J. Writing For Radio

Language is the vehicle of communication. Language can be used to mask meaning, to create ambiguity, to obscure the truth. That is the language of social scientists, politicians, bureaucrats and others of that type.

Language can also be used to clarify meaning, create specific context and get at the truth. That is the language of those who wish to communicate with others.

The most important thing to remember about the spoken word is that we have only one pass at the listener. The spoken word exists in a moment in time. It cannot be recalled at a moment’s notice.

We speak and hear differently than we see and read. When we read we can unravel long sentences with ambiguous meaning by reading a troublesome passage again and again.

The listener to the spoken word does not have the same luxury. The potholes on the road of communication are many – jargon, gaps in logic, generalities, indirectness.

The listener must be able to grasp you meaning, the one meaning you want to convey from a set of facts; the central idea of the story you are telling; and grasp it instantly.

When we talk we do not speak in structured sentences. We speak in thoughts. I f a sentence happens to contain only one complete thought so much the better. Many contain more that one, and that’s where the trouble begins.

When we write for talking, we must write as though we are talking, as though we are in conversation. We must hear the words as we write them.

There are good reasons to write clearly, simply and directly. Your copy may be read by someone else. That person must be able to grasp and convey your meaning with a minimum of effort. If the performer has trouble, you are in trouble, because your listeners will have trouble.

The mind of the listener will see if you create the pictures. They provide context for your meaning. They take the listener to the scene of the story. They make the listener a participant in the story. Meaning can be grasped more easily if the listener is involved as a participant.

Information broadcasting is about telling the listener what’s going on.

Writing Style Points

1. Remember you are writing to be heard, not read. Write as you talk, when you talk, you speak in thoughts. Break sentences that contain more than one thought into one-thought sentences. Your copy will look “choppy”, but it will be heard smoothly.

2. When you see “which” or “who” in a sentence, rewrite the sentence.

3. Use an active verb wherever possible. That’s almost always. Your writing will be stronger. The meaning will be clear.


Active: The cat caught the rat.

Passive: The rat was caught by the cat.

Active: The guns stopped. The war ended.

Passive: The war was ended when the guns stopped.

4. Avoid adjectival pile-ups. They slow down understanding. The get in the way of meaning.

5. Another kind of pile-up is the titular one. It causes confusion because it’s not the way we speak.


Poor: High School Teacher James Black

Better: James Black, a high school teacher

6. Be specific in your choice of words. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. The listener should take one meaning, your meaning, from what is heard.


General: He took a big financial gamble to make the movie.

Specific: He mortgaged his house and all his possessions to make the movie.


General: It is a small book.

Specific: It is a book small enough to fit in a man’s hip pocket.


General: There was a big explosion.

Specific: The explosion shattered windows twenty miles from where it happened.

7. Don’t confuse the listener with numbers. No one can remember a complex sequence of figures. Translate them. Keep only those absolutely necessary for meaning.


“Two months ago” is better than “January 15th

“The ship is longer than a football field” is better than giving the distance in meters.

“Just over a billion” will be enough, rather than “one billion, one hundred three million”

8. Write in the present tense whenever possible. It makes your copy topical. A sense of immediacy commands the listener’s attention. Past tenses soften the impact of your words.

9. Listen to the words that you write. They will be heard and not seen. What you see may not be what you hear.

Example: The eyes can handle “electricity costs”, but the ear prefers “the costs of electricity”, because that’s the way we speak.

10. There is enormous power in simplicity. Short words convey meaning better than big words. Speaking simply puts you on a plane with everyone. Everyone has a shot at understanding what it is you are trying to say. Short words have power.

Writing Intros

The intro is part of the story. It provides the context for the remainder of the story.  It is not something separated from the body of the story; it is part and parcel of it. This may be an interview or a documentary, it doesn’t matter, the rule applies.

Intro is short for introduction. When we are introduced, the more specific the information about us, the less we need to wonder and ask.

“I would like to introduce you to Chris Mayor.”

(Fine, who is he?)

“Chris is the coordinator of the Sustainable Campuses conference at the University of Ottawa”

(So, why should I care?)

“The conference will be happening this week; Chris is here to tell us how we can all work together to make the University of Ottawa, Canada’s first sustainable campus.”

(Oh, now I’m listening)

When you’re writing an intro get to the point of why I should pay attention, and do it quickly before I become distracted by something else.

Connect the listener to the story. Make them care. Command their attention.

All of which can be done if the story is clearly focused.

Intros set context of two kinds. They set up an informational context. And they set up an emotional context. They tell the listener whether the story they are about to hear is sad or funny, good news or bad news. The listener needs the emotional context as much as the informational context because the information we get is affected by our emotional attitude.

The intro sets up the first question in an interview. The first question comes straight from the focus.

If the interview is about one woman’s involvement in community, don’t start the interview with a question about how pairs of shoes she has. That is unless the story is about a woman selling her shoes to make community profit. In which case, it’s a different story with a different focus.

Do give the interviewee’s credentials, but only as they apply to the story.

Do describe what people do rather than introducing them with full titlet. We used to confer titles that were descriptive of what people actually did. Now there is an attempt to confer false legitimacy by making titles as obscure and non-descriptive as possible. This is jargon to be avoided.

It is useful to read your intro to your guest before going on air. That permits a check on any errors in fact or pronunciation. It also relaxes the guest and provides an advance cue for when the first question can be expected. It’s also just plain nice and respectful.

Writing Extros

Just as important as your introduction is your extro. This sums up the piece and finishes the thought.

Sound Usage

Only use sound to emphasize a piece. Don’t use sound just to use it…it will sound like you’re trying too hard.

Try to use as much raw sound as possible. When taping your interview keep the final production in mind and tape as much sound as possible. It helps to figure out what sounds you can gather to help the final piece before you do the interview or leave the site.

You can fade sound in under a script, or you can start the piece with the sounds and fade them out as the script is read. You may want to record the sound of a school yard to play in the background of a piece about the school for example.

It is easy to tell studio sound from live sound, so when you can, get the sound live.

Don’t let your sound effects run too long. Just run enough to situate the piece for your listeners.


ü      Always get as much raw sound as possible when taping an event. Keep your machine running and tape any background sound, crowd chants, traffic noise, anything that will help locate the piece. Record any distinctive sounds such as traffic whistles, factory or machine noise etc.

ü      Keep a library of sound effects. Make your own sound effects tape.

ü      Too much or overused sound is worse than no sound at all.



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