and magazines do. So how can you work out what makes a good feature for TV?
It’s not much different from the journalism skills required by print media so we asked a journalist to add their advice on story-telling.
Alison Smith-Squire is a journalist & writer for most of the big UK tabloids and has placed stories with several national TV shows, such as ITV’s Daybreak and This Morning.
How did you get into journalism?
Following sixth form I started as a tea girl at a London Press agency. One career choice was to be a vet but unfortunately I only got one A level (a B in English – sadly I didn’t read one book so couldn’t even attempt one whole section). My other choice was as a journalist but I had also actually failed to get onto any journalism courses – one wrote back to say I had ‘no aptitude whatsoever’ for journalism. I almost gave up except a tea girl was literally the only job going at the time and I thought I would give it a go. From there I was taken on as a trainee reporter. Luckily my employer then paid for me to go on the NCTJ course – at which I excelled doing very well in all the law and practical exams. I passed my finals first time with some of the best marks my boss had ever seen. By the time I was 20 I was also getting stories into all of the national newspapers and I never looked back.
What are the main skills needed to be a journalist?
In my order of importance:
What makes a good story?
However, the reality is there is no checklist of boxes to tick to say something is a good story. In truth I’ve had stories turned down by dozens of editors that have gone on to make a double page spread or even front page in another publication. Different publications will go for different stories and sometimes even top editors on the same paper will disagree over whether something is a good enough story to print or not. If you are going to do my job though, you must be confident in your own ability to spot a story and then know how to market it to the publication that will be most interested – something that takes a lot of experience. Certainly there is a lot more to selling stories successfully than many imagine.
How do you source ideas and stories?
These days most of my stories come via the general public who google sell story or a similar search term to come up with my website, www.featureworld.co.uk or my online mag, www.sellyourstoryuk.com Obviously people do not email me a brilliantly written story – it is my job to ascertain how it can be sold and which editors will be most interested. Sometimes this takes wading through a long pitch that’s been sent in and other times it might be a chat with the potential interviewee is needed to see if indeed there is a story there. I constantly read all the papers and many magazines – the news websites are the first thing I look at on my phone when I wake (even on holiday) and the last thing I look at before bed. This way I can predict which stories editors might be following up and put an interviewee forward. Sometimes I will put up an idea, particularly if it’s a follow-up to something that’s currently topical and editors also commission me to research and write features for them.
As a journalist who has also worked in TV what differences/similarities do you see in terms of skills or how they operate?
The main difference with television is more attention needs to be paid to how interviewees and their stories present themselves. For example, a monosyllabic interviewee, whose story has successfully appeared in print, won’t be comfortable viewing on a TV chat show. Also TV literally needs more action shots – a documentary often needs to be made while the action is happening and the story unfolding. A written piece can be done in hindsight when all the drama is over. Television is also a great follow-up medium for many stories that have already appeared in print. Anyone working in TV or hoping to break into the industry should be constantly reading papers and magazines to see who might make a good follow up either for a chat show or a documentary. It’s one thing reading the story in print– but to actually see those interviewees telling it for themselves on television adds a completely new dimension. And many interviewees welcome the opportunity to speak for themselves on television.
TV employers are concerned that many TV entrants don’t have the necessary journalistic skills. What can applicants do to improve their research and writing skills?
Too many media wannabes are snobby about their reading material. But most important is to read a wide variety of publications. Yes, read The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Sun. However, don’t over-look the way Take a Break (Britain’s best selling women’s magazine…) tells its stories for example. People’s whole life stories are cleverly written in scenes and condensed in around 1200 words but still remain emotional and a good read. Also look at the quotes on women’s weekly magazines and see how natural they are – a must if you ever have to write scripts for TV.
It is easy to write long essays but much harder to get to the heart of a story in perhaps 600 words. That is the average length of a page lead in a tabloid paper.
Unfortunately I believe English is badly taught in schools where teachers place too much emphasis on flowery writing. Forget descriptive words, writing to impress with a varied vocabulary, metaphors or similar – you must simply be able to prioritise and precis the main points in a story. If you find this difficult, simply try bullet-points instead of sentences. Be aware that most writing even in broadsheets is the age of a teenager and so are most successful websites. Graduate-style writing using graduate-level vocab is best left to scientists writing a thesis.
Blogging is perhaps the best way to get into the habit of writing – then run your blog through a website checker to find out its writing age. Ideally it should be the age of a teenager – if it’s not then you need to work harder on simplifying your writing style.
Regarding research – I believe the answers area always there, if you look hard enough. The biggest reason people fail with research is they give up too easily. Go the extra mile with research and you will be surprised how you will come up trumps.
More writing tips. (http://sellyourstoryuk.com/2011/11/21/ten-steps-to-better-writing/)
Do you need a degree to get work as a print journalist?
I am definitive proof that you can be a print journalist without a degree. I would go further and say I believe one reason I’ve been successful as a journalist is I never went to uni. Had I gone, many basic skills I always had – particularly writing easily and clearly – might have been ruined. I also believe you can’t train anyone to be a journalist. Successful journalism, especially at national level, requires a complex set of base skills you either have or you haven’t got.
That said it is no longer the 1980s when I started out and there are few, if any, journalism apprenticeships for 18 year olds. It’s a fact that these days many employees see having a degree as a pre-requisite to getting any job and it certainly appears impossible to gain any media position without one.
I can only hope that this will eventually change.
More information about breaking into national newspapers. (http://sellyourstoryuk.com/2011/10/31/writing-national-press/)
What is your top tip for anyone interested in becoming a print or TV journalist?
Find a good story to sell. After working at the press agency I had a stint on a local paper. I soon realised that I preferred national journalism – but everyone I spoke to said I’d never break into it. I first broke into writing for magazines by giving one a great story (writing in as a reader – I then confessed to the editor I was a qualified journalist.) And I later then got into national newspapers by giving each of them a terrific exclusive story.
Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She regularly writes for the Daily Mail, Mail On Sunday, Sunday Mirror, Daily Mirror, The Sun, Sunday People as well as all the other national newspapers and many magazines. Alison also places interviewees with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and ITV including This Morning and Daybreak. She owns the sell my story website Featureworld.co.uk, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press and is editor of media ezine sellyourstoryuk.com.