Don’t Voice Like the Tortoise or the Hare

by Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. on March 3, 2015

TortoiseI was reminded recently how writing can affect rate.  Let me explain.

In my experience, long, complicated sentences simply don’t work for broadcast whether it’s the news or a voiceover script.  The reason is, you end up either being the tortoise or the hare.  Either you go slowly, trying to break up the sentence as you read it or you speed through it in hopes that listeners won’t realize the sentence is too long.

First, let’s look at the slow approach.  Reading too slowly will bore your listener.  And since listeners can’t go back and re-read the first of the sentence when you finish it, they may actually forget what the first of the sentence said!  Also, listeners can’t see commas and other punctuation so it’s hard for them to follow the meaning of the sentence unless you indicate these in your delivery.

A lack of understanding is also a problem when you deliver the sentence rapidly.  This time it comes mostly because you can’t take the time to verbally underline words with your voice to give them more meaning.  And you’re not indicating the punctuation that helps with meaning.

A friend of mine, Ed Bliss, wrote for Edward R. Murrow at CBS Radio.  He passed along this story that may say it best.  When he got the job to write for Murrow, Murrow’s former writer told him one rule to follow:  Never use adjectives.  I don’t think I’d be quite as rigid on this rule, but I do think it’s a good idea to question the necessity of every adjective and adverb, especially in news copy.

In addition, I ask clients to question the use of every “and” and “but.”  Two simple sentences often read better than a compound sentence. If you want to sound conversational, this is especially important.  We don’t tend to talk in long, compound or complex sentences.

One of the best broadcast news writing experts, Merv Block, considers complicated sentences one of his “Dozen Deadly Sins.”  He stresses that sentences should be written with the simple subject-verb-object pattern.

So if you are writing copy yourself, or you have the opportunity to re-write copy, make use of simple sentences, and you’ll avoid being a tortoise or a hare.

 

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