Your Ears Are Stupid: My Top Ten Tips When Writing for the Ear

Writing for videos and podcasts has taught me an important lesson: Compared to your eyes, your ears aren’t the brightest sensory organs in the room. I’m no neuroscientist, but if you look at the amount of grey matter dedicated to making sense of what we see versus what we hear, it’s apparent that we’ve evolved to rely on our eyes more than our ears.

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Primary auditory cortex, featured in magenta. (Source: james.mcd.nz/Wikimedia)

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Primary visual cortex, featured in light blue. (Source: Selket/Wikimedia)

What this means for science communicators is that writing must be simplified to get your message through the ear and into the “theater of the mind.” To be fair, it’s not entirely your ears’ fault. After all, the spoken word is ephemeral, where as print is persistent. You can easily loop back in a written piece to clarify meaning, while looping back to listen to something is more difficult.

The main thing to keep in mind when writing for the ear is to be “conversational”. What does that mean exactly? It means your script should read like a well-ironed conversation, not a speech. Below are my top ten tips to improve your scripts and make them sound more like the way you talk. For each tip, I’ve included an example sentence or two where something went wrong and then provided a way to fix it. Some of the examples are from published work and some I simply made up.

1) Read your script out loud.

READ…YOUR…SCRIPT…OUT…LOUD. And I don’t mean sort of mumbling it under your breath. I mean read it like they are the last words you’ll ever speak. Just doing this will reveal all kinds of verbal oddities: sentences that leave you out of breath, tongue twisters, unintentional rhymes, awkward phrasing, etc. If you work in a busy office like I do and don’t want people to wonder why you are talking to yourself—get a room.

Example: “The book is by award-winning author Brendan Lai.”

Analysis: If you had read the script out loud, you would have quickly realized that “by” and “Lai” rhyme. Unless you’re doing a piece on Dr. Seuss, it’s probably best to avoid rhymes. You can easily fix this by changing it to “Award-winning author Brendan Lai wrote the book.”

2) Write short sentences.

We speak in relatively short sentences. There you go: that was a six word sentence. That last one had nine. You get the idea (five!). In general, when writing for the ear, try to limit your sentences to no more than ten words. If it’s a complex idea, you might need a couple of sentences to get the message across, but the audience will appreciate how effortless it is to follow your line of thought.

Example: “As the technology for fabricating brains develops, perhaps first by building specific parts—say, a new amygdala, which processes emotion, among other functions—and ultimately toward the synthesis of complete brains, a whole new set of medical possibilities might emerge.”

Analysis: That’s a 39-word sentence and admittedly, it wasn’t written for the ear. But we can probably pull a few broadcast-ready sentences out of there. “New possibilities might emerge as the technology for fabricating brains develops. Perhaps first with specific parts. For example, a new amygdala, which processes emotions. But ultimately, the synthesis of complete brains.”

3) Try to get your verb in early.

Long, winding sentences with clauses at the beginning that go on for much too long and confuse the ear, are not a good idea. Did you catch where the main verb came into that twenty-four word sentence? Three words from the end. The verb used was “are”, a conjugation of the verb “to be”. You can get away with this stuff in print to some degree, but because your ears are stupid they are searching for a verb early on to make sense of what’s happening to the subject of the sentence. Another mistake is to put a verb at the very end of a sentence.

Example: I’ll use my own sentence from the paragraph above. “Long, winding sentences with clauses at the beginning that go on for much too long and confuse the listener, are not a good idea.”

Analysis:  We just need to flip the sentence around “It’s not a good idea to use long winding sentences with clauses at the beginning, which go on for much too long and confuse the listener.” It’s still way too long, but the listener has a better idea of where they are headed.

4) Use active verbs.

Strong writing means using strong verbs. This is pretty much true across all forms of writing, but especially so when writing for the ear. Active verbs stimulate the ear more than passive ones and our ears need all the help they can get. What is an active verb? Pretty much any verb that isn’t a form of “to be” is active. A neat trick is to go through and circle all the verbs in your story, which will make your verb choices more apparent.

Example: “The data was reviewed by the scientists and they will make their recommendation to the committee”.

Analysis: Data isn’t very active, but scientists are, so we can just flip the sentence around to make it more active. “The scientists have reviewed the data and will make their recommendation to the committee.”

