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TV Proposal Writing Lessons from George Orwell

Photo by Cayetano

Photo by Cayetano

When writing a proposal for your TV show, you have to impress your commissioner, right?

Wrong.

You need to communicate to your commissioner exactly what you’re proposing as succinctly and clearly as possible. And that means cutting out long words and jargon.

Less, in this instance is definitely more. And that’s because your proposal has to stand out from the dozens of other proposals that land on a commissioning editor’s desk (or inbox) every week. In between fire-fighting shows in production and  taking meetings with producers, they have to find time to read the new proposals. And their heart sinks when they get a six-page essay full of technical jargon and puffery. Chances are they will be none the wiser about the proposed programme after they’ve read it.

To be successful in TV development you have to be able to describe your idea in as few words as possible – ideally in a sentence that you can use as the basis for your pitch. However, when you are writing a formal proposal, you have  more leeway – a whole side of A4 paper.

To help us understand how to fill one side of paper wisely, let’s turn to a master of writing – George Orwell. In Politics and the English Language (1946), Orwell set out six rules for good writing:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

In other words, avoid clichés. This can be tricky as you can only see your proposal through your eyes and it no doubt looks unique to you. However, commissioners have read hundreds of proposals that say one or more of the following:

  • an extraordinary journey
  • amazing transformation
  • larger-than-life characters
  • unique access
  • emotional journey
  • never before seen footage

If a proposal reads like every other proposal they’ve read they will start skimming over it (or stop reading) and might miss the key information that really does make your idea stand out. Try to find different ways of saying these things (and never claim ‘unique access’ if you don’t have it).

It is tempting to lace your document with the words that commissioners overuse: edgy, fresh, new, exciting, noisy. Just because they overuse thosewords, doesn’t mean you should. Your writing should show them that your idea is all those things without you having to spell it out to them.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Keep your language simple – advertisers don’t use long words because they know they’ve only got a split second to get someone’s attention. And once they’ve got it they want them to stay and read the message; people will give up if they find the language baffling.

For a guide, look at a tabloid newspaper and look at the length of their words and sentences and aim to make your writing as tight. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are ‘dumbing down’ your writing; it requires much more skill to write well than it does to ramble on.

The advantage of using short words, is that they take up less space. Remember, you only have one side of paper to fill. Which leads us to…

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

It’s impossible to write well on your first pass, so don’t sweat it, or you might find yourself paralyzed and unable to write anything. Just write your proposal, get it flowing right so it has the most information at the top and the rest unfolds down the page.

The go back and EDIT.

Cut out unnecessary words. For example, you don’t need to say something is ‘totally unique’. It’s either unique or it’s not.

Chop long sentences into two, as it will make your meaning clearer; if you have used a semi-colon you can go back and replace it with a full stop (see what I mean?).

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Again, don’t worry about this too much when you write your first draft. Just write it.

Once you’ve got it down on the page, go back and change all your passive verbs into active ones and you will immediately an improvement in your proposal. It’s the best kind of instant gratification.

For example, instead of:

Jane and Ted will go to the college to enroll on the beauty therapy course, but they might struggle to juggle their studies with their family commitments.

say

Jane and Ted enroll on a beauty therapy course, but it’s a struggle to juggle college with their family life.

Instantly, you’ve saved yourself some space on the page, and the pressure on Jane and Ted feels much more immediate.

In your head – because you sensibly realize that none of the action has yet happened – you are explaining what might happen in the future. But the commissioner will be much more drawn into your idea if they can see it unfolding as if it’s happening right in front of their eyes – they don’t want to imagine what ‘might’ happen, they want to feel like they are in the moment ‘seeing’ the finished programme as the audience will.  Using active verbs makes that happen.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of any everyday English equivalent.

It’s tempting for highly-educated specialist factual producers (and especially researchers recently out of university) to write proposals that read like dissertations. They feel they haven’t done their job if they haven’t written reams and used lots of technical jargon in their proposal for a science, art or history show. They’ve certainly shown how clever they are, but their writing is DULL and sends their reader to sleep!

If there’s no way around using a technical term, explain it.. Make life easy for your reader – they’re not idiots, they just don’t have time to work out what you mean.

And even if they don’t understand, it’s not smart to make them feel uncomfortable as they will be defensive when (if) you get a meeting with them.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The best way to check this is to have a trusted colleague you can ask to read your proposal before you send it off. Make sure it’s someone who is comfortable giving constructive criticism, otherwise it’s pointless.

See also:

How to Write a Proposal a Commissioner Will Actually Read

15 Steps to Writing an Impressive Proposal

Get more proposal writing tips in Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch

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