Intro from Jay Allison: For a long time we’ve been bugging Alex Chadwick to write about writing. Many of us think Alex is one of the finest radio writers there is. He knows plenty of technical tricks for solid writing, and he understands the roots of style too. In his artful way, he tells you how to achieve both.
Alex originally wrote much of this manifesto as a training guide for NPR journalists back in the 1990s, and that’s the frame of reference, but the techniques are universally applicable and adaptable. If you’re a reporter, you’ll want to spend some time with this. If you run a newsroom, you’ll want to make your reporters spend some time with it.
Writing for Radio
The Actual Copy
We pick up books and newspapers and magazines, and scroll our computer screens reading what we want, going back to check facts if necessary. The very act of looking at it makes it seem more truthful than the same words we hear spoken, as though to the eye, substance were substantive. Except that we cannot dance to the printed page there might be no use for radio at all.
Nonetheless, millions of people daily forsake newspapers, and even television, in order to discover what they need to know about the world from the radio, which is to say from us.
We are damn glad of it for obvious reasons, and we should all resolve from here on out to treat these people decently in return.
We need to bear two things in mind: Listeners cannot turn back the page to recheck a fact – they must get it the first time; and we write for the ear.
And if you really want to write for radio, remember that our competition includes not only The New York Times, but also Chuck Berry.
The best advice for improving writing can be found in Writing News for Broadcast, by Ed Bliss, Jr. and John Patterson (Columbia University Press, revised 1994). Much of the material that follows is borrowed from that source.
The Big Three
These are the principles that radio writers have agreed to abide by. We also agreed not to call them rules for fear that some nitpicker would go looking for rule exceptions to bedevil us. They aren’t rules, so don’t bother nitpicking.
1. Shorter is Better
Newspaper writers can get ten facts in the first sentence of a story, and not lose anyone who is interested in the subject. Radio writers usually can’t do that.
Write short sentences. People have short memories, and short attention spans. They can lose track of meaning if too many facts are crammed into one sentence.
Write for the ear. Think of others who write for the ear.
Preachers. Poets. Songwriters.
Radio writers can learn a lot from them.
2. Write as You Speak
You already know this, of course. Write the way you speak, because you are writing to be heard.
The following lead appeared on page 1 of The New York Times on Thursday, March 8, 1990:
Gene therapy for human disease took a leap from the theoretical realms of the laboratory toward the real world of practical medicine today as a National Institutes of Health panel approved a proposal to treat children with a severe genetic disease by inserting new genes into their blood cells.
That’s perfectly acceptable newspaper language. But not only do you not speak that way, very few people could read that sentence aloud, as written, without collapsing.
How could we rewrite that paragraph for the ear?
Write for radio as you speak. Tell a story to the listener pretty much the way you would tell it to a friend over the telephone.
Bear this in mind, however. Real conversation is unedited and often sloppy. Radio writers are after a kind of elevated conversational style, albeit one that is not so elevated as to get above the heads of those who turn on the radio.
3. Plain and Straight
Strive to be simple in expression.
Use clear language, and words that matter.
Ed Bliss cautions us to discard words like effectuate, prioritize, ancillary and utilize.
“The city will utilize the funds soon.” NO.
“The city will use the money soon.” YES.
And don’t pile clause upon clause upon clause, like so many rocks in a cairn, for example, or like shirts at the bottom of the hamper, all of this in an effort to express an idea, or a part of an idea, or a thought, or something or other that at some point, earlier in the sentence probably, which is beginning to seem like pre-Gutenberg, seemed to be something you actually wanted to say.
Take care to avoid the jumbled meaning foul.
In writing about writing simply, Ed quotes a radio piece from Edward R. Murrow on the Battle of Britain:
Once I saw The Damnation of Faust presented in the open air at Salzburg. London reminds me of that tonight, only the stage is so much larger. Once tonight an anti-aircraft battery opened fire just as I drove past it. It lifted me from the seat, and a hot wind swept over the car. It was impossible to see. When I drove on, the streets of London reminded me of a ghost town in Nevada; not a soul to be seen.
And Ed comments:
Here is a picture — a mood — that few scenes on television could create. That is the advantage you have, writing for radio. You paint pictures, not for the eye, but for the mind. And the mind touches up the picture, adding its own color, giving it strength.
