Write like you speak: writing for audio

The key principle of writing for audio is write like you speak

This post sets out some principles for writing for audio.

An audio script should be sharply written, engaging and thought-provoking. An educated member of the general public should be able to understand it and find it interesting.

For this post, I’m talking specifically to a task where you turn a walkthrough and vignette into a provocative first-person analysis of your engagement with media.

A script should prompt the listener to think critically about contemporary media technologies, their uses, and impacts on society, culture or politics. In this case, your script should evocatively describe and critically reflect on your media use and draw on key debates in the field of media, communication and cultural studies.

Below I set out some principles of writing for audio together with some effective examples from radio programs and podcasts that offer provocative critical reflections on our contemporary media culture.

Principles of writing for audio

In this section I set out some principles and tips for writing from audio. These links and suggestions are drawn from the National Public Radio training website, I've provided links to these sources below.

Basic components of an audio script

A script for audio, radio or podcasts contains two basic elements: ‘tracks’ and ‘acts’.

Tracks (short for voice track): is the script read by the narrator. It is perfectly fine for your script to contain only tracks. A script that just contains the voice of the narrator is a ‘voicer’.

Acts (short for actuality): are the ‘voices in a story that are not the narrators. These can include interviews, scripted re-enactments or dialogue and found footage like news reports and video. They are also called ‘grabs’ or ‘sound bites’.

Key principles and tips

1. Write like you speak. Use your own voice. Use your own vernacular. This is the flow you know.

2. Start emphatically. Jump into the narrative. Something is happening. Pose a question. Create mystery.

3. Keep your sentences short. Audio requires more straight-forward sentences because listeners do not have the benefit of re-reading or reading slowly. Speak directly. Repeat key words to give emphasis. Only use phrases and expressions that you would use in normal conversation.

4. Structure the writing with two or three key points or narrative elements. Limit general description, and focus on precise and evocative illustrative details. Only you know what was left out. You might write a part so you ‘get it’, but your listeners don’t need to hear it, what they need is the key moment, the telling illustration, the specific critical insight.

5. Be a helpful narrator. Explain where you are going. Sketch a map. Set out why it is interesting. Spell out how things are connected.

6. More action than description. Verbs are better than adjectives. Edit closely at the sentence level.

7. Transition between ‘tracks’ and ‘acts’ need to have flow. Think about how an act picks up and extends your thought. Don’t have acts that simply repeat what the narrator has already said.

8. Speak definitively. Read your script aloud. This helps identify difficult phrasing, get a sense of tone and pace, and identify where to breathe. You might cut a sentence into a fragment or use an em-dash or ellipses in order to create space for a breath.

9. Paragraphs are typically short, even just one sentence long.

10. Signal emphasis. Denote which word in a sentence the speaker should emphasise. This helps a reader 'hear' what it sounds like as they read it. The easiest way to signal emphasis is to place a work in capitals or italics.

Examples: scripted audio that reflects on our lived experience with media

Here are some examples of podcasts that are researched and scripted that engage with our experience with media. Each of these episodes offer examples of writers using audio effectively to describe, reflect and critically analyse media and cultural life.

Ira Glass' 'Finding the Self in the Selfie' (573 Status Update), This American Life, 27 November 2015

Listen to the prologue and first act of this episode. This features Ira Glass narrating and talking with Julia, Jane and Ella about selfies and Instagram. Glass evocatively describes the practice of taking and commenting on selfies. He makes this ordinary ritual seem strange and intriguing. He then sets about reflecting on how these practices work and what they mean. You can listen here or read the transcript here.

David Rakoff's '29' (328 What I learned from television), This American Life, 16 March 2007

David Rakoff reads a piece about an 'experiment' he undertook: watching 29 hours of television in one week. That's how much television the average American watches. Unlike the example above, this piece is entirely a first person narration where Rakoff reads some quotes from friends and family. The tone is snarky and funny, but the reflection is insightful. Rakoff carefully illustrates and then reflects on the forms of cynical and snarky enjoyment we get from watching 'trash'. You can listen here or read the transcript here.

Malcolm Gladwell's 'The Satire Paradox', Revisionist History 

Malcolm Gladwell carefully illustrates and critically examines how satire became part of our political culture. The writing demonstrates both evocative examples and sharp insights into the limits of satire. You can listen here.

Karina Longworth's 'Madonna: From Sean Penn to Warren Beatty', You Must Remember This

Longworth's long-running podcast You Must Remember This is a great example of scripted audio in the genre of creative non-fiction. Longworth takes the history of Hollywood and scripts it as creative narratives. You can listen here.