5) Go easy on the “Latinate” words.
The Roman Empire fell long ago, but it’s language, Latin, lives on in the English lexicon. Latin has given us words like relinquish, cognizant and even pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. But why not just say “give up”, “aware” or “a lung disease caused by breathing tiny grains of sand”? Ok, that last word was over the top. In fact, it was invented by seventh graders in Norfolk, Virginia just to be the longest word on record. But I think you get the idea: cut the “-ments, “-ances”, “-tions”  and sub in a simpler and shorter germanic word wherever you can. In general, a word with less syllables is easier for the ear to follow.

Example: “She was vigilant about hibernating for a multitude of hours every nocturnal interval.”

Analysis: Or we could just say, “She tried to get plenty of sleep each night.”

6) Beware the hyphenated adjective.

Adjectives are bad enough: they add to your syllable count and make your script longer. However, hyphenated adjectives, so-called phrasal adjectives, are even more problematic. They are a neat way of packing a lot of information into a sentence, but your ears are stupid, so you should be unpacking, not trying to pack more in. The exception are phrasal adjectives so commonly used that their meaning is instantly recognized (e.g. “black-and-white” photograph, “fight-or-flight” response, “high-tech” weapon.)

Example: He’d drunk enough of the peyote-derived liquor to knock out an elephant.

Analysis: The hyphenated adjective explaining where the liquor came from is interesting, but it’s just a way to shoe-horn extra information into a sentence. In this case, you’d want probably want to create an additional sentence.  “The liquor was derived from peyote. And he’d drunk enough of it to knock out an elephant.”

7) Use contractions.

Unless you are a Shakespearian actor, you probably don’t say things like “cannot”, “do not” and “have not”. Like them or not, contractions are here to stay. Use them, or sound like a robot.

Example: “You do not really need an example for number seven.”

Analysis: “You don’t really need an example for number seven.”

8) Remove the word “that” before the word “the” whenever possible.

Even though we use the word “that” quite frequently in writing, we often drop it before the word “the” in speech. It may not  be proper way to write for print, but “that” costs an extra syllable and confuses your listener’s poor ears.

Example: “He thought that the chartreuse hat looked good on her oddly-shaped head.”

Analysis: The fix should be obvious. “He thought the chartreuse hat looked good on her oddly-shaped head.”

9) Use it (or he, she, they, them) on second reference.

Sometimes there just isn’t another word for the subject you are describing (especially true when writing about a field that uses a lot of latinate jargon, such as science or medicine), but you also don’t want to be repetitive. Instead of coming up with a tortuous polysyllabic utterance as a substitute, you’re better off referring to the subject as it (or he, she, they, them) on second reference. Then bring the specific word back in a sentence or two later. Your ears are dim-witted, but they can remember the subject from at least one sentence ago.

Example: “The Kepler spacecraft is out of commission due to faulty wiring. According to NASA, the planet-hunting satellite probably won’t be back in action for several months.”

Analysis: To start, we’ve got a rarely-used phrasal adjective in there. We could just as easily say “The Kepler spacecraft is out of commission due to faulty wiring. According to NASA officials, it probably won’t be back in action for several months.”

10) Simplify numbers.

When was the last time someone told you they paid thirteen dollars and seventy-eight cents for something? They probably didn’t. They said it was about or around fourteen dollars. If you want to be conversational then round up or round down. The caveat here, as pointed out to me by a colleague, are small numbers. There’s a big difference between 1.5 and 2, relative to the difference between say 39.5 and 40. So for small numbers, you may need to give a full accounting of all the decimals.

Example:  “It’s 25.81 trillion miles to Alpha Centauri.”

Analysis:  “It’s about 26 trillion miles to Alpha Centauri.”

This obviously isn’t everything to know about writing for the ear, but if you follow these ten tips, you’ll be off to a great start. And anyone editing your work will appreciate not having to start from square one.

Finally, I’d like to take credit for discovering all of these tips and tricks on my own, but I’ve had a lot of great teachers over the years who have furthered my skills. I’d like to thank my documentary mentor Ben Saboonchian, the Nature Podcast team who I worked with closely for several years and the authors of the many books and articles I’ve read on the subject.

What are your top tips for writing for the ear? Let us know in the comments.

Further reading:

Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production [Book]

Writing Style Differences in Newspaper, Radio, and Television News [Pdf]

Newswriting for Radio

 

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