Writing in Stereo

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WiS Lesson 7C Notes

April 21st, 2010

The original Writing in Stereo was published online back in the late 1980's.  Its purpose was to apply creative radio dramatics to all aspects of the teaching of high school English.  Each lesson included a lesson plan and notes.  I'm sharing these with you here.


Notes (VII.C)writingmini.jpg

Students must become familiar with the sound of broadcast journalism. We hear newscasts in class and encourage or assign listening experiences as homework. You may wish to assign listening exercises requiring students to list nature of story content, time expressions, verb tense, use of titles, newscast organization, transitions, or numbers.

1. Conversational style - fragments, contractions, "that"

Radio's writing style is very informal. Students should imagine how they might speak if they were sharing some piece of news with a friend in the hall or over lunch. We don't jump right into the details of the information. Instead we refer to our scoop in general terms and save the details for last.

For example, we might share our success on an important test by saying, "Potter's English test was easy." If we begin with specifics--"I got a 92 in Potter's English test."--our friend may miss it altogether and respond with "What?", rather than "That's better than I did." Instead, our revelations move from general to specific: "Potter's English test was easy." ("Potter" is all right if both speaker and listener are familiar with the name.) Then we say, "I aced it," and responding to, "What'd you get?", we answer, "A 92!". Unlike newspaper ledes, in which as many specifics as possible are fitted neatly into the first paragraph, if not the first sentence, we begin with general references and close with specifics. Here's another example:

"More violence in the Middle East. Iraqi rebels ambushed a convoy of Republican Guards. The firefight happened near the port city of Basra. The rebels are claiming they killed more than four hundred soldiers."

This less specific first sentence is called a soft lede. We get the listener's attention before we provide them any essential information.

In this informal style, contractions are encouraged. Reading the text of the news story aloud must sound conversational. Contractions are essential to that illusion.

In the last sentence of the example above, we've left out the word, "that" before the subordinate clause: "The rebels are claiming (that) they killed more than four hundred soldiers". Used this way in conversation, "that" is awkward. I've suggested to students (that) it sounds like a speed bump planted on an otherwise smooth flowing boulevard. Just when you're cruising along smoothly, you hit the "that" speed bump and bounce all over the place.

2. Active voice

Around you there are countless examples of passive voice. Most of your school's daily announcements are likely culprits. Call attention to the difficulty students may have understanding the bulletin read aloud over the public address system. We'll have more to say about daily announcements in the next lesson.

Suffice to say broadcast style favors active voice like no other style of writing. The boy always kicks the ball. The ball is seldom, if ever, kicked by the boy.

3. Present tense

"Extra! Extra!" the hawkers shouted to sell special editions of the daily paper with details of breaking news. You don't see extra editions much any more. Folks get their news of fast-breaking events on radio or television. Newspapers still give us details we don't have time for on radio, but the print media can't compete with broadcast's sense of immediacy.

We writers remind listeners of this advantage with our frequent use of present tense. Whenever reasonable--if it happened today--it is happening "now."

4. Names

In the soft lede, a general description of the individual comes before the person's name. So, "A local attorney died in a plane crash this afternoon." After you have the listeners' attention, you tell them who he was.

In a newspaper lede, you'd probably close with something like: "... according to Robert Blue, Chief of Police." On the radio the source's name comes before his information in active voice. His title comes before his name. "Chief of Police Robert Blue says Mason's plane apparently ran out of fuel."

5. Numbers

Numbers go in one ear and out the other. Even sports scores are difficult to absorb. With large numbers describe them in rounded off terms. Don't write or try to say, "The city's population has grown to 510,349." Better to round off: "We're well over a half-million people." The exact number can follow.

In your script, write the number in words. The word for eight hundred, fifty thousand is much easier to read aloud. No translation is necessary.

6. A four-paragraph formula

The first paragraph is general. It says enough to get the listener's attention.

A responsible source comments in the second.

Give the listener background or other details in the third paragraph.

Close with a punch line if there is one. Sometimes the most important detail, delayed to be heard, makes the best clincher.