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If I've told you once ...

I sometimes suspect that fellow journalists are former seminarians, because so many of them appear to have been instructed by a homiletics professor, “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em what you told ’em.”

 The suspicion grows particularly strong when I spot the all-too-frequent device of the lead-up to the quoted statement that duplicates the quoted statement:

The sheriff said that authorities know of no motive for the killing.

“We don’t know of any motive for the killing,” the sheriff said.

Or:

 An analyst thinks that the company will probably do well in the long run.

“There may have some problems in the start-up, but I think that it will work out in the long run,” said Bruce Flannelmouth of Bluff, Equivocate & Associates.

Or perhaps these writers simply suspect that our attention is flagging. You can see how it might.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:47 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

I don't know about seminarians, but when I used to teach freshman English I figured out that this was what was the high schools taught: the five-paragraph theme in which you say what you're going to say in the first paragraph, spend three paragraphs saying it three different ways, and use the last paragraph to say "thus we see that...."

Back when we still had paste-up people, they always knew how I would trim wire stories: Cut out those extra quotes. So if the guys with knives got the idea just fine, why can't the ones with pens?

I had a professor in college who advised us to adopt the three fold repetition for our essays. He also advised we should not start sentences with conjunctions. He was a very nice and very intelligent man. But he was wrong on both these writing tips.

P.S. My captcha is "old napoleon." That's ok by me as long as we are talking about the French guy. If we're instead planning on eating pastry, let's not go for the old ones.

John:

I thought only small-town newspaper copy editors had that problem.

Sometimes it is the ol' double-barrel shotgun situation described: a reporter has an irresistable impulse to blast away in copy.

The cubs usually are clicking away on a story. They come to a transition but must back it up with a quote. These tend to be quote-crazy people, victims of their own education.

I always preferred the howlers on changes I made because it would force me to show people why I was doing it. It is an easy mental fix for them usually after that.

The mutterers took longer because I might forget to say something and they would keep on doing it.

That's my flaw for not being organized enough.

Taking my cue from William of Ockham, I tend to think that they just do not know any better.

I used to dump red ink all over pages of my college paper that did this. They never seemed to catch on. The sheriff example shows up over and over and over.

Based on my day-to-day experience, I think one cause of this is the perceived need (fostered by professors and editors?) to have transitions when the topic or speaker changes.

Some writers can't think of good transitions for quotes when they're changing speakers, or they work for an editor who doesn't want the identity of the speaker to lead the quote.

Sometimes a terse subhead in the story is better than a transition paragraph.

Sometimes I don't think writers trust the reader enough. Can't the reader figure out who's talking without a meaningless transition?

On the Internet, often stories are formatted so the paragraphs are separated by empty lines. It is easier see the identity of the speaker at the beginning or end of the quote when all the quotes are separate paragraphs, so the .transitions shouldn't be necessary.

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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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