Clarity and accessibility are vital when it comes to writing for radio
This is a version of a guide to usage and style intended for journalists who work in the BBC Radio Newsroom.
Not even the most experienced will be able to obey all of it all the time.
When the heat is on, accuracy and fairness take precedence over style.
WRITING FOR RADIO
"What does it matter as long as people understand what you mean?" is a defence sometimes offered by those whose written work is being subjected to unfavourable textual analysis. The answer is in two parts. First, if something is badly written, people usually find it harder, not easier, to understand. Second, it is true that most listeners will not be offended by, or even notice, bad English. But many will notice, and will be offended. The first category will not be offended by good English, even if they don't appreciate it. The second category will be appeased, and will be less likely to switch off or write letters of complaint. Therefore good English serves our listeners better than bad English.
Cyril Connolly said: "Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice, journalism what will be read once" (and who reads Cyril Connolly any more?) He might have added that radio journalism is something that cannot be read at all, and heard only once. Clarity and accessibility are the fundamentals. We must say what we have to say in as simple and direct a way as possible, without compromising its essentials. The structure of the sentence should be plain, the words used familiar and colloquial. Anything which is clumsily expressed, verbose, or imprecise will obscure meaning for those without the means to revisit what has been said.
It is obvious that to achieve the required transparency of style, you must be able to write good concise, accurate English. But there is another prerequisite, often not so well understood. You must know what you wish to say; and to do that, you need to have grasped what the story is about, and to have identified the important elements you need to put over. That may seem a truism. But there are radio journalists who, when politely asked what some piece of gibberish means, have been known to reply: "I'm not sure, but that's what the copy/correspondent says". Such people deserve to be roasted over coals.
It is a misconception that Radio Four demands a different way of writing from that used on other networks. "I thought I should try to be a bit more Radio Four" is a refrain used to explain flabby prose. We should not assume that the listener to the Six O'Clock news listens more keenly or is more intelligent and literate than the audience for any other network. The notion that a Radio Four listener's familiarity with the PSBR or Early Day Motions can be relied upon is absurd. The same species of clear, straightforward English will stand you in equally good stead whichever outlet you are writing for.
Having said that, it is true that the longer bulletins on Radio Four allow the writer to deploy more detail, to go a little further into a story. But this should never be done as a matter of course; only to facilitate better understanding. Make sure that the extra sentence does that, and does not merely repeat something already said in a different form, or say something of no interest or value to anyone.
Be aware of the tone of the network for which you are writing. A more informal tone suits Five Live and to some extent Radio Two. We will write neither coarsely nor too colloquially; but neither -- in the context of, say, Drivetime on Five Live or Terry Wogan's show on Radio Two -- would we wish to sound too stuffy.
Stories written for shorter news summaries will, in general, be shorter. If a summary is to have pace and urgency, it is important for the story count to be kept high. A guide: One minute - at least five items; two minutes - at least five items, including a clip or voice report; three minutes - at least six items, with two pieces of audio; four minutes - nine items, three pieces of audio. Only in exceptional circumstances should the count fall below these levels. The essential conciseness demands the most economical use of language. Think carefully before bleating that a story is "too complicated" to be told in two or three sharp sentences.
Make sure that you understand a story before starting to write it. In the long run, you will not save time by dashing ahead before you are ready. Having grasped the essentials, write at once. First thoughts are often best.
Do not deviate from the basic subject/active verb/object structure without good reason. Refrain from starting stories with a subordinate clause ( "In a fresh twist to the European tax harmonisation row....."). Whatever you have to say, get on and say it. Be careful with your first words. "The Chancellor has increased tax" is better than "Tax is going up", because the first word can easily be missed by less attentive listeners.
As we make more and more use of voice reports and actuality, so the skill of introducing them becomes more important. An introduction should stimulate the appetite, making it easy to understand the audio without stealing its thunder. It will usually include a brief summary or sample of what is in the insert. Make sure you know what is in the audio, so that you can avoid the absurdities of repeating something word for word, or referring to something in the introduction which is absent from the insert. Remember, if you have written the item before the arrival of the voice report or actuality, to check it for contradictions, repetitions and omissions.
It is boring constantly to usher in voice pieces with the words "Lancelot Greaves reports" or "From Valparaiso, here's our correspondent Lancelot Greaves". Vary it - "as Lancelot Greaves explains....." " Lancelot Greaves has been examining the background" etc. Perhaps "as Lancelot Greaves now adumbrates" would be excessive; and spare us, please, from "Lancelot Greaves has this".
