Writing for the Ear

Originally, I posted these in 2006. Then I decided to unpost them, but I’m putting them back up so they can be shared by anyone and everyone in the radio news business. Besides it clears one more file from my computer….

Stick with Who, What, Where and When. Avoid Why or How. If a listener would like to know why or how, they can pick up the newspaper. Think in terms of, “noun, verb, noun, verb.”

Once you have the four-Ws in your mind, tell the story to yourself, and then write it out in no more than two or three sentences. This takes some practice.

Stay in the present tense. The subject “says,” not “said.” Remain in the NOW. If it is snowing, that should be the lead story. If a pile-up is clogging the afternoon commute, lead with it.

Be LOCAL, however if a lead story isn’t obvious, look at the local headline of the paper for an indication.  If the first large LOCAL headline is the state budget or an attempted kidnapping make it your first story lead.

Use a bullet-point style of writing. The idea is to be “quick-in and quick out.”

Keep sentences down to 10 words if possible. When using newswire copy, rewrite the lead sentences. Each sentence is generally 25 words long. This is because they were written by someone who is a newspaper reporter. Avoid using compound sentences.

Don’t use numbers if you can help it. When you cannot avoid using numbers, round the number up or down. Then use “near,” “around,” “above,” “below,” or “about” to add accuracy to the story.

Stay away from radio-speak like, “The 1300 block of…,” instead just use the street name. It just means that you don’t “know” the actual address anyway, so why telegraph it.

If you have two numbers that cannot be avoided, add them together. “Just above 5-thousand,” sounds better than, “two-thousand-one-hundred and three and another estimate of two-thousand-nine-hundred and ninety-six…”

Delete quotes from your story. That is what actualities are for. Instead use a generic phrase like, “The police say…”  Also avoid repeating the subject’s name. “John Smith says he’ll run for governor next month. He’s a high school teacher.”

Remember “district officials say…” works as good as, “School district superintendent Joe Blow says…” Police sergeant Jim Badge says…” can be replaced with “Authorities say…”

The word “That” is over used in many cased. “He says that he’s a construction worker,” is reduced by a one-word if rewritten to read, “He says he’s a construction worker.” Use contraction as much as possible.

Avoid language that is too technical or designed to make the article sound “educated.”  The word “accused” works as good as “alleged.” Replace words like, “residence,” with “home” or “house.”

When editing actualities, use only six to 10 seconds of recorded material; anymore and the immediacy disappears.  Wrap it with two-lead sentences and close with a single sentence.

Remove words that tend to editorialize. For example: “The nominee gave an rousing speech last night…,” should be edited to read, “The nominee gave a speech last night…”

Watch out for words that are unnecessary. “The police are looking for a thief that is described as…”  The word’s “that is” are not needed to complete the story.

Don’t write, “This unidentified woman says…”  Instead make it read, “This woman says…”

Remember:  This only a guide and not a set of rules.

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