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Weaning

You have been on formula long enough. It’s time to make the transition to solid food.

By formula I mean the stock phrases and predictable constructions that make journalism so easy to put together quickly, and so boring to readers.

 Take, for example, the not alone construction, which I saw in The Sun this very morning. Whenever you write about a particular person’s situation and attempt a transition to the body of the story by saying that that person is not alone, TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THE KEYBOARD and think. Would it make any difference at all to the story, to the reader, or to you if you omitted that sentence? Of course not. Strike it out, and never resort to that construction again.*

If you are the editor of that story, remember that management gave you a computer with a delete key.

A colleague laments the prevalence of police report jargon in the paper and online, giving these examples:

Failed to negotiate a curve: 78 times in our library system (thankfully, last time was Oct. 2009)

Wooded area: 1,685 times in our library system

High rate of speed: 179 times in our library system

 He also disparages the construction intersection of instead of saying simply, for example, at Calvert and Centre streets.

Wooded area brings to mind the leafy streets where the well-off live, the gritty streets where the not-well-off live, the hardscrabble areas where the rural poor live, the stately homes where the really well-off do not live so much as reside. Most ominous is inner city, a term translated in the minds of middle-class white readers** as meaning inside the city limits where only poor black people given to drugs and crime live.

No single post can hope to deal exhaustively with this reliance on prefabricated language, so you can expect regular updates as further examples come up.

In the meantime, you — you, the writer — wonder what you are supposed to do if I am denying you all these resources. I suggest that you attempt something more ambitious than merely repeating what has been written before. You, after all, are the creative one, the one with Imagination. I’m just a humble drudge of an editor, sitting off in the corner and fiddling with the punctuation. Show me what you can do when you put your mind to it.

  

*A remark well worth repeating: A writer once objected to my having deleted a not alone sentence from her story, saying, “When I use it, it’s not a cliche.” L’eclat, c’est moi.

**The same people the local television stations like to throw a scare into by filling up the intervals between inane chatter with easily harvested police reports.

 

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:13 AM | | Comments (4)
        

Comments

All I want to know is where the bowtie and martinee videos are?!

I was once told that, "Throwing his/her hat in the ring" or "Name in the hat" was an automatic DQ in some tv shops. It was true, I saw a very arrogant anchor/reporter do that and disappear shortly thereafter.

Another automatic DQ was, "It was surreal..." That was tough to avoid on 9/11.

As for TV news chatter...it is usually for accordion purposes. I had to chat with the weatherman when I saw that there were still 30 seconds left on the clock.
It's not easy to break out the small talk either. You just look at his graphics and see a sun then you look at him and say, "Well we have a little bit of sun to look forward to. Do you see that lasting into the weekend?"

"high rate of speed" bothers me for an entirely different reason: It's absolutely wrong most of the time a reporter uses it. "rate of speed" is the change in speed (usually with respect to time) a more common term for change in speed is acceleration. So not only did the writer use a cliche, they also mucked up the physics by talking about how the high acceleration was a "contributing factor" to the accident.

Long ago - pre-email era even - I worked for a retired police officer turned person-who-worked-in-a-business-office. His letters and memos were all in cop-speak. It took me forever to finally stop correcting his syntax as I typed. He seemed to truly believe that he was precise and everyone else was less so. The reasoning - which I could not compute - was part of the really cranky lecture everytime I attempted and edit.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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