You can be more inventive with clips of actuality. "Gave his/her reaction" is overdone. You can ask a question: "Why was Julia Maltravers so incensed?" to which your clip furnishes the answer. You can make a statement: "Piers Maltravers was clearly livid". You can hint: " Aaron Broadbill was non-committal". Use your wits. A genuinely fresh cue line can help enliven what may, in isolation, be a thoroughly tepid clip.
On Radio Five Live ( and perhaps elsewhere) it can be effective to use an extract from an interview with a correspondent. Correspondents are often much more agreeable in conversation, while still conveying as much information as in the conventional voice piece. "Paul Reynolds says the waters really do seem to be closing over the President's head" could introduce a 45 second extract of Reynolds analysis from an earlier interview. The same can obviously be done with interviews with assorted talking heads.
Don't clutter the text with figures. Round them up or down where exactness is not required ( almost two hundred thousand is more easily grasped than 193-thousand eight hundred and thirty two). Be sparing with percentages - almost a fifth is more accessible than 19 percent.
Be even more sparing with "today". We can assume things happened today, unless they didn't, in which case we should specify. We don't need to say: "The government today announced plans to tackle malnourishment in the National Health Service". But the impact of a breaking story can be enhanced by a time reference: "This evening the government announced the immediate reintroduction of compulsory military service". If we are reporting breaking news, we should always say so, to demonstrate the immediacy of radio: "In the past few minutes...." or "The Chancellor has just told MPs..."
Be sceptical at all times. Be particularly sceptical when dealing with assertions dressed up as facts. "The government has announced a breakthrough in tackling inner-city crime" is what the government would like us to say. But we cannot judge whether there has indeed been a breakthrough, or whether a mass of statistics has been cunningly arranged to give that impression. So pin the assertion on the government. We should be even more rigorous with claims about medical and scientific advances. Always seek advice from a correspondent; don't promote your own judgement or that of a news agency.
The Spoken Word
Be faithful to English as it is spoken. No one says "Prime Minister Tony Blair" or "England striker Alan Shearer" or "plumber Alan Smith". Nor should we, ever. Similarly, avoid constructions like London's West End; say "the West End of London". Nor would anyone say "the 47-year-old newsreader Peter Donaldson". They would say "the newsreader Peter Donaldson, who's 47".
We should not encourage the use of clichés but we cannot afford to be too high-minded. Remember Connolly's remark; we are not producing literature. Chaos, clash, crisis, hopes dashed, ground to a halt, in the pipeline, massive, row, scheme, sweeping changes, top-level - all these, and many others, have their uses. They are familiar terms of reference for our listeners, and exploited sensibly, contribute to the production of serviceable radio journalism. If we were prohibited from employing any of them, we would struggle to fulfil our obligations. But we must also be aware of the danger of overuse. The persistent use of "angry clashes" to label carefully rehearsed exchanges of empty abuse inflicts a species of staleness on a story from which it is unlikely to recover. The use of the word "unveil" in association with the presentation of proposals has become a disease. It is infrequently used in common parlance, and should be rested in our output. Anyone who writes "following", or "the move follows" should try to come up with an alternative. And it is not compulsory, when reporting disagreements among drivers, or stories involving unsupervised children, to use the phrases "road rage" or "home alone".
Clichés may be excused when you are writing under pressure but jargon is inexcusable. Professions, hobbies, sports all have their own jargons. If we use the jargon we exclude the listeners who are inexpert in the field under discussion. Business and economics reporting may serve as example. Our business staff are fond of referring to the figures they report (company results, unemployment statistics etc) as "numbers". They do this because it's a trendy way of talking in the City. "The latest inflation numbers look good..." It's jargon and it will annoy many listeners so we should avoid it. Other examples: "like-for-like sales"; "flotation prospectus"; "indirect jobs"; "operating profit". Of course, you can work out what these things mean if you have a bit of time; the trouble is that the radio audience does not have that time. If we use jargon that listeners do not understand, we lose them.
Use punctuation correctly and with care. The proper deployment of commas, semi-colons, dashes, and full stops is a great help to newsreaders, particularly when they are broadcasting something they haven't had the chance to look at in advance.
- Read what you have written to yourself. The late Radio Four reader Laurie MacMillan was once presented with a story which contained the words "dismissed this as a myth". In characteristically forceful fashion, she pointed out that this was not fit to be broadcast.
It is a primary duty, now dangerously neglected, to listen to your work as it goes out. This might seem too obvious for words, but if you don't listen to your product you will neither develop your skills nor build a proper critical faculty. Only by hearing your words uttered by Charlotte Green or Alan Dedicoat or Jane Garvey will you get a proper grasp of how well you've done your job and how you could have done it better.