uring a conversation, you can present your own thesis and ideas in a way that feels natural to you. Your words can induce a mental state that gives clear insight to your personal worldview. By contrast, during a television quiz, the answer is either right or wrong. Contestants must say exactly what others expect to hear in order to sound right. A similar dichotomy applies in writing.
When composing a memoir or creative nonfiction, the language of our own choosing works best. It produces a direct relay of our unique thoughts, as events unfolded. This immerses the reader in a personal account of our experience and its impact upon us that the reader can share in. Similarly, when describing a place or a setting, we can be as ornate and creative with our words as the word count allows. Achieving a vivid description in this way will also help readers feel they have been transported there. However, a completely different approach and skillset is needed when writing words designed to be said aloud, be it for dialogue, keynote addresses or the airwaves. While the descriptive uses artistic license and plays with language to draw the reader in, writing speech must replicate everyday interactions to achieve the same goal. As in a television quiz, it is only the words we expect to hear that can possibly sound right. Any others will grate on the ears.
When creating speech, you are not writing to convince others of your own viewpoint or to transport them into your experiences. Quite the opposite: you are holding a mirror to reality. The writer must become attentive to the mundane world and draw speech directly from that realness in order to produce natural-sounding, convincing dialogue that drives the thread of a compelling story.
Writing Dialogue for Fiction
A wordsmith’s natural appetite to play with words and meaning, coupled with the hardwired expectation of formality and high register, can lead a writer to create a vocal exchange far removed from reality. The best tip I learned in “Modern Languages” is: when translating a problematic word or phrase, always ask yourself: What does it actually mean? As with translation, writing dialogue entails asking: what is actually there? To this end, author Angela Clarke (Confessions of a Fashionista, Follow Me, On My Life) advises “writers to go to a local café and listen to the conversations going on around them. How do people talk to each other? Do they cut over each other? Do they interrupt? Do they go back and forth? Are they talking at cross-purposes?”
Already, we see that human interaction can play out in many ways the creative writer likely overlooks in favor of envisioned, fanciful interactions. The ironic thing is that the artist’s vivid imagination can convolute the very work it has initiated. Simply copying reality and using more simple terms work better. In Follow Me, Angela creates compelling reading from no more than a direct relay of real communication. The crime thriller is set online, and she quotes “word for word the very violent and aggressive tweets that were sent for [her]” when she published some articles on feminism. Replicating the genuine and very threatening speech of the online villains enables Angela to communicate their personality in seconds, thus achieving the golden goal of all writers: show, don’t tell.
Using Dialogue for Characterization
Dialogue that mirrors reality enables character development. This not only saves you words to use on plot but also enables you to say more in fewer words, something Angela says, “Makes your writing tight and flow better.”
So how do we characterize through dialogue? Angela points out that we need to “listen out for accents, for different class, different hierarchies within conversations.” This is the way people speak in life, and the way we interpret and decode them every day, not always consciously. This is the exact process we want to replicate on the page when our characters interact verbally.
Another of Angela’s tips is “to assign nicknames that only one character uses. For example, in Follow Me, Freddie calls Nas, ‘Nas,’ and anybody else calls her ‘Nasreen.’ So I don’t have to write ‘Freddie said’ after any time she says Nas.” By the time you have woven your vocal interactions into your story, “you should be able to tell which character is speaking just from reading a single line of dialogue anywhere throughout the book.”
Writers author stories all the time, sometimes over years and often subconsciously. We visualize a tale or concept before finding the words to capture it. This mental creative process develops a deep knowledge of a specific character’s mindset and past. While you may long to convey your hard-won protagonist’s entire profile, your readers simply don’t have the patience. The sad truth is they are not indebted to your hours of story development. So, can you channel character personality through speech? If you are writing about a sixteen-year-old girl dreading exams, find out how girls of that age group speak and their popular words for dislikes. If your character has moved from one area to another, use occasional dialect from the previous place to show this retained aspect of their background.
