Writing for the Ear
Writing for audio means writing to be heard, not writing to be read. Journalists need to learn to write so that when their words are spoken, they are effective.
Broadcast journalists of previous times talked about the Four Cs of broadcast writing — correctness, clarity, conciseness and color.
These four Cs still serve as a good framework for learning writing styles.
Accuracy, correctness, for any journalist is the number one goal.
The first commitment of the broadcast journalist is to correctness, or accuracy. Everything a broadcast journalist does must contribute to the telling of an accurate story. Even though the broadcast journalist must observe some strict rules about how stories are written, these rules should contribute to, not prevent, an accurate account of an event.
Clarity is one of the most admirable characteristics of good broadcast writing. Good broadcast writers employ clear, precise language that contains no ambiguity.
Clarity is an absolute requirement for broadcast writing. Listeners and viewers cannot go back and re-hear a news broadcast as they might be able to read a newspaper account more than once. They must understand what is said the first time. Broadcast writers achieve this kind of clarity by using simple sentences and familiar words, by avoiding the use of pronouns and repeating proper nouns if necessary and by keeping the subject close to the verb in their sentences. Most of all, however, they achieve clarity by thoroughly knowing and understanding their subject.
A conversational style is a plus for writing for broadcasting.
Even the clearest, simplest newspaper style tends to sound stilted when it is read aloud. Broadcast writing must sound more conversational because people will be reading it aloud. Broadcast news should be written for the ear, not the eye. The writer should keep in mind that someone is going to say the words and others will listen to them.
This casual or conversational style, however, does not give the writer freedom to break the rules of grammar, to use slang or off-color phrasing or to use language that might be offensive to listeners. As with all writing, the broadcast writer should try to focus attention on the content of the writing and not the writing itself. Nor is casual–sounding prose particularly easy to produce. It takes a finely-honed ear for the language and a conciseness that we do not normally apply to writing.
Another characteristic of writing for broadcast is the emphasis on the immediate. While past tense verbs are preferred in the print media, broadcasters use the present tense as much as possible. A newspaper or Web site story might begin something like this:
Research indicates dangers from antacids
SAN FRANCISCO – Antacids fail to protect anti-arthritis drug users from serious internal bleeding and may even increase that risk because they mask symptoms, according to two new studies.
The findings could affect an estimated 6 million Americans who use arthritis drugs and routinely take antacids to prevent stomach discomfort
But a broadcast story on the same topic might go like this:
If you’re one of the six million people who take anti-arthritis drugs, you need to be careful about the antacid drugs that you may be also taking.
Doctors at Stanford University have found that antacids do not protect users from serious internal bleeding that their anti-arthritis drugs may cause. In fact, they may mask some of the symptoms of internal bleeding, and that could be harmful to the patient.
Another way of emphasizing the immediate is to omit the time element in the news story and assume that everything has happened close to the time of the broadcast. In the example above, the broadcast version has no time element since it would probably be heard on the day the president made that statement. The elimination of the time element cannot occur in every story. Sometimes the time element is important and must be mentioned.
Conciseness – wrting that loaded with words that deliver information to the reader – is a major part of learning to write for broadcasting.
The tight phrasing that characterizes broadcast writing is one of its chief assets and one of the most difficult qualities for a beginning writer to achieve. Because time is so short, the broadcaster cannot waste words. The broadcaster must work constantly to simplify and condense.
There are a number of techniques for achieving this conciseness. One technique is the elimination of all but the most necessary adjectives and adverbs. Broadcasters know that their stories are built on nouns and verbs, the strongest words in the language. They avoid using the passive voice. Instead they rely on strong, active verbs that will allow the listener to form a picture of the story.
Another technique of broadcast writing is the use of short, simple sentences. Broadcasters do not need the variety of length and type of sentences that print journalists need to make their copy interesting. Broadcasters can more readily fire information at their readers like bullets in short, simple sentences.
One broadcaster put it this way: The best broadcast sentences are
Subject > verb > predicate > period.
The fourth C — color — refers to writing that allows the listener to paint a picture of the story or event being reported. This picture can be achieved in a variety of ways, such as the inclusion of pertinent and insightful details in the story or allowing the personality of the writer or news reader to come through in a story. The nature of the broadcast medium allows for humor and human interest to inject itself into many stories.
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