The craft of writing for radio: 16 tips from a veteran script-writer
The magic of radio lies largely in its intimacy, the communion of voice and ear. The ear may be eavesdropping on a conversation. Or a voice is wooing that ear, making a play for its attention, forging a bond with it, drawing it into a story. That voice is very often reading a script — which was written!
In fact, I'd wager that a lot of producers have had more training in creating the social media content to promote their segments than in the actual writing of the scripts those segments are built around.
You might say it's a pet peeve of mine, the way writing is given short shrift as an essential skill for radio. The only semi-formal training in writing for broadcast I've ever had was a one-day boot camp for TV news writers, 16 years ago.
So what follows is some of what I've picked up from years spent as a freelance writer, from teaching composition and American lit as a graduate student, and from 15 years of trial and error in radio. As ever, do as I say, not as I do (if I consistently did half the things on this post, my scripts would be a lot better).
Figure out how long it will take to write your script and set that time aside. Good. Now, double it. Better still, triple it.
But there's no getting around it: Writing well takes time.
If you're whipping through a script in no time at all, it can mean one of three things:
- 1. You're a brilliant writer (in which case, feel free to stop reading this and rewrite it instead)
- 2. You're perhaps not a brilliant writer, but you're really on a roll
- 3. You're not working hard enough to write a really good script
A lot of great writers are only great writers because they work so long and hard at it. It also takes longer to write concisely. You've no doubt heard variations on the old line from Blaise Pascal: "Please forgive the length of this letter; it was written in haste."
2. Getting started
Write down ideas, facts, turns of phrase and anything else you may want to use in your script when they come to you, or just sit and brainstorm. That's the typing phase. You could think of writing as the process that turns that typing into a script, if that doesn't sound too snotty.
If you're short on ideas, go back to the germ of the story. What's the most interesting thing you learned in working on it? Why is it surprising or important? Why are you doing this story in the first place?
Find yourself stuck? Well, the sentences won't burst into your brain and fly out your fingers if only you remain glued to your keyboard long enough. You can't force good writing.
So get up. Stretch. Go for a walk. In fact, the more you're struggling with a script, the more you probably need to move around. It helps clear the head, and there's a proven link between walking and creativity. (Science!)
Even if it means walking around for a couple of minutes, returning to your desk to write a couple of sentences, walking around again and returning to your desk again to write a paragraph, it still beats staring at a blank screen.
4. 'Tuning' the listener's ear
Ask yourself, "What is the job I'm asking this script to do?"
I think of scripts as a way of "tuning" the listener's ear — preparing the audience to hear what's coming next or to absorb the ideas, stories or information you're presenting.
Depending on the function of the script, it might be enough just to state the name and credentials of the next guest and hint at what they're going to bring to the conversation.
Or the purpose might be to create a mood or establish a tone. Small, but telling details, little narratives, fulsome descriptions or mini-essays can fully immerse your audience in the world you're writing about, ready to soak up (and in) your story.
5. The voice(s) in your head
That voice, or voices, should be of the people who will be performing your script, which will usually be your host(s), unless you're fortunate enough to be writing a documentary. Get to know your host's voice intimately — their cadence and the speed at which they read and speak, their delivery, their personality and the sorts of expressions that come naturally to them.
What's conversational for one host won't necessarily be for another — so don't have Michael Enright use the word, "awesome," unless it's about the "awesome splendour of Beethoven's 9th Symphony," unless the point is to make him sound ironic.
Play to their personalities. A wry, deadpan script might not be the best fit for a host whose default tone is perky effusiveness.
It's always a good idea to read your scripts aloud, but it's even better to read them with your host's voice in your head. Does it actually sound like your host? And are there any words or sounds they might stumble over?
Have an idea of how much your host can actually say in one breath, and write to their breath. If you're writing Henry James-length sentences for a career smoker, they're only going to be able to squeeze so many syllables into one breath.
And of course, get feedback from your host about what does and doesn't work for them in your scripts.
6. Like TV but with better pictures
It's true, radio really is like television, except with better pictures. So write to plant those pictures in the listener's head with concrete images and sharp descriptions of people, places and action.
But don't stop there. Surround the listener with sensations, and use all the senses. Name the smells, the sounds, the physical sensations. Make it pungent.
Have you ever worked on a fast-paced show that zips along so quickly there's little time for the listener to absorb one segment before diving into the next?
