by John Dodge
If you ask American corporate executives to name the biggest weakness in their work force, chances are they'll say something about poor communication skills. Specifically, people can't write their way out of a paper bag. Too bad, because clear, concise, compelling writing will take you farther no matter which business you're in. And it will absolutely upgrade your worth as a radio producer. In this second in a multi-part series, we'll go into both philosophy and practical techniques to improve your writing skills, not only for radio copy but for personal expression as well.
Last month I spoke of author/trainer/consultant Roger Von Oech's creative "archetypes." Those are the Explorer, the Artist, the Judge, and the Warrior. They represent role models and steps in the creative problem solving process to be taken in exact order. Let's look closer.
The Explorer: The Explorer boldly goes where no one has gone before, often exactly where he's not supposed to go, searching, probing, scouring the weedy road in search of material to pass along the makings of a new idea to the Artist. His job is to report back on everything -- a human video camera stuck ON. This correlates to the research phase of your writing task, your reading and questioning; and the more information you gather, the better your chances of success.
The Artist: The Artist takes the material the Explorer brings back and makes something from it -- could be a dish-drainer, could be a truck. It doesn't matter yet because the Artist functions from pure intuition. You know, "Don't think, Do." Kids are great creative role models because they have unlimited ability to imagine and make believe. Do whatever you have to do to get into that kid mode of blind acceptance because, for the Artist, the process of creating is everything and the results don't matter. That's not your job. That's for the Judge to sort out.
The Judge: Now, for the very first time, editing is allowed. The judge is the first one with authority to say, "This is good. That stinks. But your idea over here is the best angle you've got. Go work on that." The Judge evaluates and decides which stuff the Artist made has the best chance of success. He's a highly practical guy, though not overly imaginative. In a world of deadlines, the Judge often has to can a great idea because it won't happen inside the time frame.
The Warrior: Finally, the Warrior, often the salesperson in our business, is the one responsible for doing battle on behalf of the chosen idea, like selling your spec spot to a skeptical client. Don't abandon this role to someone else entirely -- you have to sell your idea first to get that salesperson properly revved. Just because you made something and just because you know it's good doesn't mean your idea will automatically shoot to the top. There are millions of ideas in the marketplace and it takes courage and confidence to shepherd yours through the maze.
Enough Zen, Now For Some Techniques: With those general role steps in mind, let's move to a three-step process called "Prewrite, Freewrite, Rewrite." It's a good way to organize your writing tasks to quickly achieve higher quality results. Here's how it works:
Prewrite: Before you begin a script, you first want to explore, to freely associate in a quick, stream of consciousness way, letting words and ideas rapidly tumble out before you've had a chance to screen them. It's brain dump time. Get a legal pad or your word processor and let 'er rip.
Joe's Garage... cars... grease... hassle... gas... expensive... necessary... freedom... service... safety... trust... honesty...
When you've exhausted this angle, you'll likely find something on your page that jumps out as the best way to go. So go.
Freewrite: This is the Artist's time. Take the Prewritten words and ideas that hang together and spark your imagination and run with them. Literally. Wind sprint till you drop. Don't cross out, don't worry about spelling, pronunciation, structure, length, beginnings, or endings. Just write as fast as you possibly can. Speed is essential here because if you write quickly, you don't think; you intuit. And that's when interesting stuff happens. The minute you write something and say to yourself "that sucks" you shut down. Don't analyze now because in this phase it's all about process, not product. Guess what happens if your intuition keeps feeding you material but your editor keeps saying, "That's not very original. That's stupid. Hurry up, it's lunchtime. You think that's good? Are you kidding?" In no time at all your intuition simply.....stops.....talking.
Rewrite: Now, for the very first time in this process, you bring in the Editor, the Judge who is allowed to say what's good, what isn't, what goes, and what stays. Now you rearrange, word-process. Stuck for an attention-getting opening? You might find your perfect opener three-quarters of the way through your Freewritten script. Legend has it that Chevrolet's "Heartbeat of America" campaign was born from a junior copywriter's stray line on page four of some brochure left over from the account's former agency. A rough diamond that the next guy dusted off, moved to the top of the page and the top of our minds.
You might need to Rewrite a couple of times for length, for flow, for believability, for "speakability." Don't be afraid to throw most of your stuff out! Some writers get extremely attached and hung up on their words, their little mental children; but I suggest you give birth to words the way fish have fish -- by the millions so that a hundred strong ones can survive.
I'm out of time and space but not out of ideas. Next time we'll get really specific about applying these general principles and techniques to writing effective radio copy. Have a great Holiday and New Year and I'll meet you in January.