A Case in Point: The Totenberg Techniques
The following is an example of writing that is effective. See what Nina Totenberg does in an ordinary day on her beat. As you go through this, try to hear Nina reading it.
This is from a report for All Things Considered on a case argued before the Supreme Court.
Judge Clark, faced with no way to pay for the school desegregation plan in its entirety, ordered a local tax increase to pay for the city’s share. He doubled the local property taxes.
The state appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that the judge had exceeded his authority… that he had in fact committed the offense, which started the American Revolution… taxation without representation.
Today in the Supreme Court, the state’s lawyer, Bartow Farr, told the justices that Judge Clark had gone too far, that under our constitution a federal judge does not have the power to tax citizens without their consent, and he said there were less intrusive ways to handle the Kansas City problem.
Justice O’Connor: “What alternative did the judge have. How would this desegregations plan have been carried out without the money to pay for it?”
Answer: “It would have been less intrusive to require the state to pay the whole cost.”
O’Connor, acidly: “Just order the state to pay for it all?”
Answer: “It would have been less intrusive” (said lawyer Farr, and he also suggested that Judge Clark should have adopted a less expensive plan before this).
Justice Scalia: “Did the state offer to pay for the whole plan then?”
Answer: “No, but we are now.”
Justice O’Connor: “Your argument sounds like there’s no power to tax because it’s too expensive.”
Lawyer Farr: “Federal courts do not have the power to tax when citizens have rejected that tax.”
Justice O’Connor, her voice hard-edged: “Even if there is no alternative?”
Answer: “This is not such an extreme case.”
In that first paragraph, before quoting from the argument, Nina explains what happened. A judge took it upon himself to raise property taxes. But Nina saves the fact that he doubled property taxes for a sentence of its own.
It’s a good, tough fact. The magnitude of the increase is much greater than expected. It explains why people are upset. It is good storytelling technique to present this fact by itself, in one short sentence after the longer, more general explainer before. One star to Nina.
In the second paragraph, she ends with the phrase “taxation without representation.”
Right. We’ve heard about this stuff before. It used to matter enough to start revolutions; it still matters and resonates in the ear. Another star.
The third paragraph is too long for many to read comfortably, and maybe too long for many to hear comfortably.
Nina is writing here for her voice, and may carry it off. No stars, however.
Finally, the dialogue… pure Totenberg at her best:
- crisp writing;
- a recitation of what actually happened;
- a word here and there to characterize the flavor of the argument.
This is very good reporting. It is also very good writing for the ear. A galaxy to our lady of the court.
(A question put to Nina: “Why do you bother to tell us what Justice O’Connor sounded like?”
Answer, with puzzlement to be asked anything so dumb: “Because I want the listener to understand what it’s like to be there.”
In the Beginning…
Is the lead.
It generally states an important fact or element of the story in order to establish the subject of the piece. Good leads are short and to the point when a story is real news; a good lead to a story reporting the outcome of the Nicaraguan election would have been simply: “The Sandanistas lost.”
We can go on to say the vote in Nicaragua went heavily against them; that the winning candidate runs the main opposition newspaper; that she represents a fractious coalition; that it is not yet certain the Sandinistas will actually surrender power. But the news lead here is that the Sandinistas are voted out. Radio news leads tell the main news the way you’d tell it to anyone who asked.
Some years ago Susan Stamberg wrote a lead as good as any I can remember:
“This just out,” she began, and went on to relate that Lady Diana had just given birth to the first son of Prince Charles.
You don’t get the chance every day to upend an old radio cliché: “This just in,” but stay alert for the chances that are there.
Reporters begin leads with lead-ins; that is, they write the copy for the host who is to explain to the listener what this piece is to be about.
There is a strong temptation to shuck off this task, but it is best resisted. The lead-in should work with the piece, and the writer is better able to make the elements fit.
Do not cheat the show or the host in doing this. Put the news out in front where it belongs.
What is cheating? This is cheating:
HOST INTRO: It was a sunny, bright day in North Carolina this morning when reporters gathered to see a pair of inventors test a prototype of a new device. More now from David Doodah.
Doodah: Man conquered gravity today.
The Wright brothers flew a heavier-than-air machine for a distance of…
It is cheating to hold the news for your own voice, and it soon leads to retaliation from the shows. They will cut off your top paragraph and use it to make a real lead if you don’t give them one. Write the news lead for the lead-in, and begin your story with a sentence of expansion or explanation. (“The plane was in the air 18 seconds and covered 120 feet.”)
