Narration: Writing for the Ear

For the Transom Online Workshop, a collection of quotes about writing and recording a narrative, excerpted from articles here at Transom and elsewhere on the web. Barrett G


If the essential goal was to produce a sense of “being there” in the audience, then there was something to be said for the argument that some narration is necessary in order to describe the things that are not present in the actual tape — the other things that people need to know in order to set the context. In radio, time is the critical constraint, and so the narration needs to do a lot with only a little, which for me meant that radio narration should emulate haiku poetry.
—Scott Carrier, Transom “Manifesto”

When studying the work of the masters,
I watch the working of their minds.

Surely, facility with language
and the charging of the word with energy

are effects that can be achieved
by various means.

Still, the beautiful can be distinguished
from the common,
the good from the mediocre.

Only through writing and then revising
and revising
may one gain the necessary insight.

We worry whether our ideas
may fall short of their subjects,
whether form and content rhyme.

This may be easy to know,
but it is difficult
to put into practice.

I have composed this rhymed prose
on the art of writing
to introduce

past masterpieces
as models for an examination
of the good and the bad in writing.

Perhaps it will one day be said
that I have written
something of substance,

something useful,
that I have entered
the mystery.

When cutting an axe handle with an axe,
surely the model is at hand.

Each writer finds a new entrance
into the mystery,

Nonetheless, I have set down my thinking
as clearly as I can.

—Lu Chi, Wen Fu (The Art of Writing, circa 300 C.E., translation by Sam Hamill)

Use Short Sentences: Newspaper writers can get ten facts in the first sentence of a story, and not lose anyone who is interested in the subject. Radio writers usually can’t do that.

Write short sentences. People have short memories, and short attention spans. They can lose track of meaning if too many facts are crammed into one sentence.

Write for the ear. Think of others who write for the ear.

Preachers. Poets. Songwriters.

Radio writers can learn a lot from them.

Be Conversational: You already know this, of course. Write the way you speak, because you are writing to be heard. Tell a story to the listener pretty much the way you would tell it to a friend over the telephone.

Bear this in mind, however; real conversation is unedited and often sloppy. Radio writers are after a kind of elevated conversational style, albeit one that is not so elevated as to be above the heads of those who turn on the radio.

Be Simple: Strive to be simple in expression.

Use clear language, and words that matter.
—Alex Chadwick, “Writing for Radio” (not published online yet)

—Poetry: Carl Sandburg. Film: Trent Harris. Audio: Barrett Golding. Music: Skyward.

I told Najib to take a class on Dadaism from my friend, poet Alex Caldiero, and I’d help him write the paper he’d have to turn in for the final exam. When the time arrived for him to write the paper I told him, “Let’s go for a drive up into the mountains.” My plan was to teach him how to write like he talks, or would like to talk. We drove up Provo Canyon, following the Provo River, past the turn off to the Sundance Ski Resort, up to the Heber Valley, a place they call “Little Switzerland.”

“Take out a pen and some paper and tell me, “Who were the Dadaists?” I said.

Najib put his notebook in his lap and sucked his pen and said, “The Dadaists were artists in Europe who thought art had too many rules and was boring, so they moved to Zurich in Switzerland where there were no rules about art.”

“Excellent,” I said. “Write that down, just what you said.”

It took him about five minutes and when he read it back he’d completely changed the wording and it made no sense at all — exactly what my other students would do. They’d tell me a story and it would be fine and I’d tell them to write down what they just said and then they’d mess it all up by trying to make it sound proper.
—Scott Carrier, Transom “And Then What Happened?”

Who Are You?

Let the tape have the money shot. Something else to keep in mind, as you’re writing to a piece of tape, is: what exactly do you want to tell listeners about the person they’re going to be hearing from in the tape? Remember that you know a lot more about this person than any of your listeners, and you need to give them the information they need to find the tape you’ve chosen as compelling as you do. For instance, right before Alix plays the second piece of tape above, she tells us that the guy we’re about to hear has been doing his job for 20 years, without ever getting dragged down by it. Then when she plays the tape, and the first thing we hear is this guy saying “I cry every day,” and his voice starts to catch, we know that this is a big deal; this is not a man who has been crying every day for his whole life.
—Nancy Updike, Transom “Better Writing Through Radio”

I am not, in any way, suggesting that every story requires some self-referential moment. I’ve done plenty of stories in which including myself wouldn’t have worked, so I stayed out of the way. Some of the best radio pieces I’ve ever heard have no narrator, just the voices of the interviewees puzzled together by a selfless magician. What I mean is, all of those “traditional, historic arguments” against reporters saying “I” contain genuine concerns. “I” can derail the story. “I” can be too self-indulgent. And, yeah, the story isn’t about “I.” Also, saying “I” comes more naturally to some reporters than others. So if it doesn’t feel right, please ignore me.

But if it feels right to you, if the story is begging you to include yourself as a character, if doing so will actually benefit the story, then why fight it? Throwing that tool out of your utility belt because of tradition seems foolish to me. The key word here is “benefit.” “I” has to earn its keep, as it does in this Marketplace Morning Report story by Chana Joffe-Walt. It’s short, and begins with the host intro.

—Sean Cole, Transom “All in Favor… Say I!”

—Dr. Kurt Lancaster, Northern Arizona University Electronic Media and Film: Production Techniques

The studio poses an odd set of conditions. You’re all by yourself. In a vacuum. Far away from the people you interviewed, sealed off in a soundproof room. Knowing this could end up on National… Public… Radio. It’s not just a performance problem; it’s an existential one. Who are you? Are you “in” the story? You’ve talked to these people; you’ve entered their lives. Are you a part the action now, or can you maintain a stance as an outside observer? Are you an expert? An instigator? A removed, formidable Cronkite tour guide? Is it enough to be a weirdo who got curious enough to bring a microphone along? Is it your job to hide that maybe that’s all you are?
—Lulu Miller, Radiolab “Behind the Goat”

It’s the middle of the night. The housemates have gone to bed. The city streets are finally quiet, save a siren or dog barking here and there… And there’s my cue! Time to huddle under a blanket and track narration on my bed.
—Yowei Shaw Transom Voice Recording in the Home Studio

Film: “Finding Your Voice with Kerouac,” Susan B. Price.
(Listen to her Transom piece, “Three About Me”).

—Jack Kerouac, “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose”

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside your own house
  4. Be in love with your life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yrself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

Thanks to the Knight Prototype Fund for supporting this Transom Online Workshop resource.