Build in pauses to slow things down. Vary the length of sentences, alternating short and long. Even be aware of how different words can relax the pace and calm the atmosphere. Words with long vowel sounds and l's, m's, n's and r's take longer to say and immediately slow things down. For example, "serendipity" is a five-syllable word that flies out of the mouth, while "smooth" is a one-syllable word lolls around in the mouth and takes its sweet time being enunciated.
And if the pacing of your show is a little too relaxed, sharper, staccato words and shorter sentences will punch it up.
We try to be literary, we try to cram in a census' worth of data, we try to pass on every relevant scrap of information, and we try to present our guest as the leading expert with a zillion credentials. Too much of anything can turn a script into verbal quicksand.
When you're introducing your guest, how many credentials, accomplishments, titles, books, etc. do you really need to highlight? Probably just enough to convince your listener that he or she is worth listening to.
Wordiness is always something that should be avoided.
Avoid wordiness. For example, try not to string together a succession of prepositional phrases, such as "She was the lead author of a study on the relationship of the Church to the private sector in the developing world." See what I mean?
Does it add anything to your script to state the obvious ("The death of a child is a parent's worst nightmare." "Christmas can be a joyous time of year.")? Sometimes it might, if you're trying to create a mood or invoke an emotional response. But oftentimes, all you're doing is telling your audience something they already know.
You've likely already had the virtues of the active voice over the passive voice drilled into your heads. Active verbs will make a script more energetic and muscular, too — a well-chosen verb can do the work of two or three adjectives and adverbs. Conversational language and clean sentence structure will do the trick, too.
Also think of rhythm. Listen to Simon Schama on any of his documentary series for the BBC. He makes history not just come alive, but feel urgent through the insistent rhythms of his scripts.
But energy is like pacing. To be really effective, mix up the energy levels in your scripts. Too much energy can be exhausting and grating if you're not in the mood for it.
10. Avoid cliches like the plague (get it??)
We all know cliches are death for writing, although used in moderation, they can be effective shorthand when you want to get a point across to your audience expediently. Cliches are, after all, part of our vernacular.
- "... but not everyone agrees with that …"
- "... won't happen anytime soon …"
- "... but at the end of the day ..."
I don't think we're fully engaged with a script when we write them, and the audience tunes out, however briefly, when it hears them. And I have never, ever, heard anyone in normal conversation refer to a fire as a "blaze" or to an explosion as a "blast."
When you're writing a script, and a turn of phrase or expression pops into your head immediately, as if from a mental dropdown menu, think about whether it came to you in a lightning bolt of inspiration or whether it was more of a reflex. If it strikes you as a bit throwaway, well, then maybe throw it away.
11. Natural and new
An English professor of mine from my university days liked to say that poetry should be natural and new — it should be natural and familiar enough to make sense, but new and unexpected enough to be arresting and make you look at things differently. Writing for radio is no different.
This might go without saying, but listen closely to shows and podcasts with great writing. Look for their techniques, their use of language, and how the best ones manage to move along at a brisk pace while still being a nice, warm audio bath.
Think about what sticks in your head after you've listened. You'll often find that what was most striking for you was the stuff that caught you off-guard, that surprised you and gave you a little thrill of pleasure for being unexpected even while it spoke directly to your gut.
We in radio love to say we tell stories, and even a very brief bit of narrative can have a lot more bite than a lengthy description or reams of facts. But not all stories are equally interesting or compelling.
If all of us could write like Carver, no one would ever turn off the radio.
Carver also one said in an interview, "Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another." This is equally applicable to radio.
14. Beware of cleverness
We use plays on words because they're obvious, perhaps so much so that they're irresistible, or because they're supposed to show the writer is clever enough to write them.
Plays on words can indeed be clever, but they can also sound cheesy or corny when it's clear they're there for the sake of appearing clever. Bottom line: does it add anything of value to the script?
15. Edit, edit, edit
Take some time between drafts, if you can — get the script out of your head and lose your attachment to any particular part of the script.
That can be the hardest part, losing attachment. Sometimes, the parts of the script you've sweated most over or your most exquisite phrasings are precisely the things you have to cut, either because of time constraints or because — beautiful though they may be — they're not essential to the script. Reading the script over and over until you're sick of it will usually make the attachment disappear.
If there's time, show someone else your script before it's vetted. If you get honest feedback from someone whose judgement you trust, it will make it easier to take constructive criticism and apply it.
16. Take chances and have fun
Writing is hard work, but it should be fun, too, and the more chances you take, the more fun it'll be. They won't all work out, but there's also a better chance you'll end up writing something really special.
And finally ...
It took me more than twice as long as I thought it would to write this. I never learn.