Avoid $10,000 words: 'Write Like You Talk' talks writing with Murrow-winner Brian Bull

August 12, 2019 10:00

By Jeff Butera, Author, “Write Like You Talk”

Brian Bull doesn't have the luxury of video. As a radio news reporter at KLCC in Eugene, Ore., Bull has to paint a picture for his listeners using only words and sound.

He's clearly good at it.

Scripts from three stories Bull put together just earned him a National Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Writing.

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"Write Like You Talk" spoke to Bull recently, and our lengthy, wide-ranging interview included references to cooking, "Raging Grannies," Salvador Dali paintings, octopuses and clay.

You use sound excellently. You make time for natural sound breaks, and include sound beds throughout most of your pieces. What’s your approach to gathering and using sound? 

To use a cooking analogy, sound is like a seasoning. If you skimp on it, your story will be bland. If you use too much, you’ll overpower it. Ambient sound should be gathered and used as long as it’s relevant in the piece. Part of news reporting – and storytelling – is to transport your listeners to a scene. Efficient use of sound from a place or event will enable that journey. 
Whatever you do, make it a point to gather SOME ambient sound.
Without the luxury of video in stories, you have to paint a picture for the listener so they can imagine what you’re seeing. How do you do that?
Through very selective use of simple descriptors. And ones that complement the audio by highlighting details that the audio doesn’t make apparent. Also explaining what a sound is if it’s unusual (passing jets, honking cars and crying babies are familiar; colliding ice bergs, elk mating calls and the supposed roar of Sasquatch not so much). Often journalists get so familiar with their story that they forget to don their ‘fresh ears’ and ask themselves if their choice of words and ambience effectively engages their audience, or confuses them. Listeners are fickle, you need to routinely earn their loyalty by cuing them in to what they’re hearing or about to hear, instead of explaining it later in the story or – worst of all – never explaining it.
Be concise, descriptive and avoid using flowery phrases or ‘$10,000 words.’ Don’t make your listener reach for the dictionary during your report. We all know you’re smart without having to prove it. And don’t feel like you have to be elaborate and write an epic poem with your reports. 

I love the first line of the protest story. “Many adults came, including the raging grannies…” Did you put that line first, knowing it would capture people’s attention? 
I hoped it would, between the unique name and the ambi[ent sound] of these senior ladies belting protest songs. There were many ways to open this story, but the Raging Grannies did a terrific job of setting the tone and hooking listeners from the get-go. If there’s a detail, image or sound that excites or intrigues me, I often find it’ll have the same effect on my audience. Engaging radio should have aspects that entertain, as well as inform and educate.

You have a great metaphor in the story about the rage rooms: “…so warped they fell out of a Salvador Dali painting.” How did you come up with it? 

Thank you! I have long enjoyed Dali’s art, and when I came across these battered and shriveled frying pans outside the rage room, it reminded me instantly of The Persistence of Memory with its melting pocket watches. Public radio audiences tend to be pretty worldly and so I figured (hoped) that they’d catch the reference and get a good sense of what condition these banged-up pans were in. It really seemed to fit and I’d be hard pressed to think of another way that’d be as fun and effective to describe them.
What do you do in the field to help you in the writing process later?
I take notes on the sources I talk to and the ambient sound I gather, usually hastily written chicken-scratch on my notebook, press release or my phone. I’ll put a star (or ten) next to the time code that contains really compelling tape (yes, I still call it “tape”) so that when I’m back in the studio, I don’t have to sift through every track I’ve recorded. And with the relative ease one can now grab video or images, I often take a photo of the event or source, so I can have a visual reminder of what happened, where it occurred and if there was something really fascinating and telling about a person that I don’t want to forget in the writing process. 

One of my more recent favorite interviews was with a Vietnam War Marine veteran, who was in a hospice. This gravelly-voiced man told me of his struggles with PTSD and how he was trained in the military to essentially paralyze another person with his bare hands. In other words, he was someone you didn’t want to startle because even in his wheelchair, he could do some serious damage. But offsetting this tough and crusty soldier was a fluffy brown dog named Candy, who sat nestled on his lap. It helped create a multi-faceted picture of this gentleman, and it also made a nice image on the web version.

What’s your technique and process for writing the story?

I start by determining the focus of the story with my news director. A question that has served me well when embarking on a story is, ‘What’s at stake?’ because in nearly every situation, there are winners and losers. Important elements such as tension, conflict and desire can come from answering this.

Entering into a story without focus leaves you vulnerable to what I call the “octopus” because of the many wiggly tangents that can obscure the story and go nowhere. At the same time, it’s also important to be flexible to new developments or angles that may emerge upon delving into the story. 

The rest is basically addressing the who, what, where, why, and when. It’s also good to ask ‘What’s next?’ to project your story into the future, to give your audience a sense of what to expect down the road with a particular event. 

What do you think television reporters could learn from radio reporters?
TV reporters can learn to think more with the ear, and really gauge how sound can paint some powerful images in the mind’s eye as much as a video can. Also, there are so many visual elements available to a television report, including footage, graphics and the crawl or ‘ticker’ at the bottom edge of the screen, it’s redundant and a waste to write things that are readily viewed. When I watch TV news, I can usually tell who’s the more seasoned reporter because they’re giving more information than what’s on the screen, while the greener ones often describe what’s already apparent.

What’s the best advice about writing you’ve ever received?

Early on in my career I was so caught up in being perfect with my writing that it was paralyzing. I’d agonize for nearly an hour on the lede alone. Fortunately, veteran NPR journalist Alex Chadwick told me to simply spill my story out onto paper freely, and not worry about getting everything right on the first go. I had been treating my work like it was marble…every chip and cut mattered and was irreversible.  Alex’s advice made me work in clay instead. It could be thrown, kneaded, shaped and reshaped. “It can look and read like utter crap,” Alex told me, “but then you go back and refine it, make it better, see what can be added or dropped. But you’ve got to get it out of your head first and foremost to make any progress.”

Truly liberating. And it keeps me moving to this day. 

Brian's Top 5 Writing Tips
1. If it’s cliché or rhetorical, dump it.
2. Look for turns of phrase or alliteration that can make your reading enjoyable and fun.
3. Don’t go out of your way to be too clever or snarky. An editor or colleague can reel you back.
4. Short and concise wins the day. Avoid ‘$10,000 words’ or painfully verbose and technical copy.
5. Learn all the rules, so you know best when to break them.

Brian Bull is a radio news reporter at KLCC in Eugene, Ore. A winner of four National Edward R. Murrow Awards, Brian has worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland.

Jeff Butera is the author of "Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Broadcast News Writing," which is available at www.WriteLikeYouTalk.com. He anchors the evening news at WZVN-TV in Fort Myers.