My career as a writing coach has taught me that good writing boils down to a few overriding principles.
The first is the writer’s clear-eyed understanding that writing is speech, written. And good writing is good speech, written. I’m not parroting the axiom “write like you speak.” That’s not only ungrammatical, but it also goes too far and yet not far enough. Better counsel would be “write as you speak when you speak well.”
The second is the writer’s ability to simplify — to accurately clarify the complex. As Albert Einstein said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Anyone can lay down unreadable screed. Or over-simplify. But translating accurately and readably demands skill.
The third is the writer’s ability to handle writing’s minutiae: grammar, structure, usage. If genius, as they say, is an infinite capacity for taking pains, so is good writing. Good writers are never careless. If they depart from convention, it’s for a reason and with knowledge rather than in ignorance.
Media writers often face tight deadlines, which make a capacity for taking pains harder to indulge. Enter the editor. Every writer needs an editor, but the deadline writer even more.
Consider this news passage:
The report’s 40-plus recommendations, also include barring NSA from asking companies to build ‘backdoors’ into their software so that the government may gain access to encrypted communications, barring it from undermining global encryption standards and prohibiting it from stockpiling ‘zero day’ hacking tools that can be used to penetrate computer systems, and in some cases, damage or destroy them, according to the individuals, who were not authorized to speak on the record.
The reader’s first thought: Wow, no wonder they aren’t authorized to speak, if this is the best they can do. But of course nobody speaks this way.
The reader’s second thought: Where’s the editor?
Difficult as that sentence is to read, just a few tweaks fix it. At 72 words, it’s about three times longer than it should be. The comma after “recommendations” is incorrect. And the tenses are off — the story concerns recommendations, not mandates, so verbs such as “may” or “can” should be conditional: “might,” “could,” “would,” etc.
The following reduces the passage to 51 words and breaks one sentence into three:
According to sources not authorized to speak on the record, the report’s 40-plus recommendations include barring the NSA from accessing encrypted company communications through software “backdoors.” Also, they would ban lowering global encryption standards. And they would prohibit stockpiling hacking tools that could penetrate or even damage or destroy computer systems.
While the original passage above showed the writer’s inability to write simply and conversationally, the next examples reveal an inadequate commitment to taking pains. Read the following sentence aloud, and you’ll see right away what both writer and editor should have seen:
“He’s on a ridiculous roll,” said Dave Karger, an Oscar expert who serves as chief correspondent at Fandango.com, of McConaughey.
The information following “Karger” interrupts the sentence’s flow and makes an awkward appendage of the words “of McConaughey.” It’s a hitch in the reader’s gitalong, but it’s easily fixed:
McConaughey is “on a ridiculous roll,” said Dave Karger, an Oscar expert and chief correspondent at Fandango.com.
Journalese is a carelessness that often gets past editors. But it shouldn’t:
The White House is expected to release Wednesday the report of a surveillance review board …
What is it that the White House is expected to release? Wednesday. Clumsily placed time elements are a hallmark of journalese. So is the vague passive “is expected to”? Expected by whom? To fix it, we need more information — for example, the White House plans to, will, is scheduled to …
The following is from a story on the Federal Reserve’s monthly purchase of $85 billion in bonds:
It will reduce that amount by $10 billion — a small but symbolic first step toward unwinding its unprecedented support of the economy.
Journalese: “unprecedented” and “unwind.” And also, in this case, “symbolic.” Symbolic of what? The writer is seeking a word that counterbalances small. “Significant,” “important” or “meaningful” would do, but “significant” is best because it alliterates with “small”:
It will reduce that amount by $10 billion — a small but significant step toward reducing its support of the economy.
A final example of writer and editor carelessness:
Putin’s Cold-War mindset doubtlessly played a factor in his Ukraine sortie.
“Doubtlessly” is incorrect — doubtless says it. Also incorrect is “played a factor.” Factors are not “played.” Something played a role, or was a factor. Edited: Putin’s Cold-War mindset doubtless played a role in his Ukraine sortie.
Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words,” “Championship Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com