Write simple, declarative sentences. The ear is trained to hear sentences written in subject-verb-object form: Jack and Jill / went up the hill / to fetch a pail of water. (Who – did what – why.)
Don’t use jargon. It’s just as correct to say “ran off with the money” as it is to say “fled on foot in an unknown direction with an undisclosed amount of cash”. Don’t sound like a police report. Nobody talks that way. Think of how you’d tell a friend the story. Police are trained by lawyers to write the way they do on incident reports.
Short communications are the most powerful. Mom is dead. You’ve won the lottery. You’re overdrawn. You have cancer. Writing with an economy of words forces you to really think about what you’re writing.
Try not to lead with the name of a body or commission. “The city council met last night and voted to double the cost of a dog license” doesn’t catch the ear. “Your dog license will double in cost next year, following city council action last night” is far more listener-friendly. The important thing is not that the council met, it’s what it did that will affect your listener that’s important.
“I’ve told you a million times to avoid clichés like the plague”, is how the old saying goes, and it’s true. It’s OK to call a budget a budget. You don’t have to say “spending plan” on second reference. Common words are fine. Don’t lean on clichés thinking it will spice up your writing.
Be careful of redundancies: hot water heater (if the water was hot it wouldn’t need heating); ATM machine (what does the M in ATM stand for?); exhume out of the ground (what does exhume mean?); think before you write.
Always try to put the listener into the story: what does it mean to them? Many young reporters dutifully cover their local government body, and write a story about what they did. Too few take the “next step” and report how the action taken by the government body will actually affect the listener.
Don’t overdo it with numbers. Remember, this is radio, and you’re writing for the ear. Even when listeners are concentrating, they can only remember about seven digits (a typical phone number). When writing a story that involves a lot of numbers, it’s OK to say “made substantial cuts to the human services budget” rather than “cut 274 thousand 500 dollars from the human services budget”. A good reporter would then seek out information about how such a cut would impact the listener in terms of delivery of services, staff positions, and so on.
Always lead with the latest information. Instead of “The house fire on Elm Street last night has claimed another victim. A fifth person has died”…put the most recent information first: “A fifth person has now died following the house fire on Elm Street last night”.
Be your own editor. In most radio newsrooms, you don’t have the luxury of having someone else check your copy. When you’ve finished writing a story, go over it from top to bottom to double-check for accuracy and form. Don’t read a piece of copy on the air until you’ve done this “final step” of checking.
Even though many “consultants” encourage it, most professional news writing coaches tell you not to force present-tense in your lead, as in “Five Ourtown residents are killed in a house fire tonight”. It’s OK to say “were killed”. No one will tune out.
Sage advice about radio news, and having solid, reliable sources comes from radio veteran Debbie Monterrey Millet, former Press Secretary to the Governor of Wisconsin and current morning news anchor at KMOX-AM in St. Louis: “It worries me to see how young reporters now rely on Twitter and Wikipedia and blogs”.
This is also a major concern of Professor Jim Hoyt, former head of the Journalism School at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, who says one of his main concerns about today’s young reporters is lack of understanding about sources and attribution. The good Professor has put together ten very useful tips that can help you be a better writer:
Lessons from the Professor
- Our listeners and viewers are almost always doing something else in addition to listening to our newscasts. Think about it. They’re in a busy and active household, they’re talking to someone, driving a car, or engaging in any of dozens of activities. Because they are constantly distracted we have to write (a) to get their attention and (b) to communicate the information with great clarity.
- We’re writing for the ear, which is a terribly inefficient organ for receiving information. Newspaper readers can go back and re-read a sentence they don’t understand. If our listeners don’t understand a key point in a story, they’re lost, and our newscast has failed. It is impossible to write too clearly!
- To be clear we must write as we speak – conversationally. This means using relatively short declarative sentences, active voice, precise nouns and adjectives, and clean grammar. That’s the way we talk, so that’s the way we should write. Again, remember our listeners cannot go back and re-hear the story.
- We must always remember we’re storytellers. That’s our job. Our stories should be coherent, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They should not simply recite facts and figures. They should explain the meaning of those facts.
- The lead is the most important part of each story. It should not be overburdened with too much information – that is, it shouldn’t tell the whole story. It needs to get our listeners’ and viewers’ attention and let them know what the story is about. Then, when they decide to listen, they should hear the heart of the story.
- The information in our stories should be meaningful to our listeners. Sometimes to do that we can leave out unnecessary numbers. A student once wrote that the flight deck of an aircraft carrier was 950 feet long. After I said I couldn’t visualize something that long, she reworded it: “It’s longer than three football fields.” Perfect. She didn’t need the big number to make her point clearly.
- Our newscasts must be current. On both radio and television our audiences hear our stories at the same time we deliver them. We should take advantage of that, by emphasizing how current our stories are. For the most part we write in the present tense. When appropriate, we can – and should – use phrases such as “at this moment,” or “it happened just five minutes ago.” That way we emphasize one of the most significant advantages our media have.
- We must, however, also be careful of these immediate time references. Translate all times, if they are needed, into local time. Don’t say, “It happened at noon, eastern time.” Say, “It happened at eleven o’clock this morning.” Or better yet, “just a half hour ago.”
- Attribute. And attribute first. Our audiences want to know who is responsible for information in our stories. We need to tell them, and we need to tell them before we mention the information. A good broadcast writer will write, “President Obama said the end of the recession is now within sight.” That way the audience knows who said it when they hear it. It’s too late if we tack the attribution on after the statement.
- Always keep necessary reference materials close by. They can by in print or on-line. We all need pronunciation guides, atlases, dictionaries, historical references, and directories of local, state, and national officials and offices. We don’t need to know everything, but we do need to know where to find everything.