Eyes vs. Ears

What is the difference between writing for text and writing for the spoken word?

Journalism is shared on different media platforms in different ways. The two main presentations of journalism are by text, or by the spoken word. One is for the eyes and the other for the ear, one is an article and the other is a script. This essay will outline the differences between writing for text and writing for the spoken word, by analysing the key differences: targets, length and tense. It will also use examples from the NZ broadcasting industry to support the findings and prove that all writing should be good writing. As Sissons (2006) said, “good writing is not a luxury; it is an obligation” (pp. 82).

The first point of difference relates to what senses are used for different styles of writing on media platforms. Radio is about sound; ears, print is about text and still images; eyes, and television is a combination of both (Grundy, 2007). The difference is the style of writing; broadcast copy needs to be conversational but concise (Bliss and Patterson, 1978). NewstalkZB newsreader Niva Retimanu said, “act like you’re having a conversation with one person” (personal communication, August, 2015). Conversational means contractions can be used, as they are part of normal speech. Conjoining words such as but and are also add to a more conversational speech as they connect ideas (Barnas and White, 2013). With writing for print the style is almost opposite. This means no contractions, as the text needs to maintain the correct formality (Alysen, 2012). Another aspect to consider is that viewers are often occupied while listening to a broadcast copy. An example of this is driving or eating. This means it is important to produce a copy that can be understood immediately and at once (Grundy, 2007). With print, a copy can be re-read if people do not understand it on the first read.

Another key point is the difference in length between written text and spoken word. As well as being conversational, spoken word also needs to be simple. This means avoiding complicated sentences, keeping sentences short, and using easily understandable language to ensure the writer gets straight to the point (Sissons, 2006). This allows it to flow better when the listener hears it, making it easier to grab their attention, and to aid in their understanding of the topic (Alysen, 2012). The more formal approach in written text is a chance for the writer to elaborate on more than just the basic facts of the story. This means they are able to provide a lot of background information and articles with different angles on the same topic (Bliss and Patterson, 1978). Compared with broadcast, print copy has a wider range of writing styles, offering more opportunities. They are able to target their audience through more genres, such as politics and sport, whereas spoken word tends to aim for a larger audience where everyone understands (Sissons, 2006). Although writing for the spoken word needs to be simple, this should never be at the expense of accuracy (Alysen, 2012). ‘Write tight’ is a common newsroom injunction regarding a spoken word script. To write tight is a reminder that the selection of detail that is chosen when pressed for words should be the most important information (Bliss and Patterson, 1978). Like Niva Retimanu said, “you must have the clarity and you must be accurate” (personal communication, September 2015). An example of this presentation difference in NZ broadcasting is Radio NZ and The NZ Herald’s reports concerning the announcement of an unarmed David Cerven. Radio NZ’s report was 46 seconds long and contained the new information that a coroner had confirmed Cerven was unarmed on the night that police shot him. They also had a recount of the night (Radio NZ, 0.9”). In the NZ Herald article similar information was used but their recount of the event was more in-depth. They also gave a description of Cerven’s personality and why he might have self-inflicted his death (“Myers Park Shooting,” 2015). This is an effective example because it shows the different treatments of written word and spoken word, the simplicity of broadcast and detail of print. If the listener is intrigued by broadcast, they can find more details in print (Alysen, 2012).

The final key difference concerns the tense that is used when writing for an article or a broadcast script. Spoken word should be written in either the present tense or the future tense. This is so they can broadcast what is currently happening or what is going to happen (Sissons, 2006). This active voice is effective because it speeds it up and encourages more engagement, as it focuses specifically on the action, creating a more dramatic impact on the audience (Barnas and White, 2013). An example of this is the initial report from Radio NZ of an Auckland factory explosion of an oil tank. They spoke in an active voice including sentences like, “one person has been killed, explosion roared through and now there is nothing left” (Radio NZ, 0.10”). This is effective because it attracts the audience from the beginning, keeping them listening and allowing them to imagine what it was like at the scene. The active is more specific; it is the most effective tool to make the audience feel as if they are at the scene. Writing for text is usually written in the past tense and passive voice, as it has to be written after the news has happened because they are reporting back on it. With the development of the Internet, now print can also be written in the present tense, as the Internet is a quick platform for news to be uploaded and shared immediately (Alysen, 2012).

In conclusion, there are many other details, which provide difference between written text and spoken word, but the three differences explained in this essay have the biggest effect. The main facts, who, what, when, where and why are required in both but are treated in different ways. If this style is written correctly, is natural, compelling and ‘sounds’ right, then it makes good writing (Barnas and White, 2013).




Alysen, B. (2012). The electronic reporter: broadcast journalism in Australia. Sydney:

University of New South Wales Press.

Barnas, F., & White, T. (2013). Broadcast news: Writing, reporting, and producing (5th

ed.). USA: Taylor and Francis.

Bliss, E., & Patterson, J. (1978). Writing news for broadcasting. New York: Columbia

University Press.

Grundy, B. (2007). Writing news for radio, television and the internet. In, So you want to

be a journalist. Port Melbourne, VIC: Cambridge University Press.

Macleod, C. (2015). News bulletin recorded at 11am [Radio show]. NZ: Radio NZ.

Retrieved from, http://www.radionz.co.nz/radionz/programmes/news-bulletin/audio/201770718/radio-new-zealand-news

Myers Park shooting: David Cerven unarmed when police fired (2015, September 16).

The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from,


Sissons, H. (2006). Writing for broadcast. In, Practical journalism: How to write news (pp.

81-134). London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Wright, N. (2015). News bulletin recorded at 11am [Radio show]. NZ: Radio NZ.

Retrieved from, http://www.radionz.co.nz/radionz/programmes/news-bulletin/audio/201770848/radio-new-zealand-news


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