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Please curb your writers

Some years ago, at a reception for one of The Sun’s grandees on the occasion of his retirement, the honoree reminisced about the good old days at the paper, when the job of a foreign correspondent or Washington correspondent was to file a story, and the job of the layout editors and copy editors was to see that every blessed word made it into print. (He fixed me with a steely glare as he said this.)

Those were the glory days of cheap newsprint, open-handed advertisers, and towering egos. Today, only the egos remain.

But before I hear the dirt thudding on the coffin lid of newspaper journalism, I would like to say something about the benefits of the limitations of print. They could require concision.

There are reporters who will dump everything in their notebooks into a story. There was a reporter long ago whom the copy desk knew as Our Lady of the Clips, because every story she filed ran a minimum of twenty-five column inches, amply padded with previously printed background information. Second day of jury selection in the murder trial? Twenty-five inches.

But it falls to the copy desk to fit the story within the available space. Skillful copy editors can trim a redundant phrase here, supply a shorter word there, pick up a widow, and cut a story by ten percent or more in a way that only a reporter with an eidetic memory would perceive. I have occasionally regretted having to take out material, but, day to day, I have more commonly performed a service to the reader by sparing him wasted time.

Today we have the brave new world of the Internet, celebrated because it permits an expansiveness not curtailed by the availability of space on the printed page. But before you fling your hat into the air and join the tickertape parade, I invite you to examine a specimen one of my readers has forwarded.

It is an article from the Lumina News in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., about an automobile accident in which a young woman, a week before her scheduled appearance in a Miss Hooters beauty pageant, and a friend were struck down and seriously injured by a driver who appears to have been drunk.

It runs to nearly 1,700 words.

Structurally, it is rather like a story told by an old man in a barbershop who keeps losing his thread.

Stylistically, the mode is the High Overwrought:

Their heads hit the windshield, leaving remnants of hair pasted to the glass.

The Honda’s hood was dented, and the windshield was so severely smashed it was nearly impossible to see through. Tidbits of glass lay scattered on the dashboard, underneath a pair of sunglasses dangling from the rearview mirror.

Do savor it while it is still available.

In print journalism, when an editor was unable or unwilling to rein in a writer’s misguided enthusiasms, the limitations of space sometimes supplied a need discipline. Today, without the constraints of space or, increasingly, editing, you may wonder, dear reader, whether anyone is thinking of you.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:15 PM | | Comments (12)
        

Comments

Many people don't understand the difference between writing a novel and writing to provide information (as I do as a technical writer). A story about a woman who was killed in an auto accident is not meant to be entertaining or even "a good read"!

I agree with Karla. That story is a bit too vivid for a news account of an accident. But, the woman was only injured, albeit rather severely, but not killed.

On Twitter: @yelvington: Maybe they should give away the news and charge for getting to the point.

The greater the ratio of notes to story, the better the story. An 80-inch story may be a fast read if it's written from 1,000 inches of notes. A five-inch story from five inches of notes may be a long read. It's astonishing how much judgment is required in writing and editing a story.

I often wonder what is taught at "journalism" schools. I am rather certain what is not taught, writing being at the top of the list..

I'm happy that the wreck story found an outlet. Now let's keep in mind that today's interns will be tomorrow's New Media Editors.

The lurid and meandering prose was one thing, but this passage is your surest indication that no copy editor ever glanced at this epic:

"Witnesses told police the driver barely tapped his breaks..."

We all know that should be "tapped HER breaks," as the driver had no fractures to speak of.

:-)

You should send that article to Prof. Pullum; it may convince him that some people, sometimes, could improve their writing substantially by following the rules of Strunk and White.

"Tidbits of glass"? Tidbits of glass?

And Prof Pullum would only say that such writers could benefit from anything, not just S&W.

I read the article and am impressed by Mr. Freskos's creative writing ability. Mr. Freskos included more details in his drunk driving accident report than one usually hears in an episode of the Discovery Channel's "I Shouldn't Be Alive."
It is a bit much for a news article though, where bare facts would make for a much more news-like (and less cringe-worthy) read.

Lurid. Thank you, Tim Windsor, for using that word. Perhaps my existence is just too sheltered, but I simply never seem to need the word and, therefore, it was not available when I was puzzling over how, even, to describe such telling!

I have a cousin who speed-reads through newspaper by reading only the headlines. Her theory is that the story rarely adds much to the information she gains from the header. I was aghast, but sometimes I have to agree with her.

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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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