Writing for audio: a beginner’s handbook

Writing for the ear is far different than writing for the eye. Here’s how to build stories that sound natural.

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A solid audio piece keeps listeners intrigued every step of the way.

One positive aspect of 2020 is that it’s given people time to pick up new hobbies. For me, there’s been a surprising amount of fun had while baking banana bread. I’ve also acquired an unexpected love of K-pop music (I don’t remember who I was before BTS). Most importantly, I’ve gained a newfound knowledge of the podcasting world.

When I began my journalism master’s program earlier this year, all I knew about podcasts was that I enjoyed listening to them. For quite a while now, I’ve counted on pop culture and true crime podcasts to entertain me when I’m driving, running on the treadmill, or about to fall asleep. As someone who writes creatively, I’ve often wondered: How do writers of audio manage to script stories that sound appealing to listeners?

To answer this question, I took an audio storytelling course this term, which taught me that there’s a lot of thought that goes into writing stories that sound both instinctive and intriguing. Thankfully, this class provided me with experience in the podcast writing process, as well as some valuable tips that have helped me grow in this area.

Here are 5 pieces of advice I picked up that are sure to boost the writing skills of blossoming podcasters:

#1: Listen, listen, listen!

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Think about your favorite podcast — what inspires you to keep listening?

Before sitting down to write a podcast script, take the time to study a wide array of audio examples. Through examining different approaches, you’ll learn what others have done or are doing to captivate listeners.

My professor, for example, kicked off our class by having us listen to 10 critical moments in the history of audio. By listening to Edward R. Murrow’s eerie description of the London Blitz, I recognized the value of incorporating vivid details and natural sounds in audio. Meanwhile, the way that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds builds the story’s intensity through flustered voices and chaotic background noises unveiled to me how audio techniques can work together to make listeners feel a certain way. Both of these pieces were outside of my listening comfort zone, yet I learned a great deal about audio from them.There is great value in acknowledging what has historically worked well in the world of audio storytelling.

By opening up your mind to things you haven’t heard before, you can discover inspiration for your own writing. Plus, you can pick up on the methods that make certain stories more compelling to the ear than others.

#2: Challenge yourself.

Once you feel like you’ve grasped a solid understanding of descriptive language, narrative hooks, and other audio techniques that make a story interesting, it’s time to think fast.

In 10 minutes, come up with a story — it can be something that happened in your own life, but it doesn’t have to be — and record a 30-second description leading up to it. The goal is to end on a note that leaves listeners eager to hear more. By pushing you to quickly put the techniques you learned from your listening examples to use, this fast-paced exercise will strengthen your audio writing skills.

When you listen to it back, ask yourself if you feel the desire to keep listening to the story? If the answer is yes, HOORAY! If not, KEEP PRACTICING! Coming up with audio stories is a challenging craft that takes time and effort. So, rip off the band-aid and try it for yourself!

#3: Pitch passionately.

After listening and practicing, the time has come to start drafting a story of your own…EEK!

First, write down several topics that you know well and have strong opinions about. Then, run with the one that the thought of talking about it gets you genuinely excited. Keep in mind that you want to choose a concept that is expandable, so in case Spotify wants to turn it into a series, you’re ready to go! ;)

For example, since I have come to know and love BTS’s music recently, I know I’d enjoy writing and talking about them. What do you love? What stories do you think need to be told? Once you have decided on a subject you enjoy, the other parts of the writing process will fall into place more easily.

#4: Script a concise story.

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YAY! You have your idea and are ready to go.
  • Start by writing a thesis statement that embodies all that you want your piece to accomplish. For example, in a one-minute opinion piece for my class, I argued that Monica Geller is the best character on Friends, so my statement reflected why I thought that to be true.
  • When writing for the ear, it’s crucial that every sentence is brief, yet meaningful. If you’re not sure what counts as too long of a sentence, read some articles out loud. What sentences made you run out of breath?
  • Effective audio writing is comprised of scenes that build atop of one another. If you listen to this bit from Tig Notaro’s stand-up, you’ll notice that the power of her distinct descriptions of time and place. Since each scene was written clearly, listeners are able to follow along effortlessly with Notaro, and picture the events in their minds. When writing your audio piece, aim to have purposeful scenes of varying lengths. When you write with intention, your audience will be less likely to find parts of your story skippable.

#5: Revise, revise, revise!

Before recording your story, no matter the length, edit it. Read it out loud several times. Then, narrow it down to where it contains only the necessary, most interesting details. Each sentence should sound natural when spoken out loud. For instance, if “therefore” isn’t a word you use in your everyday speech, don’t include it in your script. Remember that this story is for the ear, so your writing should be tight and to-the-point. Continue revising your story until you feel like every word is needed in order to tell the story.

Hopefully, these 5 tips help you navigate the unique challenge of writing for audio. If you’re interested in learning more about ways to improve this skill, check out Poynter’s five-part module, Writing for the Ear. It’s a free, self-directed course, so why not check it out?

Happy podcasting!

University of Oregon Journalism Master’s Student

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