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.