One of the most unfortunate paradoxes in newswriting is that any day’s worst writing is usually in any day’s most important story. Or, put another way, the more significant the story, the harder it can be to understand.
We might say: Well, sure, harder stories are harder, period – both to write and to read. But making difficult stories easy to understand is the primary task of professional newswriters. All the effort of gathering news is to no avail if we can’t report it clearly. Anyone can write poorly, and anyone can write gibberish.
Why are we at our worst when challenged most? The more the pressure to perform, the more we tend to choke. In writing, it translates: The more we need finesse, the more ham-fisted the effort.
And in writing, both writer and reader pay the consequence.
Consider a current important story – the Enron debacle. Here’s the top of a report that appeared in a major daily:
There is increasing evidence that Enron’s board, composed of many prominent and financially sophisticated people, was actively involved in crucial decisions that may have led to the company’s downfall. While the board fired Andersen as Enron’s auditor Thursday and contended it only learned of the serious concerns raised about the company’s accounting and financial practices in October, the directors appear to have played a significant role in overseeing the partnerships at the center of Enron’s collapse.
The board – which includes Wendy L. Gramm, a former government regulator and the wife of Senator Phil Gramm, Republican of Texas; John Wakeham, a member of the British House of Lords and a former British cabinet leader; and Norman P. Blake Jr., the chief executive of Comdisco, a computer services company – even went so far as to suspend Enron’s code of ethics to approve the creation of the partnership between Enron and its chief financial officer, according to the report of a preliminary investigation conducted at Enron’s request by the law firm of Vinson & Elkins.
That lead paragraph is overlong and muddy but is easily pruned and clarified because its two sentences make basically the same point. The only solid new information in the second sentence is Andersen’s firing, corollary information that could as easily go into a third paragraph. Another problem with the lead is its vague and fuzzy reference to Enron’s partnerships as “at the center of Enron’s collapse.” Briefly explaining the effect of those partnerships would make the lead more accessible and more coherent.
More challenging is the single sentence of the second paragraph, a 96-word monstrosity so bad it simply stuns. The sentence is not only too long, it’s also poorly crafted. The 49-word interruption between actor (the board) and action (went so far as) is a list, and well-crafted lists often are exempt from sentence-length concerns – if they stand alone or are at sentence end. But this one intervenes between subject and verb, and the obvious happens. We get so entangled in the long and busy interruption that when we reach the verb, we no longer remember what it belongs to and must back up and re-read. Writers who forget that the clearest English sentence is a straightforward rendering of subject-verb-object are bound to create structures that violate both craft and common sense.
But, all that aside, we need neither craft nor common sense to know the sentence doesn’t work. Any sentence containing 13 prepositions is unreadable – no matter what else is going on. Unreadable, but not beyond rescue. Granted, it’s an ambitious sentence. It seeks to present a board action as well as the implicit suggestion that the board includes people of prominence, sophistication, and impressive background. But the sentence supports a lead that explicitly makes that very point. Why say again unclearly what already has been said clearly? Here’s a more straightforward lead for this complex story:
Evidence is mounting that Enron’s board, which includes many prominent and financially sophisticated people, was actively involved in decisions contributing to the company’s downfall. For example, the board waived Enron’s code of ethics to approve partnerships between the company and its chief financial officer, says Vinson & Elkins, a law firm that conducted a preliminary investigation at Enron’s request. Those partnerships kept much of the company’s debt off its books and masked its huge losses.
Enron’s board of directors includes Wendy L. Gramm, a former government regulator and wife of Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm; John Wakeham, a member of the British House of Lords and a former British cabinet leader; and Norman P. Blake Jr., chief executive of Comdisco, a computer services company.
The board fired Andersen as Enron’s auditor Thursday and contends that it first learned of serious concerns regarding the company’s accounting and financial practices in October. The report’s disclosures leave little doubt, however, that … .
One suspects that the real intent of the original second paragraph was to help the reader be shocked and appalled. That would explain the unreadable thrusting of those names before the somewhat breathless charge that they “even went so far as to … .” If writing between the lines was the motive, it wouldn’t be the first time that a writer so little trusted readers to understand the facts that he made the facts impossible to understand.
In any event, the media have analysts, columnists, editorialists, and critics aplenty whose business it is to be shocked and appalled. The reporter’s business is to report and write well – that is, clearly, accurately, objectively. And nowhere is that more imperative than when writing the day’s biggest stories – those that may affect the readers’ lives.
Paula LaRocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she has served as a writing coach for 20 years. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.