The Write Stuff - Part One

by John Dodge

There was a line in October's feature interview, a passing comment from J.R. Nelson that really caught my eye. He was talking about promo production and new ways to capture a laser-weary listener's ear. He said something like, "I know this sounds radical, but I like to do it live." Whoa! Live radio. I'm getting a little tingly right now. Imagine: no EQ, no delay, just real people with real feelings and real points of view communicating directly with other real people. This burst of alternative insight must have been similar to the first '80s rock producer who said, "I want a different sound...screw the synthesizers, man -- let's use real instruments!"

The Most Subjective Subject There Is: It's all about style, and everything stylish goes round and round, shuttling from extreme to extreme. We now seem to be at the point on the curve where reality is vogue. The Natural Sound. Have you ever done any agency voice-over work? Five bucks says the first thing out of the producer's mouth is, "Don't be a deejay." What they mean is, "Be sincere. Be believable." It speaks a lot about radio stereotypes, I'm afraid. Words have style status, too. If I hear the media term "Generation X" once more, I'll puke. But here's an often-printed generalization about that group: they're cynical. They won't take the hype. "Cut the crap and cut to the chase, man, because I have a short attention span and a long list of stuff I gotta do!"

So if live and real and natural are in, and hype is out, guess which skill in your production arsenal is most critical. (Tick-tock, tick-tock....) That's right, writing.

Back To Basics: Over the next few months, we'll focus on one of the least understood but most important functions of the modern radio Production Director: the role of creative commercial copywriter. It's so important because everything starts with the typewriter or word processor. If your ideas require just the right laser zap or duck quack to work, you're hanging by a thread. Before you go near a tape recorder, your head has to be clear. Your concept has to be also. Your copy has to be tight and cliche free. (That's right!) Your dialogue has to be real and believable. Your stuff CANNOT sound like canned corn or, worse yet, like a commercial. If it does, hello walls.

Good radio copy starts with good writing, so let's begin by discussing the basics: how to start, how to develop your own style, what works, what doesn't work and why. Many people hate to write because they think that to be a good writer they have to become someone they're not. They forget that the purpose of effective communication is to express, not impress.

One Half of a Top Ten List: Hold up one hand and count the digits. There are that many real rules in the writing game. Everything else is a subset of tips and techniques.

1. Have a curious mind. If life doesn't fascinate you, switch lines of work.

2. Know your topic. Get personally involved. Learn.

3. Know your target. But don't ever assume they know what you know.

4. Write like you talk. You're probably a pretty "natural" talker, so write like you talk, not like you read, and you'll be a natural writer, too.

5. Practice. Nobody ever became good at anything without practice, so accept the discipline and write something every day. A spot, a promo, a letter, a memo, anything.

The Problem With Writing: Most people learned how to write the wrong way back in school. "Before you begin a project you have to have an outline." There's just one small problem with outlines; the whole idea presumes that you know exactly what you're going to write about, the order in which you're going to address things, and how you're going to conclude before you write your first complete sentence. That's incredibly unrealistic.

And another thing: there's an unrelenting bastard between your ears known as The Editor -- an essential character in the overall scheme but completely inappropriate until the final phase of a writing project. A premature entrance by The Editor guarantees a flat and uninspired piece. In the beginning, you want to be in the "everything I do is perfect" mode -- no judgments, no comparisons, no word police. That's the stuff "writer's block" is made of. You want to go for total, blind acceptance because it limbers up your right brain and opens the channel. In the beginning, everything you write is good because you're in Explorer mode.

A Plug For Roger: A successful "creativity consultant" named Roger Von Oech has written a couple of books (A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants) which break the creative process into four phases represented by archetypes which he calls the Explorer, the Artist, the Judge, and the Warrior. Simply, the Explorer's role is to go out and find new stuff. The Artist then takes the stuff the Explorer has found and makes something from it. The Judge decides which stuff the Artist has made is good and which isn't. And the Warrior goes into the world and does battle on behalf of the stuff the Judge has found to be good. It's a sequence of roles which must be followed in exact order. Sure, you can always just take the copy notes the salesperson jotted down on the cocktail napkin, stick a few connectors in there so English-speaking people can track, grab your nearest production music CD, and wham your spot on the air. It's done all the time, but resist the urge because that route leads directly to mediocrity. You want your stuff to get the Big E for excellent.

Join us next time when we'll use the first three of Roger's characters to layout a different, faster, more creative approach to getting started on any writing project: Prewriting, Freewriting, and Rewriting. Once you start using this method, it'll change your writing life forever.

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