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The main things

A couple of weeks ago I talked to the staff of The Retriever Weekly, the campus paper at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I had half an hour to tell them what I thought it was most important for them to know. I know so little that it was easy. At the risk of being tediously obvious, here’s what I advise.

Accuracy comes first. If what you publish is not factually correct, you will look stupid, and your credibility will slowly evaporate. You have to get people’s names right. You have to get place names right. You have to get the details right. If the reader sees that you have allowed factual errors, it won’t matter how elegantly you write.

Clarity comes next. If your writing isn’t clear, it won’t matter that it is correct. You are, in effect, imposing on the reader’s time, and the easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading. Don’t give the reader an excuse. Use conversational language instead of jargon. Cut padding ruthlessly. Read your text out loud to yourself; hearing what you have written will expose awkward spots.

Get to the point. Steve Young, one of my colleagues on The Sun’s copy desk, says that the most useful advice he ever got in college came from the professor who told him, “Say one thing.” Your article, however many subsidiary elements or subtopics it may carry, has to be about one thing. Establish what that is, and tell the reader as soon as you can manage.

Be honest. Plagiarism and fabrication have embarrassed the small and the mighty, campus papers to the big time. You must show the sources of your information; the reader has a right to see that. And you must do your own work. Remember the things you were taught in elementary school: Don’t copy. Don’t tell lies.

Everybody needs an editor. H.L. Mencken wrote, “No man, I argued, could be expected to read his own copy; it was a psychological impossibility. Someone should be told off to go through it, and that someone should be responsible for undetected slips.” You are not a better writer than Henry Mencken. Get somebody you trust to look over your stuff and tell you honestly what doesn’t work.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:14 PM | | Comments (3)


Sorry and no disrespect to H.L., but what does this mean: "Someone should be told off to go through it"?

One of the many meanings of "tell" is "to count." To "tell off" is to separate and identify. When your publisher tells the newsroom staff to line up in the parking lot and count off by fours, you know what's coming. To Mencken more than half a century ago, "tell off" would mean "assign." Today, of course, "rebuke" would be the more common understanding.

This is a wonderful distillation of what we do and what we try to convey to our colleagues and the rest of the thinking world.

I'm going to share it with my students, current and future, out here in the Southwest.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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