We sometimes see in newspapers a great difference in the quality of staff and wire copy. This is especially true of newspapers whose writers and editors are trying hard to write as clearly, precisely and conversationally as they can. Whenever such a difference between staff and wire stories appears, we can be sure of one thing: The standards for excellence are being unequally applied. The reason a newspaper’s wire editors may fail to refine and polish the copy they handle is threefold. First, they often assume that since the copy has been written and edited by professionals, it should be ready to go into the newspaper as it is. Second, they are typically under heavy deadline pressure and may feel they haven’t time to attend to copy that should be at least OK, especially since the writers aren’t available for query. Third, they see a steady stream of journalese and journalistic formula day after day – in such circumstance, taste tends to blunt and standards to drop. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: Inferior work is passed to readers who have every right to expect a high and uniform quality among the stories in the newspaper. Consider this lead from the wire services of a large and important newspaper: Racing against the specter of tighter regulation, many of the nation’s largest food companies have agreed to specify whether the foods they sell contain even tiny amounts of everyday ingredients that can cause potentially fatal allergic reactions. The two largest food industry groups are issuing voluntary guidelines for nutrition labels on processed foods. The guidelines will put more information on the face of hundreds of products eaten by millions of consumers and go well beyond what the law does to prevent allergy-provoking ingredients such as milk, eggs and nuts from appearing in foods without being identified on the label.
This is poor writing. That we see such work daily in newspapers across the country does not make it better. It’s choked with the structures, density, artificiality and bloat of journalese. It presents unimportant, unclear and uninteresting material while relegating important, clear and interesting details to the last half of the story – deep in the jump. Some major problems: • The lead begins with a breathless and inflated backing-in clause: “Racing against the specter of tighter regulation … .” Let’s say that regulation could, in metaphorical logic, be a “specter” – could we, should we, also race against it? Image hash aside, such backing-in clauses displace the subject – a lead’s most vital ingredient. • The first and third sentences are too long: 37 and 47 words. Studies show that readability begins to break down between 22 and 25 words. (Sentences containing lists are exceptions if the list follows subject and verb and in effect closes the sentence. For an example of a long but clear list sentence, see the second sentence in the rewritten lead below.) Length, however, is not the only thing wrong with that third sentence – it’s muddy and awkward as well. • The second sentence mentions the “two largest food industry groups” in the United States, but the story fails to identify those two groups. Superlatives (largest, smallest, tallest, oldest, second largest, etc.) usually create curiosity, and when they do, we should satisfy it. • Overall, the writing is abstract and overblown. It lacks the clear, concrete action that brings immediacy and meaning to stories. What are the “food industry groups” doing? Nothing concrete or interesting – they’re “issuing guidelines.” And what will those guidelines do? They’ll “put more information on the face of hundreds of products eaten by … consumers.” That last unfortunate passive – eaten by consumers – is especially awkward. Of course the foods – excuse me, products – are eaten by consumers. Finally, the unnecessarily and over-qualified “can cause potentially fatal allergic reactions” should be “can cause death” or “can be fatal.” Weak as this lead is, it can be strengthened in seconds. After all, it’s an inherently interesting story that affects millions. So we want to approach it as an interesting story rather than as a dreary report. How? Stick to plain, conversational English and (mostly) subject-verb-object sentences. Organize as if we were telling it. Borrow from later details that answer questions, rather than pose them. Maybe something like: Many U.S. food companies have decided to list even trace amounts of common allergens on their product labels. The companies are going beyond legal labeling requirements to benefit those allergic to such common foods as milk, eggs, wheat, fish, crab, lobster, soy and various nuts. Roughly seven million Americans are so sensitive to those foods that even small amounts can cause severe reaction or even death. Company representatives say they hope their actions may avert the tighter governmental regulations they fear. Wire stories often suffer the problems of journalistic formula, and fixing them must seem daunting to busy editors. Fact is, though, fixing journalese is one of the quickest and easiest tasks in editing. It usually involves removing journalese’s hackneyed template and recasting sentences for brevity, simplicity, conversational clarity and common sense. Both the readers and our publications will benefit if we take the time.
Paula LaRocque is assistant managing editor and writing coach at The Dallas Morning News. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.