Write to express, not to impress, The Long and Short of writing News for Radio

Advice from Americas newswriting guru, Mervin Block

Anyone who writes knows it’s much harder to write shorter, but less is often more effective. Listeners need, want and prefer to get their information if it’s succinctly presented to them. Make sure to include the important things, but also write what you would tell a friend. Give enough information so listeners can think about a story and discuss it at their dinner tables.

Author George Orwell was deeply concerned with the effect of words, especially those that cause confusion. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell set down the following writing rules that will probably serve you well, regardless of which language you are using.

1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print. 

2.Never use a long word where a short one will do. 

3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. 

4.Never use a passive phrase where you can use the active. 

5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 

6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Mervin Block is America’s newswriting guru. He wrote the news for CBS television for years. Many generations of American news journalists have read his books or attended his television news writing workshops. He’s the author of several books, and what follows is from Block’s “Writing Broadcast News.

Block’s new book, “Weighing Anchors: When Network Newscasters Don’t Know Write from Wrong,” a collection of articles from mervinblock.com, is scheduled for release on Sept. 1, 2012 (Marion Street Press).

Bad News

  • Don’t label news as good or bad. What may be bad for some listeners is good for others. Heavy rain may be bad for pedestrians, motorists, and sunbathers, but it can be good for farmers, taxi drivers, and umbrella vendors. “Good news” abounds on broadcasts when the prime rate drops, but for listeners, a drop in the prime can be either positive or negative. Anyone who takes out a home improvement loan will benefit from lower prime rates and could save on adjustable rate home mortgages and similar borrowings. However, for other listeners, lower rates are “bad news.” Many consumers like high interest rates because they are able to earn strong returns on investments like money market funds or U.S. government securities.
  • Don’t tell your audience that a story is distressing, interesting, or amusing. The best policy is to stick to the facts, tell the news, and let the listeners decide. If the “good news” or “bad news” is tied to a specific person or group, characterizing the news may be valid. For example: “Mayor Murphy received good news today from his doctor,” or, “The IRS has bad news for taxpayers.”

News Lead-Ins, Lead-Outs

There are some definite dos and many don’ts for writing into and out of correspondents’ reports and actualities. In “Writing Broadcast News,” Block advises:

  • Don’t use the same key words the reporter uses, and don’t introduce him or any speaker with the very words he starts with. Violation of this rule produces “the echo-chamber effect.” It sounds—and resounds like this: “Good evening. Governor Goober warned today he’s fed up with state employees who loaf on the job.” Instantly, we hear Goober say: “I’m fed up with state employees who loaf on the job.” Listener: “Haven’t I heard that somewhere before?”
  • Don’t steal the reporter’s thunder. Although the lead-in for a hard news story should hit a few highlights, the anchor shouldn’t skim off all the reporter’s best material. Otherwise, the reporter’s account will seem anticlimactic and will seem as though the reporter got his news from the anchor.
  • Don’t write a soft lead-in for a hard news story. A soft lead-in may work for a feature story, but a hard news story calls for a hard lead-in. A lead-in is something like a store’s display window. A dime store doesn’t dress a window with diamonds, and a diamond merchant doesn’t display dimes. Hard news, like diamonds, deserves an appropriate showcase.
  • Don’t write a lead-in that conflicts with the reporter’s script. This may seem basic, but every once in a while we hear a reporter say something that contradicts what the anchor’s lead-in has said. That’s a mislead-in.
  • Don’t overstate or oversell. The lead-in should not promise or suggest more than the reporter is going to deliver. It should adhere to standards of journalism, not hucksterism or showmanship.
  • Don’t be vague. Sometimes, because of the way newscasts are put together, we don’t know precisely what the reporter in the field is going to be saying, or which segment of a speech is going to be used. We have to write “blind” (i.e., without saying anything specific). We put down only enough words to allow the report to start: “The chairman of the city transit agency, Lionel Train, spoke out today on the agency’s problems…” Writing “blind,” like flying “blind,” can be risky. Wherever you can, say something substantive: “The chairman of the city transit agency, Lionel Train, said today he’ll clean up the agency’s problems within six months…”
  • Don’t use a faulty “throw line” at the end of the lead-in to introduce a reporter. If the next voice we’re going to hear is not that of the reporter but of a woman taking an oath of office, you’d confuse a listener by saying, “Jerry Jarvis has the story.” One way to handle that “throw line” is to say, “Jerry Jarvis looked on as Mary Barton took the oath…”

Most lead-ins run less than 20 seconds, and a few run barely five seconds. No matter what it takes to do the job, no matter what the length, every word matters. The shorter the lead-in, the greater the need for every word to carry its weight.

About the Author

Valerie Geller, president of Geller Media International Broadcast Consultants, works to help communicators become more powerful in 30 countries, including Australia, for news, talk, information and personality. Through consulting and individual coaching for news and talk talent, Geller finds and develops personalities, leads “Creating Powerful Radio” and “Communicate Powerfully” workshops and seminars for radio and TV broadcasters, internet radio and podcasters. Geller is the recipient of the Conclave’s 2010 Rockwell Lifetime Achievement Award and is the author of four books about radio including her latest from Elsevier’s Focal Press Beyond Powerful Radio – A Communicator’s Guide to the Internet Age. To contact Valerie Geller for a one-on-one coaching or consulting, appointment, or for information on the “Powerful Radio” seminars and workshops, call +1 212 580-3385

Note: This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on radio-info.com and has been republished with permission.