'Would you say it that way?' Tips on writing for your voice

As longtime NPR host Robert Siegel is quoted in the book Sound Reporting, “This is one of the most commonly offered pieces of advice… and it’s one of the most commonly ignored.”

Why is it so hard to write how we talk?

One reason: It’s not how we’re taught. We learn to write with book reports, term papers, school newspapers and websites. Even creative writing teaches a more formal approach than we use on the radio. So learning to write for audio stories can be a process of unlearning what you know.

The same story looks very different in radio and print

Consider this example of a story’s opening lines: On February 18, 2015, the Associated Press published this story about the Afghan cricket team.

CANBERRA, Australia — The Afghanistan national cricket team’s first appearance at the World Cup was a losing one, but its inclusion among the ranks of elite countries in the sport was a victory in itself even before a ball was bowled on Wednesday. The Afghans got off to a promising start, and for a while the fairytale ending seemed a potential reality. But hampered by inexperience, they lost by 105 runs to Bangladesh, which has been playing in World Cup tournaments since 1999.

Morning Edition aired a similar story, and its introduction is a good example of some fundamental differences between radio and print writing. Listen to the intro from host Steve Inskeep:

STEVE: We have a story involving a rare moment of national joy for Afghanistan. It involves cricket. You have no idea how huge cricket is in that part of the world. Afghanistan’s cricket team was playing the biggest game in its history. NPR’s Philip Reeves joined some fans in the capital, Kabul.

Would you SAY it that way?

Imagine writing the sentence “It involves cricket” in a print piece. It would look childish. But if you listen, it sounds natural. Steve sounds like he’s talking to us.

Now, try reading the AP’s copy out loud. If you don’t run out of breath by the time your reach “inclusion among the ranks,” you may be astronaut material. Also, listen to yourself reading the sentence that begins “But hampered by inexperience…” Would you ever talk that way? We’re more likely to break up our sentences into distinct thoughts. They’re inexperienced. They lost by 105 runs.

There are a million ways to demonstrate writing for radio, but here are just a few that emerge solely from the examples above:

  • Beware clauses, such as “But hampered by inexperience…” When we speak we use far fewer clauses than when we write.
  • Keep your sentences short and simple. As Jonathan Kern writes in Sound Reporting, “Remember, time goes in only one direction; listeners can’t go back to try to figure out who or what you were talking about at the beginning of your voice track.”
  • Don’t use words or phrases you wouldn’t use in normal conversation. Would you tell your cricket-loving friend about Afghanistan’s “inclusion among the ranks of elite countries”?
  • Repeating words is not always bad. Steve uses “involving” and “involves” in the first two sentences. It would be fair to quibble with this, but sometimes varying the language to avoid repetition just makes us sound silly. (A tornado tore through the town of Joplin, Missouri, today. The twister destroyed homes across the city, as well as a hospital…” Twister? Really? Better to say “tornado” twice.)
  • Be straightforward. There are a lot more poetic ways to say that the Afghan cricket team was playing its biggest game ever, but on the radio, there’s virtue in clarity. If it’s a big game, just say so.

Check out these other posts about writing and voicing:

Alison MacAdam was a Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focused on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited All Things Considered.