institute for documentary studies

{Week 4: Radio}

Week 4: Radio

“Kill your darlings.”


“Kill your babies.”

Or (as William Zinsser eloquently puts it):

“Look for clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.”


William Zinsser wrote On Writing Well, a guide for nonfiction writing our radio instructor Michael assigned us in January. I read it quickly then, but am reading it slowly now. For every chink and Achilles heel in my writing character, there is a sentence of his book to puncture it. “Never say anything in writing that you can’t comfortably say in conversation.” “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out that shouldn’t be there.” “Writers who doggedly pursue every last fact will find themselves pursuing the rainbow and never settling down to write.” Is this why it took me eons to begin writing papers in college? And why the paragraphs thickest with jargon curried no favor among my professors and TAs, while the sentence I wrote plainly was a “Great point”? Needless to say, I’ve been learning a lot from this book and from this class about how to communicate on paper, in person, on the air. Simplify, simplify. I now realize that long and rambling is best left for the blues.

Writing for radio has all the qualities of good writing with a premium on 1) simplicity, 2) clarity, and 3) rhythm. Radio scriptwriters are ultimately writing for conversation, so grammatical purity can be sacrificed for the sake of vivid storytelling. Radio also demands an economy of words. By its nature, you cannot skim radio (you can listen to it at an accelerated rate, but then everyone sounds like a chipmunk and no one is taken seriously). Each word bears a time stamp, so you cannot afford these lengthy, flowery introductions. Just cut to the heart of the matter. Get to the good stuff.

Michael showed us a 1997 episode of This American Life called “Running After Antelope.” It was riveting from 0:00 to 59:01. Curious to know this witchcraft Ira Glass was practicing to bewitch me (and all of America), I looked up the transcript online. Check out this introduction:

Ira Glass: At this point, all Chris McKinney has is a positive attitude, because, frankly, the facts do not look too promising. What am I talking about? I’m talking about man against nature, one boy’s story. Every weekend, 17-year-old Chris McKinney wades out into knee-deep water, alone, with a shovel, and a wooden contraption, and nylon sandbags. And he proceeds to fill 20 sandbags, 50 pounds each, one at a time.

Now, I’m not the writing police, but I know there are one too many modifiers in some places and not enough punctuation marks in other places. Some teachers might ticket Ira Glass for writing a run-on sentence or crucify him for introducing the forbidden “I” in “What am I talking about?” I was taught good writing must maintain the illusion that “I, writer” never figured into the story being told, like it was passed down by an invisible orator on papyrus. Pristine. Radio – thankfully – is not beholden to the standards of my language arts teachers. There is a host. He (or she) is the mouthpiece for something outside of the listener’s experience and anything that beckons the listener forward, anything that approximates the kind of affable conversation that marks all great spinners of yarn, is good radio writing. Read what Ira Glass said aloud. Go on. You see how “alone, with a shovel, and a wooden contraption, and nylon sandbags” has a nice plodding rhythm? It’s exciting, unveiling one element at a time in a guessing game of words.

Our class spent all last week revising the scripts for our student profiles. It was an arduous process. All Tuesday, I stared at my computer screen trying to conjure up a cleaner Ira-Glass-way of saying things (WWIGD?). There were a lot of sentimental mother-daughter platitudes, as if the writers of Full House had kidnapped my pen. There were moments of ambiguity. While trying to explain how Catherine communicates with her daughter through Skype, I wrote, “With the six time zone difference, the window for conversation is small, but intimate.” My instructor diplomatically brought this sentence to my attention, asking, “What does that even mean?” He had a point. Peter, another radio student and great writer, told me explain it to him as if he were drunk, asking, “What are you trying to say? What are you really trying to say?”

For whatever reason, this is a very difficult thing to do.

Words are not written with the same progressive ease as putting one foot in front of the other. It seems to require a blind surge of creative energy, which can be snuffed out in an instant by a misstep, and whose circular futility I always suspected but never plumbed the depths of myself. How can one endure such a mentally taxing and absorbing process as the fixation on a single word, or paragraph, for hours, days, or months, aspiring to a vision that can never realized but persisting all the same? It’s an absolute miracle that anyone has written a book or produced an hour of radio at all.

I am not a writer, nor will I likely ever understand the tiresome courage it takes to be one, but for those who are, were, and whose work we readers and listeners have so enjoyed and will one day enjoy, really anyone who has dared to grapple with language and won – thank you.

For now, I will return to my desk in the radio room.

“Following this herd is like following a school of fish. They blend and flow and change positions. There are no individuals, but a mass that moves across the desert like a pool of mercury on a glass table. They split again, burst into five pieces, and it’s just too confusing. We can’t tell whether we’re chasing animals that have run for two minutes or 20 minutes or two hours.”

Those are Scott Carrier’s words, from later in the episode, when he’s describing what it feels like to chase antelope. He might as well have been describing what it feels like to hunt down the words you mean to say.