Words & Language Toolbox
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.” That’s not only ungrammatical, but it also goes too far and yet not far enough.
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., the branch of physics dealing with the nature and properties of light and vision.” I mean “optics” in this sense: Before moving ahead, we must consider the risks of this plan — I mean in terms of its optics.
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’s the first thing we want to know when reading this lead?