Use Words Sparingly and Specifically

Screen time is a precious commodity, and you want your narration to be as spare as possible. Don't waste good airtime on words that are little more than filler, such as Salinas. A town of working people, it hardly seems the place for a murder. But on January 14, 1998, the owners of a house discovered something that would change that impression forever. A quick check shows that Salinas is a city of around 123,000 people, and that in the 20 years before the homeowners discovered a body buried beneath their house, a total of 218 people had been killed in Salinas, including 18 in 1997. The narration pumped emotion into the story, but it's not useful or even accurate.

The perceived need for hype—most often on commercial television—often seems to lead to imprecise writing. In rural Michigan, a search for a missing man ends in cold-blooded murder. Well, actually, it doesn't. If the search ended in cold-blooded murder, then someone involved in the search would have ended up dead. What happened is that a missing person case is revealed to be a murder case—the search for the missing man leads to a corpse. Why not say that?

Using words sparingly also means choosing the best word to describe what you mean, being careful of nuances. Does a teenager walk across the room or saunter? Does a CEO say that he doesn't have numbers for the fourth quarter, or does he admit that fact? Has the world leader made an impassioned speech or launched into a tirade? Was a nation's capital liberated, or did it fall? Was it a conflagration—a term that has specific meaning among firefighters—or simply a bad fire? Choose your words carefully, and be sure the meaning you want is not only the most exciting, but also the most accurate.

Along these lines, try to avoid the slogans of others, whether you agree with them or not. For example, rather than adopt the phrases "pro-life" or "pro-choice," state that someone is either for or against abortion rights.

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