A note here about communicating with shows on lead-ins. Very often your lead-in will be rewritten anyway, especially if you leave it overnight for Morning Edition. Usually this means the editorial staff on the show wants to include the latest information from the wires. Fair enough.
But if you find your lead-ins are being rewritten without new information, talk to both the program editor and the production person who handled your copy. You’ll be better off for the asking, and you have that right.
We'll take Alex's suggestion and do some asking...
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Shield the Lead
Make sure you include a note on the lead-in if there is some piece of information that should be protected in the story-telling sense… some small, pleasing discovery for the listener to encounter in your piece.
You may think others will know not to give away this discovery, and most of the time you would be right. But be very clear; otherwise you may hear “coming up, a reunion of long-lost brothers,” when you meant to save the relationship of these strangers to reveal at the end of the story.
If you write your own lead-ins, you can make sure this essential information gets passed on. If you leave this to others, it is going to get overlooked.
Don’t get mad; take care of it yourself.
Copy to Page
Always type, of course. Always type double-space… otherwise there’s no room to write in changes.
Use upper and lower case… that is, capitalize.
Susan Stamberg explains that this is a good rule for radio writers because we write copy to be read, and those reading it are used to getting signals from capital letters. They mean a new sentence is beginning, or that we are encountering a proper name, or a title. They help us read better, which is important.
Why not write in all-upper case so that the letters are bigger and thus easier to see and read? I just explained why. If you can’t see well enough to read lower case letters, get glasses.
Make a habit of writing upper and lower case, and you will not deliver hashed-up copy on deadline to a host who gets it to read about ten seconds before the studio light goes on.
Put your name and a slug in the upper left hand corner of each page. Put a page number on there, too.
Write the lead-in on its own page… don’t just skip two lines and go to your piece. Get it down separately… and send it off if you can. The show will get it early, and that will help the staff there. You can always file a later rewrite if need be.
Watch what happens in the way copy lies on a page. Words that should be read together should get grouped together.
Hand in clean copy.
Hand in clean copy.
We are all busy. No one has the time to clean up your messes. Editors don’t want to wait while you try to figure out what you meant by those squiggling lines, or what the proper order of the pages actually should be. You really don’t want the production staff on shows to be guessing at the right words for an introduction because they can’t read your corrections.
Be a thoughtful radio writer. Hand in clean copy.
Weaving the Tape
Radio writers should go on as other writers do. Start at the beginning, get to the middle, finish up at the end, and then stop.
If you are doing a news piece, start with a lead. If you are working on a sidebar to a news story, try explaining why you are pursing this angle. If the sidebar contradicts the premise of the preceding piece, you can begin with a statement of contradiction, and go on to examine its reasoning.
If you are writing a pure feature story, you may find yourself encountering what some radio writers call “the first sentence problem”… the opening must accomplish three things:
- Engage the listener
- Offer some explanation or bargain about what is to follow
- Begin a story
The best time to solve the first sentence problem is before you start on a story. Think as a writer before you go off to watch a small tent circus, which looks as though it’s going to be fun. What is there about it that makes it a story? How are you going to begin?
If the story proposal comes from someone else, do not be shy about asking for a solution if you foresee a first sentence problem. The easiest way to get into trouble is to accept a story proposal that you do not “get,” or fully understand.
Don’t start without a first sentence. Be prepared to throw it away as soon as something better comes along, but have a beginning.
Most often you will want to get tape into the piece early. It can add a sense of authority and genuine place to your story. Another voice adds interest as well, and gives you a chance to change pace and direction.
In writing in and out of tape, try to let your copy complement what the listener will hear. It’s not so useful to hear a reporter state that the Mayor said he’s going to run for re-election, and then hear a piece of tape with Mayor saying: “I’m going to run for re-election.”
Could the reporter tell us instead that this is an expected announcement, or a surprise? Did the mayor sound confident, or worried?
In the example that follows, Lynn Neary explored conditions in a rundown apartment building in southeast Washington, where crack addicts are moving in. She tells us what she is seeing, and then let’s us hear for ourselves what it’s like to be there.
This section occurs a couple of minutes into the piece.
(FX: Indoor hall under copy.)
The building seems threatening all the time, but it is especially frightening at night. Standing at the end of a long corridor, one feels trapped, instinctively looking for a place to flee if necessary.
