Stop me if you've heard this one
Hack, the word for a drudge who will write for hire, typically an inept writer, derives from hackney, a horse that is available for hire by anyone, and therefore likely worn out and of little use. The related adjective hackneyed describes something used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have become trite.
If you are a reader of newspapers or magazines, or a listener of speeches and sermons, you have encountered many hackneyed openings. I don’t purport to have an exhaustive list, but here are a number of those deadly commonplaces that a writer of any pretensions to originality will shun.
The dictionary definition
Webster’s says … should immediately put you off. To begin with, there is no such thing as Webster’s. There are a number of dictionaries from different publishers that use Webster’s in their titles.
Any opening that you recognize from a sermon or letter to the editor should immediately strike you as useless.
King James English
Many writers who attempt a bogus Jacobean English get the grammar wrong. Take, for example, a headline, The taxman will certainly cometh. The suffix -eth is used only with third-person singular, present-tense verbs — not with plurals, not with first or second persons, not with future tenses. Similarly, the suffix –est -is used only with second-person singular, present-tense verbs. In addition to being wrong on the grammar, such writers are mistaken in imagining that dressing up a contemporary event in archaic clothes will look novel or interesting.
The official declaration
“It’s official,” followed by some statement, is staler than the Halloween candy in the back of the hall closet. Saying, “It’s official,” means that something long anticipated has come to pass — i.e., is not particularly newsy.
The lone word
The one-word, one-paragraph lead is supposed to grab you by the lapels and seize your attention.
The second paragraph will get around to telling you what the article is about, often in an anticlimax.
The “that is” gambit
You open with a statement that points in one direction, then feint in to another, with a mechanical transition. Actress Geena Davis already has an Oscar. Now she’s shooting for the gold. Olympic gold, that is.
The “that is” is the giveaway that you are straining to link two things that really have no connection.
The interrogatory lead
Have you ever wondered how haggis is made?
No, and so I turn the page.
Posing a direct question to the reader leaves a broad opening for the reader to turn aside.
The “not alone” transition
Writing an anecdotal lead — in which one person’s experience turns out to be emblematic of the subject of the article — requires an eventual transition into the body of the story. That transition is the weak joint, the point at the reader’s interest may be lost. We have often sacrificed that interest with the “not alone” transition: X is a person in a hell of a mess. X is not alone.
The anecdotal lead has become such a commonplace piece of business in the trade that every reader recognizes the structure. An editor can excise the X is not alone transition every time without making any difference to the article apart from shortening it by four superfluous words.
Another lame transition from the anecdotal lead to the body of the story: the description of some woeful situation, followed by Welcome to the world of. … This device should always be unwelcome. Similarly, the two-or-three-paragraph lead describing a person, followed by Meet John Doe, has also worn threadbare.
If you have ever resorted to these elderly measures, or been complicit in their publication, it is not too late to repent and resolve to sin no more.