If, like Angela, writing crime fiction or murder mystery is your thing, look into the findings of forensic linguists. Until the story’s resolution, only you have the secret information on the culprit. You still need to make that character’s speech realistic, so try to find out how undiscovered criminals talk. What might someone who has committed a crime say to conceal involvement? How could that person verbally slip up and inadvertently reveal a connection to the crime? Is it with articles such as “the” that indicate distance? Or maybe possessives like “my” that show connection? Using speech to hint at involvement can only hold the attention of your reader until the end. This is another example of how less is more, and showing dialogue in its bare realness creates a dramatic effect on the reader. Don’t be afraid to approach a forensic linguist to help you develop the vocal persona you want to create.
Like dialogue, speechwriting is also most effective when constructed from what already exists outside of the artist’s vivid imagination. Dr. Sara Lodge worked as a speechwriter to the late Kofi Annan. She describes a great speech as something that “connects with its audience at a visceral level and makes them feel the power of the moment: the truth that they are there at a unique occasion in history, when certain vital truths can be acknowledged, emotions shared, and change initiated.” The speech’s spontaneous and unrepeatable nature mean it must be right the first time. It’s a tall order, but the good news is the material is already made for you.
As with composing dialogue, the key is to listen closely to how people actually talk. Once you have identified the nuances and specific characteristics of the target voice, you have the building blocks for your speech. Sara’s experience tells her that “it’s important to listen to the speech rhythms of someone you write for.” This not only identifies the voice’s natural intonation but also the suitable speech techniques. For example, Sara recommends asking yourself: Is the speaker “naturally emphatic, like Margaret Thatcher, whose earnest vocal inflections made her speeches play well to a gangsta rap backing-track but also made her sound ponderous when telling a joke? Do they, like Tony Blair, make 'conversational’ exchanges sound convincingly informal, but have difficulty finishing off their speeches succinctly? You need to play to their strengths and avoid sentences that will expose their weaknesses.” Once you identify the specific techniques that will flatter the target voice, you have arrived at the blueprint of the speech you want to write.
Like dialogue in fiction, speechwriting can guide your audience through an engaging narrative simply by exposing the reality of the human voice. Sara notes that “we read as individuals, but we hear a speech collectively.” A speechwriter is therefore faced with the task of reaching an immensely wide range of people through the spoken word. Using the voice’s strengths and suitable figures of speech renders complex concepts audible and accessible to the general public. This demonstrates the impactful nature of simplification and showing no more than what is actually there.
Writing Scripts for the Audio Format (nonfiction)
For the longest time, I had been an outdoor “roving reporter,” making radio reports and interviews on just about everything. In 2017, I made the leap to an in-studio host, presenting more fulsome features and full episodes. This meant finding a unique focus. I launched a show covering the under-reported side of Brexit: the 27 other countries that will inevitably be affected by it. Given my background in European Studies (“Euro Studs”) and the current interest in the EU, it seemed rude not to.
While you may well hear broadcast correspondents and in-studio presenters mentioned in the same breath, their aims and approaches are entirely different. In a fast-paced interview, you converse unplanned; but in an episode or documentary, the speaker informs, educates, and explains something within their field of expertise. The external reporter’s speech is spontaneously determined by the interviewee’s answers, but that of the in-studio counterpart follows a logical thread. My first episode of What They Don’t Tell You About the EU focused on Wales and Brexit and took me a full week to script; I have never known a writer’s block like it. After listening back, I edited the script and re-recorded. It took me from August to January to get the first episode from script to air. Here’s what I wish I had known.
Scripting radio and podcast episodes is very different from writing for silent reading. When reading silently, you can read the topic in unlimited detail, keep track of quite long sentences, and reread any you initially struggle to grasp. Radio and podcast episodes do not offer these luxuries. A great tip comes from the late Irish broadcaster, Sir Terry Wogan: “Imagine you have just one listener who is only half listening.” Furthermore, potentially huge numbers of listeners mean that, like a speech, your presentation must be accessible to the general public. You should, therefore, script assuming at most a “Spark Notes” knowledge of the topic. This all brings us to two key points when writing for the audio format: simplicity and originality.
