NPR Training
Storytelling tips and best practices

The audio editor's resource: Tips for shaping great stories

Shaping

(Illustration by Chris Kindred/NPR)

As an editor you vet, you push, you critique, you support; you also teach. As you improve stories, you grow the people who tell them. The story’s moment passes — but the journalist keeps working; hopefully, telling better stories each time.

All this to say, editing is a complicated craft — just as writing, reporting, and producing are. Here, we’ve compiled all our existing posts about editing to give you some one-stop shopping.

(This is a work in progress. Editors, what else do you need? Tell us at TrainingTeam@npr.org.)


Getting started as an editor

Are you new to editing or new to radio? Here are some basics:

What’s an “act”? A “butt cut”? Learn audio terminology with this glossary.

What should a radio script look like? See one here — broken down into parts. And here’s an entire script dissected.

How is writing for radio different from writing for print? Here is a direct comparison.


How to talk to reporters

As an editor, your job is not only to identify problems with stories; it’s to communicate solutions. That can be one of the most challenging parts of editing. Here are some tips:

Check out this post for a list of questions you can ask throughout the several stages of reporting a story.

Are you seeking effective language to help your reporter improve a script? We’ve got actual phrases you can use.


The editing process

Editors touch stories throughout their lifespan — from inception to final polishing. Here are some keys to engaging at different stages in the process:

The front end

Editing begins with a rigorous conversation, before the reporter or producer has started the brunt of the reporting. Here are some guidelines for “front-end” editing.

Help your reporter imagine the story before s/he begins with these tips.

Story structure

Editors must consider the structure of a story — from the very beginning of the process. Will there be a narrative arc? A question driving the listener forward? Organic movement from idea to idea? Here are four ways to visualize structure.

And here you can read The Three Little Pigs, told via different narrative structures. (Oink!)

Editing by ear

When you’re working with sound, you must use your ears to edit. How is that different from other kinds of editing? Check out these tips.

Fact-checking

We all know fact-checking is important, but here is some clear guidance on how to approach it and here is a handy checklist.


What makes stories great?

Editors are responsible for taking good stories and making them great. But what’s “great”?

Writing and voice

Stories have to start strong — or listeners will turn off the radio or “skip” on their device. Here are some strategies for conceiving a starting point, along with examples of great beginnings. And here are some tips for building compelling host intros.

What should your reporters (and you) be thinking about as they write words that are meant to be heard, not read? Here are some radio writing fundamentals.

Are your reporters writing for their own voices — or are they mimicking others? Help them be themselves.

Use of sound

One way to give an audio story spark is to use tape in multiple, creative ways.

All ambient sound is NOT created equal. Explain to your reporters the different between generic ambience and “active” sound; plus, help them learn how to gather “active” sound.

Different formats

Some of the best “stories” are actually just engaging, informative conversations between your reporter and a host. Here are some best practices for “two-ways.”


Create opportunities for constructive feedback

Regular feedback helps us tell better stories; it also builds positive newsroom culture. Bake feedback into your process! Be generous with your critiques. Accept them from others with humility. Let the story process be a learning process for all, including yourself.

You can start by organizing listening sessions. Here are 6 different ways to do it.


Additional reading:

What is the role of an editor in today’s messy media landscape — and why are YOU so, so important? Read this piece I wrote for Poynter.org.


Alison MacAdam is the Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focuses on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited NPR’s All Things Considered.