Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Writing for Radio; Familiar but Slightly Different

Writing for the radio, in some ways, is very similar to writing for the page, but there are also integral ways that writing a radio script is very different. Let’s start with the way that a good radio play, for example, is similar to a good short story.

1. Short stories and radio plays need strong, compelling characters that the audience cares about.

2. Active verbs make the writing more interesting in both short stories and radio plays.

3. A good short story, like a radio play, starts right in the action. There is no meandering around, going on about back story or the setting in too much detail. The writer must hook the audience straight away; in radio even more so since one turn of the dial and the story is gone.

4. Telling the audience what to think and feel will kill a radio script just as quickly as it kills a short story. Let the audience be active in the story.

5. A good radio drama like a good short story is ‘lean and mean’. Get to the conflict quickly; introduce the protagonist and antagonist within the first few minutes. Brutally eliminate anything not needed.

Those are just a few ways that writing for radio is similar to writing a short story; but there are important ways that writing for radio is different.

First, radio listeners only get one chance to hear what you have written, unlike writing on the page that can be read again if not understood the first time. Radio writers don’t have that luxury. Because of that, sentences must be very clear. To ensure that your listeners are getting what you want them to:

- Don’t use big words when small ones will do.

- Use short sentences, avoid complicated sentences- throw away those semicolons!

- Be aware of homophones- words that sound the same but have a different meaning (to-too-two). Make sure yours are not confusing the listener.

- Use contractions.

Another big difference between writing for the page and writing for radio is dialogue. In radio, it is important that your characters are very diverse. They should sound very different. This might be because of age or sex, but also culture, education, speech patterns, or dialect. There is nothing more frustrating as a listener than to listen to a radio play and get confused about which character is speaking. The way you write the dialogue can help dramatically with this.

Also with dialogue on radio, unlike in short story, the characters should sound the way people normally talk. They should pause, repeat words, lose track of the thread of the conversation. They should sound just like us. In short stories, we get rid of those flaws. On radio those pauses, those mix-ups help to build suspense and build up the character in the listener’s mind.

In radio writing, the story and setting are built with dialogue, narration, and sound effects. Music and sound effects can quickly define a setting that on the page might take hundreds of words to do. Using these effectively is very important.

Many people get caught up in the formatting of radio scripts which is unfortunate. Formatting is easily taught and there are many software programmes that can format for you. It is far more important that the radio writer takes care and keeps in mind at all times that they are writing for the radio and adapts their writing appropriately.

Why not take a stab at radio drama writing? Here’s a fantastic contest for radio drama sponsored by BBC World Service and British Council. Good Luck!


Lauri Kubuitsile lives in Botswana. She writes radio lessons for the Ministry of Education and has just been awarded the tender for a 26-part radio drama for primary school children. She also writes short stories and novels for adults and children.

Want to know more about what life as a full time writer in Southern Africa is all about? Read her blog, Thoughts from Botswana.

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  1. All of these tips should apply to podcasting,too, right? Would seem so, but please comment if you know how to podcast!


  2. Thanks for this article. I have learnt quite a lot.

  3. Ooh, I've never really considered writing for radio - mainly because I don't come across these radio dramas here (not sure if that's just because I'm not finding the stations that run them, or because stations here don't run them). I may have to look at that contest you posted. You make this sound very doable.

  4. That was my thinking, Dani. Good podcasting advice as well.

  5. I haven't thought of writing for radio either. I don't hear too many stories on the radio around here.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. It's sad really that so few radio dramas get played nowadays. I love listening to stories on the radio. It is one of the reasons I love getting the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's annual CD with the winning stories on. There is something so lovely about imagining those soundscapes.

    Elsa one place that plays radio dramas/ radio fiction here is Voice of America.

    I'm happy the post was helpful.

  7. Sorry, Dani I don't really know anything about podcasts, I don't think I even know what it is.

  8. Thanks for the article. I'm not looking to appear (sound?) on the radio any time soon, but I am planning to start a podcast for my site, and I imagine the same rules apply. ;)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.