It’s often said about broadcast writing that it should sound conversational, but what usually goes unsaid are all the little technical things and thoughtful phrasing that go into giving written prose the feel of conversation. Those techniques will be a large part of my emphasis here.
One such important ‘rule’ (in quotes because, once well understood, rules can be treated as guidelines and cheerfully broken to achieve a desired effect) is avoiding appositives. An appositive is a word or phrase, set off by commas, that further describes the noun it follows. For example:
John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is now enjoying his retirement.
Appositives are incredibly common in print newswriting, but in my opinion, they should be incredibly rare in broadcast writing. The reason is, quite simply, that they are incredibly rare in conversational speech and a big red flag that what you’re hearing from your radio or TV was really intended to be read, not spoken.
So how to avoid them? The most common technique in broadcast writing is to turn an appositive into an adjective phrase:
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili is now enjoying his retirement.
With short phrases up to three or four words (‘Dayton fire chief George Smith says…’) this works very well, but in longer cases such as our example (seven words) it can be very awkward and, well, unconversational. So there are a couple of other options. One is to trim some syllables out of the phrase, if possible:
Joint Chiefs chair John Shalikashvili is now enjoying his retirement.
That works pretty well. But in cases where, for whatever reason, I can’t prune my description, I like to break it off into its own sentence.
John Shalikashvili is former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s now enjoying his retirement.
Even better (if time allows) would be a version that recasts the tense and adds a little information to eliminate the word ‘former.’
John Shalikashvili was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the mid-nineties. He’s now enjoying his retirement.
In both these cases, the phrasing seems pretty awkward when read in print. But try them aloud: you’ll see they sound much more natural than an appositive or even a long adjective phrase.
Note that this two-sentence technique is an exception to my ‘rule’ about blah to-be verbs, which I’ll expound on at a later date.