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Last Updated: Monday, 19 August, 2002, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
Writing for radio
Allan Little
Allan Little has reported for BBC News on many of the major stories of recent times, including the Gulf War and economic turmoil in Russia. He has also presented Today on BBC Radio 4. He offers his advice on how to write for radio.

Twenty years ago when I was a student I once submitted an essay long after it was due. I had done no reading and had stayed up all night and had finished the thing as the dawn came up. When I got it back the tutor had written at the bottom of the last page: "You have a pleasing turn of phrase but nothing much to say."

This seems to me to be the first rule of good writing - have something to say. Know what it is before you put pen to paper. Work it out with absolute clarity in your own head first, starting, of course, with the top line.


My own second rule of writing is precision. Be precise about what you mean. Choose words whose meaning you know. Don't use words like 'substantial' or 'considerable.' These seem to me to be meaningless and their frequent use always suggests to me a writer who isn't sure what he means to say and is therefore choosing a word which leaves the meaning of the sentence vague or obscure.

This gets in the way of precision. If the cost of something is high, then say it is high - not substantial or considerable.

The same is true of metaphorical language. Never use a metaphor whose literal meaning you do not know. I'll bet, for example, that everyone reading this has at some time used the term 'serried ranks'. But few who use this phrase know the meaning of the word 'serried'. So what is the difference between 'serried ranks' and just plain 'ranks'? The image it conjures is obscure, imprecise. It's also - by the way - a cliche and as such has lost all real meaning anyway. (Serried, by the way, means 'having no spaces in between'.)

Beware of adjectives

Our language is also peppered with nautical images, for obvious reasons. How many of us habitually use the term 'in the offing' without having the first idea of what an 'offing' really is? Again, use of this expression without a clear idea of the image it conjures seems to me to break the precision rule.

The offing, as it happens, is the stretch of water visible from the shore, or from a ship or boat - the stretch of water between the observer and the horizon. So now the image makes sense.

Next, beware of adjectives. This is a rule I keep breaking and I have to exercise great vigilance to rein myself in. Adjectives are fine in moderation and when they genuinely add to the meaning or clarity of the image being conveyed. Norman Mailer wrote an essay to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his great World War Two novel 'The Naked and the Dead', which he wrote in his early twenties.

Re-reading it 50 years on he said it now struck him as a young man's book, full of immaturity. The most obvious sign of this, he said, was that there was barely a noun that was not holding hands with the nearest available adjective. Thus coffee was always piping hot, pauses were always 'pregnant' and silences were always 'awkward'. So as a rule, de-couple nouns from adjectives that they are normally or habitually paired with.

Keep your sentences short. I know this is what we are all taught as trainees but it's easy to lapse. One idea or piece of information per sentence is sufficient. Sub-clauses are treacherous and usually unnecessary. Compare the average number of words per sentence in the Daily Mirror with the equivalent in the Guardian. Count your own average. Keep trying to bring it down.

Never use two or three words when one will do. This is one of the golden rules identified by George Orwell in an essay called 'Politics and the English'. Language, which I think everyone in our business should read every couple of years. In it he also rails against jargon that is deliberately designed to obscure the real meaning - terms such as 'collateral damage' and 'ethnic cleansing' were invented to conceal the reality they pretend to describe.

We should not use these terms without some way of indicating to the listener that we are using them in inverted commas or attributing them to some source whose (politically motivated) purpose is to conceal and obscure.


Two last things. Dig out a copy of Churchill's famous speech about fighting them on the beaches. The author of a book called '1000 AD' makes the point that every word of that final stirring paragraph was in use in Britain one thousand years ago, and that this accounts for the powerful impact the speech had. (Incidentally the only word in the speech that was a relative newcomer to the language was the final word - surrender). Try to use old words, words that reach into the very core, the very oldest part of the language. They have the most impact.

And finally, set yourself this task. Try to write a piece of prose - a news story for example - restricting yourself to words of one syllable only. It's hard. But it makes you think about the way you're using the language.


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