Smooth Scriptwriting

A neon sign reading ON AIR against a red and black background.


Like reporters on any beat, science journalists have the option of telling stories through a variety of media. Audio and video provide alternate ways of crafting compelling narratives. But writing for multimedia outlets involves a different set of skills than writing for print.

A group of science journalists and producers recently guided TON through the process of writing a successful science script. Through a series of emails, they shared their script-writing process—from choosing a medium, to piecing the story together, to clarifying interviews in post-production. And they highlighted common pitfalls that writers new to multimedia should watch out for.

Participating in the roundtable discussion were:

Robert Frederick, science journalist and multimedia producer contributing to ScienceNPR, and the Financial Times.

Cynthia Graber, freelance print and radio journalist producing pieces for Scientific AmericanSlateBBC Future, and more.

Rose Eveleth, freelance science producer, designer and writer for outlets like The New York TimesScientific AmericanThe Story ColliderMinute Earth, and TED-Ed.

Soren Wheeler, senior producer for WNYC’s Radiolab.

Tiên: How do you choose a medium for a science story—what elements are necessary for an audio or video piece?

Rob: I’m going to start with the obvious—with radio/podcasts you have to have interesting sound. With video, you’re in a lot tougher position—both the audio and the video have to be interesting, though the audio content rules here too. We’ll watch the fuzziest videos if the sound is good. But we won’t endure even the most interesting visual content if the sound is terrible.

Cynthia: If it’s a radio documentary, I’ll also need to be able to create a scene, and that means being able to visit a place in person, where something’s happening. Ideally there will be sounds I can use to illustrate the action. You can’t do a radio story if all your subjects and scenes are in faraway places and you have to report the story over the phone. 

Soren: Radio places some constraints on which stories you can do—you need good, emotional talkers and storytellers. It seems, for reasons that aren’t clear to me, to demand more emotional engagement than print to sustain people’s attention. On the other hand, I think radio gives you a real advantage in visual storytelling. Because you have to create pictures in the head of the listener and they become a co-author, a collaborator, and that is in many ways more powerful than offering already constructed pictures.

Rose: If you don’t have a compelling voice or scene you can still make an explainer or animation that tells the story. Some really nice examples of this are the animations that Flora Lichtman and Sharon Shattuck make that tell these really beautiful stories without any kind of snappy voice. TED-Ed does explainer videos that go through a story using animation and a voiceover.

Sometimes that casted person can be you. It’s hard to do without sounding really self indulged, but when it works a personal exploration/journey that the journalist takes to try to find the answers can be really compelling. Emily Graslie’s videos are a lot like that—she’s the voice/character that’s going through and learning things.

Tiên: For print journalists new to producing multimedia stories, what are some key differences between writing for a listener or viewer as opposed to a reader? 

Cynthia: I have one main rule I first tell print people: Get rid of your commas. Get rid of the clauses. Your sentences should be short, the way you’d speak to someone in person. It should look strange to you on the page. Numbers should be used sparingly.

I often edit radio docs in my head. It’s not unusual to hear on air: “The guy, who was lounging against the wall, had a cigarette in his hand and looked about 16.” [But] you’d never say that. You’d say: “The guy was lounging against the wall. He had a cigarette in his hand. And he looked about 16.”

Rob: In terms of content, a good guideline is one new concept per story. Of course, if you have a lot of time to tell your story—and so an enormous budget—you can introduce much more than one concept. But your audience has to be ready for that and willing to pay for it: Sitting down to listen to a bard’s tale, going to see a movie, downloading an hour-long podcast, etc.

Rose: A lot of print people who try to write for multimedia for the first time fall into what I call “Batman radio voice.” It’s kind of a mix between trying to sound really interesting and really authoritative—but it winds up sounding like some kind of NPR phone sex line. Don’t try to sound like Ira Glass or Jad Abumrad or Robert Krulwich or whoever else you think is awesome. They are awesome, but you’re way better off just getting your meaning really clear, and then delivering it like yourself. 

Tiên: What does your scriptwriting process look like? 

Rose: For a reported piece, when there are voices other than mine, I start with an outline of the piece, even before I talk to anybody. As I interview people, I change that outline. Then when I have all my pieces (both audio and video) I tend to go through and mark the piece with who can comment on what and slot in my favorite pieces of tape/clips. Then I write the script around those pieces of tape/clips.

When I’m writing a script for a voiceover and animation, the process is pretty similar, just without outside voices. In that case I also make little notes about the transitions and try to make them really, really seamless. Visual transitions are really hard, and if you can write your script to make them easier the whole thing will feel a lot smoother.

