Words & Language Toolbox
Reporters often wish to work on a “project” — something beyond routine reportage that would allow them to spread their writer’s wings, that would free them from the strictures of inverted pyramid and cramped space. In other words, a story. Not just a story as in “I’m writing the city council meeting story,” but a drama — with characters, conflict, setting, and beginning, middle and end.
Informational writers try hard to make their work come alive on the page. And the demand for brighter, more imaginative writing is increasing along with the proliferation and competition of print and online media. That demand comes not only from readers but also from newsroom editors, workplace managers and corporate bosses.
When I taught j-school, a fresh semester also meant creating a fresh syllabus and lectures and lab exercises. To do that, I’d set aside several hours a day to study the writing in the various media. From that study, I’d draw actual examples — examples that were specific and concrete, reflected practice rather than theory and applied readily to what the students might see and imitate.
Journalists could learn a lot about lead-writing from nursery rhymes, which specialize in bright, natural beginnings. The tortured syntax of formula journalism — the habit, say, of beginning with a clause that delays the lead’s true business — is not for nursery rhymes.
A narrative skill that separates gifted media writers from the less gifted is the ability to stay out of the story. Obviously, some writers have the latitude to write first-person and are thus often front and center — columnists and critics, for example, and opinion, analysis and travel writers.
My last column (January/February) discussed the passive voice and misunderstandings regarding its use that are common even among professional writers and editors. For example, some think that any sentence containing a “be” verb is passive. Others think that any weak, static or unassertive expression is passive.
Years ago, the managing editor of a Midwest newspaper for which I was conducting a writing workshop confided that he’d recently banned a certain usage in his newspaper and that the newsroom staff had met the ban with resistance and hostility.
Quill readers often send me material that appeared in their local media or that a friend passed to them or that they saw on the Internet —not just mistakes, but bloopers and oddities as well. Their offerings entertain and instruct me all year long, and this November/December issue is a perfect time to share some of the reader submissions I’ve received over the past year.
Correction: A previous headline for this article contained a misspelling – an editorial mistake not made by the author. Quill editors regret the error. Certain problems in language can persist over decades, even centuries, of attempted correction, as we see from the following: “In June, the House of Representatives took an historic vote to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation.”
Media writers often say they live by the quote. But if the quotations appearing daily in print journalism are any indication, they’re more likely to be dying by them. Here, from a Texas newspaper, is an example of a quote to die by: The study found that almost half the charter schools performed about the same as traditional public schools in math, said Dr.
Every media writer knows the importance of bright beginnings, but there seems no end of things that can go wrong. Among the most common problems is the anecdotal lead. Others are failures in logic, precision and taste. It’s hard to understand the media’s attachment to anecdotal leads.
Last month’s column discussed headline writing — not that we exhausted the subject. We spotlighted the “duh” headline, exemplified by several late entries: • “Older blacks have edge in longevity” • “Bible church’s focus is the Bible” • “Fish lurk in streams” Just as troublesome to careful headline writers as the “duh” is the double entendre headline.
The rush of news that seems to accompany a new year can create a bumper crop of weak, weird and wrong writing. Maybe it has to do with holiday overload or short staffs, or maybe we’re hung over, figuratively speaking, from the year that just passed and aren’t thinking clearly.
What’s wrong with the following sentences? • He saluted and surreptitiously wiped away the tears in his eyes when they raised the flag. • The path narrowed in width as it approached the bridge. • He wouldn’t speak because of the tape recorder but nodded his head in affirmation when asked if he’d been paid.
We’re writing a business story and have interviewed several CEOs. We comb our notebooks for clear, punchy quotations to buttress our narrative, and our best quote sounds something like this: 1) “Firstly, it is my opinion that to develop win-win procedures, attitudes and synergy, we have a strong need to strategize proactively — and that means rewarding and incentivizing all our staff so they will respond quickly and effectively at the employee level to directly address our challenges and problems in the immediate future.”
What’s the first thing we should do if we are writing for an English-speaking audience and for a U.S. print medium? Do I hear, “Write in English”? Can’t go wrong with that answer. Yet there are passages in American newspapers and magazines that challenge even native English speakers.