Achieving Simplicity and Originality
It is one thing to express something complicated in equally convoluted language, but rendering the point widely accessible is a whole other skill. Complex and obscure concepts become clearest in very simple language and short sentences. A lot of advanced academic texts are written like this, we just don’t register it. Why? Because it’s engaging. The clarity allows the message to resonate. To this end, don’t be afraid to use idioms or less formal language. Doing so doesn’t make it slang-y or Gen Z speak! If you are going to “shed light on” something overlooked, use that phrase—it’s perfectly acceptable. Don’t fall into the trap of writing and speaking with unnecessary formality just because the topic is highbrow. It convolutes and confuses the already demanding case you present, and the audience will not become informed.
In addition to reducing formality, you will need to present your ideas succinctly and in few words. This is a cliché that people talk about and talk about and talk about (the irony!) without prescribing any methodology, making it hard to address. Here’s what works for me.
I make a word bank of all the language crucial to the episode or feature. Envisage your lone audience member who is only half listening. You want that person’s ear to get a sense of the topic from the buzzwords alone. Furthermore, the fundamental vocabulary helps to strengthen your argument or presentation and removes any vagueness or ambiguity. It helps you to say precisely what you mean, rather than phrasing it poetically. Though this may be more natural to a writer, it clouds the meaning and is demanding on the listener. Once I have written my word bank, I start writing the script without limiting word count. For the reducing process, I look at each phrase in turn and find individual words that incorporate clusters of words within that phrase, essentially words that group them together.
For example, “Britain voted in favour of the EEC membership, but many say the country was already committed to the project,” could be said instead of, “Britain voting 'yes’ to the EEC was arguably retrospective.”
Another example is: “The dress was sewn back together and repaired” versus “The dress was reupholstered.”
Once you get the hang of this, you will be able to explain increasingly complex ideas in increasingly simple terms.
I limit my sentences to three lines in size 12 font and a maximum of two prepositions per clause. This avoids breathlessness and makes the script nice and easy to follow. Don’t get overwhelmed by detail. If you are talking about trends with exceptions, use phrases like “virtually all,” “almost nothing,” or “overwhelmingly.” When shaving the language down, make sure that it sounds clear but not impersonal. Semantics are subjective and often illogical. For that reason, allow yourself common tautologies, ending a sentence with a preposition and the singular “they.” This is how people talk, and you want to establish a personalized bond with your audience rather than sounding like a robot or somebody from a past century. As with fictional dialogue and speechwriting, it should be a faithful reflection of how we talk in life.
To find originality for the audio piece, establish which aspects of the topic remain overlooked by the mainstream media and let that be your focus. There is simply no point in covering what innumerable alternative sources already have. Make certain to recap the basics of the issue at the start of the piece so that all of your listeners are on the same page even if new to the topic. Since your content should deviate from the predominant echo chamber, it may well be far removed or more complex than the mainstream and therefore, require deeper contextualization. To this end, the simplifying tips I have outlined will allow you to extract the issue from the overriding lens or paradigm, illuminate the overlooked aspects, and clearly deliver your resulting thesis. Just as fiction readers should be able to tell who is speaking, your listeners should know not only that your episode differs from the clichés but also how it does so.
While writing this piece, I have been anxious that readers might worry I suggest sacrificing all creativity in favour of Orwellian Newspeak. I am not proposing we forgo playing with language and meaning. Make sure you include the creative buzzwords and phrases of your own making in the initial word bank, so you can accommodate for showing them off.
I hope speech and dialogue have worked as examples that show how to externalize the imaginative, creative, and sometimes downright bizarre concepts made from writers thinking between the lines. Since there is little pre-existing terminology for this, go simple. Just as an artist shows us what the human eye overlooks, the writer should draw speech and dialogue from what is simply there. This does not replace the creative mindset but is another face of it.
Rosie MacLeod is a London-based translator, interpreter, and increasingly, a writer and radio host. She has written for Drunk Monkeys, World Literature Today, and the Journal of Austrian Studies. She is the host of What They Don't Tell You About the EU on East London Radio. You can listen to her radio work here: www.mixcloud.com/rosie-macleod. She tweets as @RosieMacLeod4. Get in touch via LinkedIn.