Words & Language Toolbox
Racking your brain for the right word is particularly grueling on deadline. Are paramedics attempting to stanch the bleeding after a mass shooting? Or should that be staunch? And was the lawyer riffling through her notes, or rifling? Did the defense refute or rebut the arguments?
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.
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.”
Once, during my 20-year tenure as Dallas Morning News writing coach, an intern told me triumphantly: “Hey! I got all the W’s plus the H in my lead!” Now, writing being what writing is — that is, infinitely various — I knew the intern’s lead could be great.
I’ve often used this space to extol the virtue of the small word — the bright, clear word we all know and understand. So why do I bring it up again? I bring it up again because today, the day of this writing in April, would have been William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.
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.”
Sequence of tense is a basic construct of English grammar that should pose few problems to professional writers but in fact poses many. The sequencing of tenses seems so poorly understood in most newsrooms that basic tense errors litter media writing of all kinds.
Lesson learned: Write fast, edit slow By Paula LaRocque The best advice I ever got was from a college English professor. He was a notoriously demanding teacher, and I wanted to do well in his class. Naturally, I depended upon my time-honored habits as an overachiever.
It’s doubtless stating the obvious to say that good writing begins with the single word. Obvious it may be, but we writers are often so concerned with other aspects of writing that we neglect this most basic element. Of course words matter!
A constant challenge for media writers is translating for lay readers the dense and arcane writing from specialized fields such as science, business, medicine, law, education, etc. Those messages are often as important as they are unreadable, so they deserve the media’s careful attention.
Literacy. n. the state or quality of being literate; specif., a) ability to read and write b) knowledgeability or capability … (Webster’s New World Dictionary). By that definition, we can say with surety that the media world is populated by the literate.
There’s an old Bill Trader song I like a lot. It’s been recorded by artists as various as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jo Stafford, Hank Snow — even by Petula Clark, in French. It goes: Pardon me, if I’m sentimental When we say goodbye Don’t be angry with me should I cry When you’re gone, yet I’ll dream a little Dream as years go by Now and then there’s a fool such as I I like that song in part because it’s grammatical — a sometimes rarity in the world of pop music.
You know that weird phenomenon wherein you say a word over and over, and suddenly it doesn’t seem a word at all, just an unintelligible collection of letters? It can be any word — trilogy, say, or bunkhouse, or millisecond. You repeat it until your synapses stop firing or whatever, and you slap yourself in the head and say trilogy — wait, is that even a word?
A recent entry into the lexicon of trendy media-speak is the word optics. I don’t mean “optic” in the sense of “optic, adj., of the eye or sense of sight.” I don’t even mean “optics” (with an S) in the sense of “optics, n.,
Staff cutbacks have greatly affected media editing as well as writing and reporting — and we see the unfortunate consequence everywhere. The mistakes range from grammar to structure to the more challenging areas of organization, logic and reason. The best defense against embarrassing errors in language basics — grammar, spelling, punctuation — is for writers and reporters to submit more polished and professional work, at least in terms of simple mechanics.
We abandon the basics of good writing at our peril — such basics as sound grammar and structure, logical transition of detail, and the checklist of W’s and H. Consider this lead: “The credit ratings of 15 major banks were slashed on Thursday, the latest setback for an industry that is already grappling with global economic turmoil and weak profits.”
What you sometimes hear from broadcast journalists makes you think they could use a compendium of commonly misheard and mispronounced words. Of course, the hazard is greatest when those reporters are live instead of scripted and must therefore depend upon their own language skills.
We talk a lot in this column about the three most basic and necessary attributes of good writing: accuracy, clarity and brevity. But if we added a fourth, what might that attribute be? I think it would be interest, which is broader and harder to measure than accuracy, clarity or brevity.
Wordiness is the most common enemy of a clear, brief, compelling writing style. Wherever there’s deadwood in writing, there’s also a loss of vigor. That’s why skilled writers try to make every word count. There are many sources of deadwood, but repetitions and redundancies are among the easiest to spot and fix.
An interesting thing about monitoring media writing is seeing certain linguistic trends develop — including trends in errors. At this time last year, my 2010 folder bulged with a gaffe I hadn’t seen before but that suddenly appeared in the work of even competent writers.
During the dog days of my eighth summer, I wrote two mystery novels. To me, they were “novels” because each occupied six pages of my Big Chief tablet and represented a herculean effort. I even remember their titles. One was “Mark Her Off the List, John,” and the other was “Incident at Hidden Cave.”
You’d think some of the best writing we could find, we’d see in announcements — those brief, often urgent little blurbs and utterances. I mean: one line, two, three. How hard could it be? Pretty hard, apparently. Here’s a 12-word sentence from a medical notice: Send this to every person you know, it may save their life!
You’ve probably heard regarding usage that when enough of us are wrong, we’re right. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, words must mean what most educated readers think they mean. Definitions are not set in stone.