Along some of these corridors are rows of abandoned apartments. Many of them have now been sealed up to keep the addicts out… but they found another way to get in.
They broke down the walls, creating gaping holes, a crawl-space leading into the apartments. Residents tell of seeing the addicts emerging from the apartments in the morning, after a night of shooting-up.
In one corridor, we found a man sprawled out on the filthy floor, his eyes heavy-lidded, his speech slurred.
Lynn: Do you live in this building?
Man: I have friends here.
Lynn: What are you doing here in the hallway now, why are you out here in the hall?
Man: Uhhh, I can’t… I feel tired, I’m just trying to lie down and get some sleep.
Lynn: Are you waiting for someone to let you in or what?
Man: Yeah,… uhhhh.
Lynn: Do you know the person who lives in this apartment here?
Man: No, I know somebody downstairs.
Lynn: Somebody downstairs?
(FX – hall indoors to continue under copy)
Down the hall was an abandoned apartment not yet sealed up. Inside there were mattresses and old clothes strewn all over the floor.
A man turned the corner heading for the apartment, but when he saw us, he quickly turned away. The woman next door warned us to stay away. That apartment, she said, is still being used by the addicts.
Woman: Be careful, they hang in there.
Lynn: People are in there now?
Woman: Yeah. We went by this morning and they came running out of there. You know what I’m saying?
Lynn: How long has that been empty? How long have people been using that?
Woman: Since last week.
Kid’s voice: This building is bad. This building is bad.
Woman: Shut up. SHUT UP!!!
When I listen to this piece, I’m disturbed by the interview with the man sleeping in the corridor, much more so than I would have been had the interview occurred outdoors. There is a sense of danger and confinement, because the writer told us she is looking for an escape route. I think she did that knowing that there is an ominous quality to the tape that follows; we do not know what is going to happen… it seems that anything could.
In the copy that follows that tape, she sees another threat… a figure who appears and then flees. She wrote this knowing that she was going to another section of tape with a mother and a child, so she could begin telling us about the residents who are struggling to preserve something like a normal life in the building. The tape speaks eloquently for itself. The writer does not explain it, and does not need to.
This piece won Lynn Neary and Dan Morris the Robert F. Kennedy Award, which goes for reporting on the disadvantaged.
Some reporters like to write into tape by beginning a sentence and then allowing the person interviewed to complete it. This is accomplished, of course, by paraphrasing the beginning of the interviewee’s statement.
If you are going to employ this device, write out and read the entire sentence, and then go back and cut out the portion that you don’t want to use. Try to sound, in tone and pacing, similar to the interviewee.
Generally, however, the device is overused and tired. If you use this, please use it sparingly. Go six months without using it at all.
Freshen the Lingo
“It’s still the same old story…”
So what if it’s an old story? If you get the lyrics and the melody right, people will hear it and hum it forever.
Radio writers find lyrics and melody in fresh language that retells even old stories to make them new again. Fresh language is the language we hear that means something to us.
Radio writers know to avoid clichés. They should avoid the repeated expressions and phrases of journalese as well…
- “The battle raged…”
- “The economy is turning up…”
- “…one knowledgeable source…”
We read and hear these expressions so frequently that they lose their meaning and power.
To make copy fresh, read what is there on the page in the first draft; when an overly familiar phrase is encountered, out it goes. To be safe, a diligent radio writer will remove any familiar phrase, whether or not it seems to fall in the overly category.
This is an easy proposition to put forth, and at a glance it seems an easy one to accept… take out familiar phrases. It really means to take out anything you can remember reading or hearing before, and when a writer thinks about applying that to a script, he or she may tremble… and probably should.
But in practice it is not so bad. It leads to fresh language, which soon becomes its own reward. And consider this: that phrase which seems familiar to you probably seems familiar to me, too, and to many others who read, or listen to the radio, or watch TV.
Language use is not a matter for radio writers alone, of course. The Washington Post ombudsman, Richard Harwood, found fault with writers there producing gibberish. He noted that writers get expert in what they cover, and they forget that those they are writing for are not expert. Then he quoted from a recent review of a symphony concert:
[The conductor] allowed low brass and tympani to intimidate the winds and strings. And from a lethargic opening to a breezy horn solo in the largo to a runaway finale, tempo extremes detracted from the players’ efforts.
