Nothing annoys readers like having to plow through a litter of errors on their way to a period. And because even professional writers can get rusty regarding the basics, it’s a good idea to check on one’s recall from time to time.
March 28th, 2018 • Words & Language Toolbox
This checklist will help you edit faster and better
A reader had a question: “You say in The Book on Writing that we should write fast and edit slowly. As a reporter, I found that advice helpful, and I’ve tried to follow it. Problem is, I’m now a copy editor — and I edit too slowly.
My July/August column focused on the notion that good journalism thrives on good quotations. We said it was up to the writers to ensure that those quotations were indeed good. And by good, we meant that they displayed the same characteristics as good writing itself: clear, brief, accurate and conversational.
August 28th, 2017 • Quill Archives
Writing: Handle quotations with care, not obligation
The right quotes can enliven and humanize a story and help make it clear, credible and dramatic. Yet many quotations in media writing are dull, inscrutable and even ungrammatical. (The writer’s defense? Well, that’s what he said.) Overall, as with writing in general, the good quotation’s worst enemy is wordy, arcane phrasing: “The term originated in the early 20th century,” he said, “when evolutionary theory had it that most genes had a good variant that was by far the most common in the population, and one or a very few, very rare, harmful forms.”
Mistakes with modifiers are common in media writing. But they’re also easy to recognize and remedy. Most can reside comfortably under the heading “misplaced.” That’s what usually goes wrong with errant modifiers, whether they dangle or squint: They end up in the wrong place.
April 13th, 2017 • Quill Archives
Writing: Like, As If You Didn’t Know The Difference
When the ungrammatical jingle “Winston tastes good — like a cigarette should” appeared in the 1950s, it unleashed a national controversy over the proper uses of like and as. In fact, Walter Cronkite, then host of CBS News’ “The Morning Show,” disliked the error so much that he refused to read the offending words on the air, and an announcer had to do the deed.
A sharp-eyed reader named Tom sends examples from the media of what he calls the “sophomoric redundancy” of the phrasing “potentially dangerous.” He points to potentially dangerous natural gas levels, potentially dangerous levels of a fungicide in orange juice, even a potentially dangerous bit of choreography.
I get lots of reader queries about that and which. Here’s a typical email: “I’m pretty good at grammar and usage, but apparently I don’t have a clue about the correct use of which and that. There’s some principle at work here that I don’t understand.
I know a real-life Mrs. Malaprop, and it’s impossible not to grin when she speaks. Examples: She said she didn’t think her skin rash was generic because no one else in her family had it. She said that when she mentioned her favorite uncle, she meant Uncle Joe pacifically.
A self-described “obsessive-compulsive copy editor” sent the following: “I just saw the word miserly used as an adverb in an online news story: ‘What moral person could gratuitously, miserly, refuse health insurance to their own citizens?’” You probably spotted yet another error (albeit more common and less peculiar) in that sentence.
One thing I’ve learned during a decade of teaching writing in universities and two decades as a newsroom writing coach is the importance of the small things. The single syllable, for example. On one hand, single-syllable words are the province of naturally gifted writers.
An editor asks: “What’s with journalists and the verb ‘sunk’? We’re getting it wrong all over the place. Her spirits sunk, slowly the truth sunk in — like that. I learned to conjugate ’sank’ in the third grade!” That editor and I must have had the same third-grade teacher.
A common punctuation problem in media writing is the unnecessary comma between multiple adjectives preceding a noun. Whether or not we should separate adjectives with commas is a simple matter — there are even some grade-school tricks to help. Yet that mistake litters otherwise polished media writing: “She wowed in a gauzy, off-white, Zac Posen dress.”
Once, while chatting over lunch with a friend who also happens to be a highly skilled writer, I used a simile. I mentioned I’d had dinner with a woman whose false lashes were so profuse and so precariously attached that they looked like caterpillars clinging to her eyelids.
One of my year-end tasks is going through a fat desktop folder labeled “GRIST.” It contains writing examples, some sent by Quill readers, that I saved during the year and now must sort, read, write about or toss. Within my GRIST folder is another folder, labeled “SNARK.”
A friend told me he once heard a dinner speaker whose remarks were so disorganized and disjointed that at one point someone in the audience said quietly to those within earshot: “Let’s take up a collection and buy this guy a clue.”