We at Dispatches have seen thousands of first-draft scripts across the 10 seasons of the program. Most are problematic. Some just require moving a scene or two for the structure to click into place. At other times we’ve had to make the reporter tell us the whole story again to find why we assigned it in the first place. When it’s the dog’s breakfast, we look for some kind of order: Chronological? Sensational opening? Two funny scenes that just have to go together?
As in billiards, when you break the proverbial rack, tracklines for writing sharpen up once a few items fall into place. From here, give and take between a reporter and producer becomes teamwork rather than confrontation. This is the start of what we call the vetting process, where the reporter and the producer work together to brainstorm, reorganize, and negotiate until they get a structure that works.
We on the desk like to think of the vet as the guts of what we bring to our pieces. But we know the best vets happen after the reporter does a good job in the first place (see parts 1 and 2 in this series).
After vetting the structure, the writing is what fills in those tracklines. We’ve figured out tips to help you avoid a few of the standard “tripping” points.
Tell the truth that you know. Report what you really see and can verify. “The overworked officer approaches a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk” might not work so well—you actually often can’t verify he is sleeping, or homeless even, or that the officer is tired. Try: “The officer is in the 12th hour of an overnight shift. He approaches a figure—bare feet sticking out from a pile of old blankets and newspapers on the sidewalk.”
In the first description, a listener’s pre-formed opinion of police and homeless people will shape his value judgments more than your description does. In the second, you’re not only more accurate, you’re in better control of the subjective aspects as well.
Create the image you saw and want the listener to see. Start with a lot of details; you can edit it down in the re-write, or save them for the print edition. Picture those details when you’re reading your script too.
Read your script out loud, in your real voice, while you write it. Then try it out on a partner or colleague. Don’t be shy; after all you’re going to read it on the radio.
Don’t be sentimental. Your writing and characters must provoke emotion. How do you know when you cross the line into sentimentality? Drama teachers tell us that sentiment is unearned emotion. Earn emotions. Also, avoid assumed emotions, such as: “He was devastated.” Try: “He was so upset that he…” or simply just describe what he did “…so he broke it into little pieces.”
Move the plot along by pointing your sentences. Pointing is moving the writing along via logical baby steps—each sentence or clip ends with an image or thought that points to the beginning of the next sentence or clip, or the next sound we hear. Don’t make big leaps or refer back to things we heard a while ago or won’t hear until the end of the clip that follows. Again, it’s all right to flip sentences inside a clip to achieve this, as long as you’re not distorting anything.
Write into the sound. Write from the sound. Yes, set up sound, but don’t telegraph new sound. Let new sound happen before you address it. Don’t tell us what we’re going to hear next. Let us hear it; then fill us in.
Avoid passive voice and long subordinate clauses. Make new sentences.
Use more verbs and fewer adjectives. Verbs show people doing things. Vivid verbs work better than dull ones.
Write to the ending. An important thing that narrative journalists teach us is to avoid the inverted-pyramid structure–where all the best stuff is at the top, and the disposable stuff is at the end. We want strong endings. When you know the ending, a lot of the earlier writing is easier. It also helps you choose the telling detail your ending will reinforce, so you can find the right place in the story to foreshadow the ending.
All the above (including the material in Parts 1 and 2 of this series) add up to a lot of time and effort, especially in the field. But these strategies save time in the writing, vetting and production stages. Not to mention the next time you do a piece.
At Dispatches, compiling these thoughts has given us a common language to use when we talk shop.
But most of all, we believe it pays off for the listener.
Here are some examples of reporting what you see:
Michael McAuliffe in Baghdad Children’s Hospital (January 28, 2004). One prolonged scene, one character–but a story with a wallop. Michael dropped in on the hospital on a whim. He got an hour of walk-around sound with an English-speaking doctor. We cut it by half. Then Michael listened to it in his earpiece, and simultaneously recorded a running commentary on another mini-disc. We cut and mixed the two tracks back in Toronto and ran it the next day. That voicing is also a great way to achieve a personable storytelling tone, speaking in natural voice.
Jared Ferrie in Guinea Bissau (November 24, 2008). Jared found this basket-case country is a major packaging place for illegal drugs bound for Europe. Even though a lot of his recorded material was wiped clean by police working with the druglords, he got great scenes, because he took risks and remembered the details. His first radio story. The PM was assassinated a month or so after this ran.
David McDougall essay from Congo (November 17, 2008). David was doing mostly print work in Congo when he was invited to in meet the crazy warlord Laurent Nkunda. It’s a good example of recalling personal reactions and impressions and noticing some telling details–even though, as you hear, he lost his equipment in the end. That’s why it’s an essay.
Both David’s and Jered’s pieces are triumphs of naivety.
[You can also listen to a single podcast with all the stories referenced in this series.]