Just throw the ball already
On Saturday last, I was inflicted on a crowd of young people at the Associated Collegiate Press summer journalism workshops. It went pretty well. Of the three dozen who endured my workshop on achieving conversational English, only two walked out while I was talking. During the five critiques of campus newspapers, no one threw a punch.
The big surprise: There are people under 30 who read newspapers! Where have they been hiding in recent years?
The other surprise: They were mostly receptive to my well-worn wisdom:
Write the way a literate, informed adult would talk.
Shun jargon and journalese.
Grammar, syntax and usage are the tools of your craft. Master them.
There are a few real rules in English and a host of bogus rules. Learn the difference.
And, most of all, get to the point. Take this sentence: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The creation of the universe has a 10-word lead. Why does this story need more? (One of the editors from Wheaton College in Illinois said that that line was going up on their wall.)
I know, I know; you’ve heard all this from me before, but they are new to the game.
That last point turned out to be the major focus in the critiques. Page after page displayed articles that began like this:
There was a meeting Wednesday night in Room 410 of Pooter Hall of the Committee on Review of Committee Recommendations for the Formation of Committees, at which subcommittee reports were presented.
You just want to scream, “Did anyone say anything? Did anything happen?”
We know that readers scan, and we know that they move on fast when they encounter an obstacle or dullness. If we want them to read past that first sentence, that sentence has to get to the point of the story fast. Getting to the point without a lot of throat-clearing is one of the hard things to learn.
So here is the thing to remember always (and here, after 14 paragraphs, I am prepared to get to the point myself, and it’s a sports analogy):
The crowd doesn’t care about the windup; the crowd wants to see the pitch.