August 1st, 2008 • Words & Language Toolbox
Words & Language: Book critics could use some critiquing
If certain types of media writing consistently yielded excellence, we’d expect book reviews to be among them. Yet, book reviews are sometimes muddy and unclear. Book reviewers often have literary credentials and might be authors themselves. So you’d think they’d know how to craft clear, readable sentences and the importance of crafting such sentences.
Recording what we see is one of the least challenging tasks in writing; any competent writer can write competent description. But writing good description, creating pictures with words — ah, that’s another matter. Mere competence won’t give us the necessary command to select exactly the right image and dress it in exactly the right words.
The most common enemy of a clear, brief, direct and compelling writing style is wordiness. Whenever we use more words than necessary, we drain the work of its vigor. Skilled writers understand the hazards of wordiness and seek to make every word count.
A newspaper columnist writes of visiting the “red, brick house” of an elderly aunt who had a “large, ugly wart.” That comma between red and brick is as ugly as the wart, while the comma between large and ugly is just fine.
Tin ear: “The man who blew away half of a woman’s face last week was released from a mental hospital several weeks earlier …” He blew away half a woman’s face? What, he just huffed and he puffed and he blew her face in?
The catalog of media writing flaws is fat to say the least, but there’s one category we say too little about, and that’s blather. Loosely defined, blather is nonsense. It’s twaddle. And when talking twaddle, it doesn’t matter how good the story, how bright the phrasing, or how accurate the facts, grammar and structure.
Mixed, mangled or overdone metaphor is a leading contender for the Silly Little Mistake That Stops Readers Dead in Their Tracks Award. Consider this from a newspaper story: “She realized she had been walking blindly through life, mired in a void.”
Journalists often decry the professional jargon they have to wade through on certain beats to get to the meat of a message. They speak of the difficulty of covering science, medicine and academe, for example, because of those fields’ specialized lexicons.
When I discuss media writing on call-in radio shows, listeners invariably call in to complain about the anecdotal lead. Not that they know what to call it, but they describe it perfectly. The complaints go something like this: “Here’s what I hate about my newspaper,” they say.
No one with any knowledge of good writing disagrees that the cleanest, clearest, most interesting and dramatic sentence structure is subject-verb-object, in that order. That structure yields the active voice — that is: actor, action and acted upon, the most natural syntax in English.
An annoying habit of speech is failing to finish one thought before embarking on another. And so it is in writing. Parentheses and dashes can interrupt the flow of thought and damage the purpose and focus necessary to clear communication. Consider the following sentences, in which extraneous material disrupts flow: * “Indeed, so little is known about the artist’s early years and education (in 1584, at age 13, he was taken on as an apprentice in the Milan studio of Simone Peterzano, a former pupil of Titian’s and a painter of religious scenes) that the Caravaggio pilgrim might more profitably choose to pick up the painter’s trail in Rome, where the novice artist arrived in 1592 at age 21, determined to make his mark in a city experiencing a period of urban renewal and revitalization.”
What’s wrong with this paragraph? I was enthused about my community award until I learned I was to speak at the awards banquet. Then my hopes were decimated, to say the least. I’d received plenty of satisfying notoriety and was so reticent about appearing onstage that I was actually nauseous by the time I stood behind the podium.
Test your knowledge Several boys, including Tom and I, snuck over the wall and dove into the bushes beside the entry, where we waited for whomever was designated to open the door. Instead, cops rushed up. Some of the boys got away, but the cops handcuffed Tom and myself and forced us to lay face down on the drive.
What’s wrong with the following sentences? Each suffers the same common writing flaw. Can you spot it? 1. He saluted and surreptitiously wiped away the tears in his eyes. 2. The path narrowed in width as it approached the bridge. 3.
Let’s say we’re writing a story about how the earthquake in Hawaii may have affected tourism. We begin, as did this reporter: “Even as damage estimates mounted on Hawaii’s Big Island after Sunday’s 6.7-magnitude earthquake a few miles off the northwest coast, tourist rhythms have largely returned to normal.
A popular and engaging showcase of bad writing is the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, described by its sponsors as “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Each year, the Bulwer-Lytton chooses the best (worst) of deliberately bad opening sentences.