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Sounds like blah, blah, blah

Let’s see if we can guess why so many readers find conventional journalistic writing bloated and dull. Here is a typical lead to a recent news story:

In the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, congressional negotiators completed work Friday on landmark legislation that dramatically expands the government’s oversight of the financial industry.

The first thing that hits the reader squarely in the eyes is in the wake of. What that says is that something other than what I am talking to you about already happened, and I am going to delay telling you what the new thing is. Also, unless you are following a large boat, in the wake of is no more than a hackneyed metaphor.*

Add to that that at least a few of the readers, perhaps those picking up discarded newspapers in public places because they have been out of work for several months, had already heard that we are in the middle of hard times.

But the new thing is landmark legislation, and not only is it a landmark, but it will — surprise, surprise — dramatically do something or other.**

So what we have is a thirty-word opening paragraph padded with superfluous adjectives and throat-clearing that tells us things we already know before it gets around to telling us what the news is. It could have had you in about half the words: Congressional negotiators completed work Friday on legislation that expands government’s oversight of the financial industry.

The original is not inaccurate or ungrammatical or unclear. It is just dull and, well, kind of dumb, and reader-repellant. And it is what about ninety percent of journalism, both print and electronic, amounts to these days. It needs, and doesn’t often get, editing.

 

*Note to staff: Cross in the wake of off your list of stock expressions.

**Note to staff: Add landmark and dramatically to that list.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:49 AM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

Note to colleagues: Add reader-repellant to list of most excellent editorial judgments. :-)

How about a slightly more nuanced rule: You can use a stock expression once (or twice) for every time you've used it in its literal meaning.

So you can use "landmark legislation" as above, but only after you've reported on, say, a law giving the statue of liberty back to France as consolation for their devastating performance in the football world cup.

Point (and score!) to Janne!

How about adding to the avoidance list: Ledes that begin with "When..."

Conventional journalist writing is "who, what, where, when and how"; stated succinctly and clearly. What you cite as "conventional journalist writing" is a more recent trend from writers and editors who apparently believe that they are contestants in a creative writing contest and not reporters.

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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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