Rob: To structure a story, the strategy I use is to tell it aloud. When I was just starting out, I would do this by going to bars and talking to people who were drinking or who’d had too much to drink. If I could keep those people interested and they didn’t need to interrupt me to make sense of what I was saying, then I felt the structure was solid. Nowadays, I try the story on writer-friends who behave like drunks in response to my storytelling—telling me when I’ve lost their interest, etc. It is entertaining for them, and there’s no bartender who keeps trying to get me to buy another drink. 

Soren: Here’s where I admit that I have no real experience in what would be considered traditional script writing. For me, things usually get said out loud first, then put on paper. I work on a collaborative team and the best lines almost always come in conversation with someone else, when you are trying to say it back and forth to each other, talking it through over and over again. Usually we are either recording or someone is keeping notes as we go, though the process is not always as organized as you’d want it to be. Sometimes the right line pops out on the way to lunch, and you just have to type it or say it into your phone.

Tiên: How do you treat scientific terms or concepts that may be foreign to an audience? 

Soren: The terms are my last concern. The definition of a word is never what you want people to walk away with. They can get that from a dictionary. On top of that, technical terms are usually a cop-out to having to explain something—they summarize information that your listener probably doesn’t understand. You’re better off if you just refuse to use them until you are absolutely forced to. Then make sure they come after your listener understands the thing they are labeling.

Rose: For the TED-Ed videos, we do introduce terms and definitions, but I try to make that the least important part of the video and cut the number of definitions I’m pushing to a minimum.

Tiên: In print journalism, you can easily go back to your sources if you need to clarify quotes. In audio and video interviews, is there more pressure to get it all in one session?

Cynthia: You can’t go back. Get it all. That said, if I’m in Boston, and I’m doing a story on a Boston-based subject, I may well meet with that subject more than once in person. Or when I was out in the field for days in Peru, I could ask the subject something on day 2 that occurred to me from day 1. But in general, you can’t clarify or restate anything while you’re writing or shaping a piece, as you might want to do with print.

Rob: I do sometimes go back to a source for a follow-up interview, particularly if there’s new information since I originally interviewed that source (such as with a story in which you’re getting a reaction to what someone else said). In those new-information cases, I’ll usually call. That way, it provides an additional audio signal to the listener that I too, like my imagined audience, am interested in that source’s take on the new information in the story. And I’ll tell the listener they’re about to hear phone tape, and the reason why.

Tiên: Let’s wrap up on a technical note. What tools do you use for recording audio and video, and what software for editing?

Cynthia:  I’ve been working with a Sony PCM-D50 [voice recorder] for years, and it’s held up beautifully and I adore it. I pair it with an Audio Technica condenser mic; they sound fantastic together.

As with most people in public radio, I started editing on ProTools. It’s expensive, and it’s overbuilt for much of what radio reporters need. Now that I’m totally freelance, I’m using Hindenburg, which was designing specifically for journalists as opposed to musicians. There are some features of ProTools that I miss, and some in Hindenburg that I’m sure I just haven’t learned yet. But overall, it’s a solid, inexpensive piece of software, relatively straightforward, with good online tutorials.

Rob: I wish there was an affordable single piece of audio-recording equipment that would work for everything. I liked the (now discontinued) Marantz PMD660. The successors are not terribly affordable now that I’m a freelance, so, for conferences (plugging in to mult boxes and wall outlets), I tend to use the Tascam DR40. Unfortunately, its battery life is not sufficient for a full day in the field. So I asked around and finally decided on a Sony PCM-M10. For a microphone, I just bid a sad farewell to my Audio Technica AT-835b. I replaced it with an AT-8035, the updated version that allows me to use the same windscreen.

As to video cameras, I have a very trusty and solid-state HD recorder made by Canon, the Vixia HF S21, which was recommended to me by Betsy Mason at Wired. I can use the same Audio Technica microphone with it.

As to software, I too first learned Pro Tools, but then switched to Cool Edit while at St. Louis Public Radio. I was freelancing on the side, though, and my computer was a Mac, so I found a start-up software company called Bias that made Peak and Deck. Both are now discontinued, but I still use them on my freelancing computer. A couple of months ago, I tried Hindenburg, and it’s nice. I’ll be switching to it since it integrates the functions of both Peak and Deck in one. Though I’ll still process audio with Bias’s Soundsoap, which does a great job of removing most any constant noise very simply, so that you sound like you’re in a studio even when you’re not.


Tiên Nguyễn Courtesy of Tiên Nguyễn

Tiên Nguyễn is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is an organic chemist and communications specialist for the Princeton University chemistry department. She aims to make chemistry more accessible to the public through her writing, outreach and educational videos. Her writing interests also include drug discovery, physics and gender equality. Follow Tiên on Twitter @mustlovescience.

Skip to content