Writing for (not by) the Ear
by Donnell King

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People don't write the way they talk.

If you didn't know that already, just listen to the typical student speaker deliver a paper out loud when he thinks he's giving a speech. Oh, God, it hurts.

In some ways, writing for the ear requires the same skills as any other format. The ABCs -- Accuracy, Brevity, and Clarity -- always mark quality writing. Although most of us learn not to move our lips as we read, we still "hear" ourselves reading in our heads, and so things like rhythm and rhyme and alliteration always matter.

But speeches, radio copy, commercials -- anything that ultimately aims at an audience who will hear the final version rather than read it -- also have some unique requirements. Because you are writing material someone else will read out loud to the final audience, keep this baker's dozen of suggestions in mind when you're writing for the ear.

1. Use shorter sentences with a basic structure. Avoid compound or complex sentences. Remember the structure from early composition classes: SVO -- subject-verb-object.

2. Use present tense more than past tense. This is especially true if you're writing broadcast news instead of print news.

3. Use a simple, basic vocabulary. Readers can stop to look up unfamiliar words and come back to the same place; listeners will simply get lost. According to linguist James L. Fidelholtz, the average person has a usable vocabulary of about 70,000 words. However, Laurie Bauer, another linguist, says a reader whose vocabulary comprises only 1,000 words will be able to understand about 70% of what other people write. If you stick with the 500 most common words, you probably won't cause listeners to wish for a rewind button.

4. Use "you" and "I" forms of verbs. Casual writing for the eye also uses these constructions, but business and academic writers sometimes strive for a more objective sound by using third person constructions (he, she, it, they, or the stuffier "one"). This writer believes such constructions get in the way of good writing. One shouldn't create such distance between oneself and one's readers. You see the problem when you're reading it. It's much worse for your listeners.

5. Avoid parenthetical statements, since they're difficult for the ear to handle. People can't hear the parentheses as easily as they can hear periods, or even commas. Break parentheses into separate sentences or leave them out altogether.

6. Paraphrase more, quote less. A speaker has trouble indicating a direct quote without pecking the air with the first two fingers of each hand. Radio broadcasters don't even have that option. Attribution is also harder. When you use a direct quote, give the attribution at the beginning of the sentence -- a variation from the AP Stylebook and most guides to writing for the eye. For example, instead of writing your quote, followed by "John Smith, Article Title, 2004", write, "As John Smith noted in his 2004 article... (title)," and then follow it with your quote.

7. Go for the big picture. Memory researcher Tony Buzan says listeners remember less than 10% of what they hear, partly because they have no way to go back over the material unless they take notes or record what they hear. Reader may reread a paragraph; listeners can't. For that reason...

8. Round off and "verbalize" statistics. Rather than tell us, "This year's city budget will run $286,726,090," tell us, "This year's city budget calls for nearly three hundred million dollars."

9. Spell out numbers. Speakers really should look at your copy before they deliver it, but many don't. Spelling numbers out helps keep them from stumbling, and also helps make sure the number gets reported accurately.

10. Use stories more than numbers. Stories create more of an impression than numbers, and listeners remember them more easily.

11. Make your structure clear. You can develop a story for the eye in a fairly complex way, even using typographic conventions to indicate things such as flashbacks. Listeners have few such cues. "Signposting" (e.g., "Today we'll consider three reasons to buy a new car. First ... second ... third ...") helps them keep track of the talk, understand the structure, and remember the main points.

12. Use simple language. Don't say "e.g."; say "for example", and make it a separate sentence instead of a parenthetical statement.

13. Polish both the introduction and the conclusion. If you learned to write in journalistic inverted-pyramid style, break the habit for the ear. Listeners remember the first and last thing they hear more than anything in the middle. Beginning speech writers tend to work hard on the main message and tack on introductions and conclusions as afterthoughts.

Remember: people don't talk the way they write. If you keep that in mind, your writing will help your clients speak more effectively.

Find Out More...

Writing for the General Public: It's Not as Easy as it Sounds - Mary J. Breen

Copyright © 2005 Donnell King
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Donnell King is a professional writer, speaker, and teacher from Knoxville, TN, where he is an associate professor of speech and journalism. He has spent 30 years writing for newspapers and magazines, and speaking on radio, from pulpits, in classrooms, and in front of community groups. His work has appeared in Boardwatch, Storytelling, Home Business Journal, BabyZone.com, Writing-World.com, and LiveWire, among other places. He is the co-author of Responsibly Spoken, and can be reached via http://donnellking.com/.


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