“Who was that written for,” Harwood goes on to ask, “the oboe players union?”
Harwood’s lesson is for any writer who spends time in the company of those who speak exclusive languages, public officials, for example. Sometimes gobbledygook means the speaker is trying to conceal something. Other times the speaker really is trying to say something. In either case, you should tell us what is meant in plain English so that we can understand it.
Voices of Experience
Two long time NPR copywriters and readers consulted for this summary offered these thoughts:
The single greatest easily corrected writer’s mistake here is the phenomenon of “echoes.”
An echo is a word or a phrase, or sometimes a whole sentence, which is repeated so that it becomes noticeable.
Copy afflicted with echoes distracts the listener, because especially when the same word is placed in the same position in succeeding sentences, it becomes noticeable.
Radio writers fix this by reading their copy aloud, and taking out the stuff that is noticeable for the wrong reasons.
The single greatest easily corrected writer’s mistake here is failure to read one’s own copy aloud. You can tell because so many of these mistakes would get caught if people just did that.
“France’s Foreign Minister” should be rewritten to “The French Foreign Minister.” Read the former aloud… and try to imagine you’re just listening to the radio, not seeing print. “France’s Foreign Minister”… Say, wonders Bob, isn’t that the girl your brother used to go with in tenth grade, Francis Forenmeister?
Read your copy before someone else does, and bear in mind the radio concerns that long-time radio master writers bring to their craft.
The Real World
Okay for feature writing, you might say, but what about the real world of news… what about tell-it-plain-and-simple journalism.
Here is a very hot news story as prepared and told by a fine reporter who is also a careful writer… one who is aware of what he is doing, and what the listeners are doing.
No matter the subject, he is telling a story, and they are hearing one.
Following the deadly explosion of the NASA shuttle Challenger in January, 1986, NPR’s Danny Zwerdling and Howard Berkes began working jointly to investigate reasons for the accident. Their reporting led others in discovering the internal wrangling at Morton Thiokol before the launch.
The first report by Danny aired in mid-February on All Things Considered. He covered the results of a hearing in Congress, and included a short piece of tape from a NASA official who testified that day that there was some concern on the part of engineers about low temperatures for the launch damaging the rubber O-ring seals on the booster rockets. (Read the third paragraph in the script below, where the radio writer reveals what the reporter has discovered. Note his sentence structure.)
Then Danny reported that he had learned that the concern was greater than the official had stated; that there was fierce resistance to going ahead. And then he began providing detail. There was no tape available from his sources who wanted to protect their identity. Danny wrote the story, and in doing so he did not neglect the drama inherent in it.
Picture the night before the Challenger took off.
According to sources close to Thiokol, company engineers learned that temperatures at the shuttle pad were lower than they’d ever been right before take off.
They got worried that the seals might fail. They called an emergency meeting. They called NASA. And they insisted angrily, “Don’t go ahead with the launch.”
According to press accounts, top officials from NASA, including Lawrence Malloy, chief of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, insisted the engineers needed to prove that the launch was dangerous. Malloy said just warning it might be dangerous wasn’t good enough. A top company official finally agreed to go along with NASA.
According to sources close to Thiokol, company engineers who took part in this discussion went home late that night extremely upset… irate, one source says.
One engineer watched the Challenger take off the next morning with his family, and when he saw the shuttle explode, the source told NPR, he cried.
“If only they’d waited ’til the weather was a little warmer,” he reportedly sobbed, “everything would have been okay.”
I’m Daniel Zwerdling in Washington.
Danny had an extraordinary story to tell, genuine news, on a subject everyone cared about deeply. In relating what happened, he told us the news and kept the drama, too.
Good Work Habits
That was a big story, the kind you want to be ready for. And you will be ready if you try to incorporate many of the lessons here into your daily routines.
Every story is a big story for someone, and for you, the writer, every story is an opportunity to get better. Writing — or news writing, anyway — is more a craft than an art form. You get better by trying everyday with everything you do. Practice for a while, and you will see progress in your own work much more quickly than you think likely. One day, you’ll finish a story, read it over again, and recognize there is a kind of grace to the language and the structure. That grace is you… that’s your voice. And when we hear you on the radio, we’ll hear that this is different, and good. And we’ll listen for you again.
Good luck, and if you have questions or comments, I’ll come back to Transom from time to time to try to respond.