Just for fun
The sport of twitting people for their ill-informed outrage over that proposed Muslim community center in Manhattan has begun to stale,* so let’s go back to picking on hapless journalists.
Today, just for fun, let’s deconstruct the opening paragraph of an article in which the writer was ineptly attempting something imaginative. This specimen from my files was published in the Tribune of Coschocton, Ohio:
COSHOCTON — The sticky, sweltering heat sent many South Third Street residents indoors Monday to keep cool. Two sheriff’s deputies guarding either end of house number 222 sought respite from the relentless sun in air-conditioned vehicles. But one man was not bothered by the heat, although he lay exposed to the weather through midmorning. Before dawn on Monday, Jeff Guinther had been shot to death and his body left on the lawn behind his apartment.
Let’s start out simply. This opening paragraph runs for more than seventy words. Nobody wants that.
Is it hot in here, or is it just me? Once I’ve seen sticky, sweltering, heat, and relentless sun, I’ve grasped that it’s a warm day. Not necessary to hammer it in.
So we have a progression: 1. People are staying indoors because it’s hot. 2. Two deputies are sitting in the air conditioning in the patrol car because it’s hot. 3. Then the turn: One man is not seeking respite from the relentless sun. Why? Because he’s dead!
That’s when you feel the writer’s elbow in your ribs. Didja get that? Huh? Didja? Didja? Didja see how I built up a little suspense and then surprised you? Aren’t you impressed? Huh?
I don’t know what, if anything at all, the heat of the day has to do with Jeff Guinther’s death. I have no idea why those deputies were sitting outside 222 South Third, or whether Jeff Guinther’s apartment was in that house, or why the authorities were in a car when there was a body lying on the ground. I don’t know these things because I never read beyond the first paragraph. It didn’t give me any reason to read further; instead, it gave me every reason not to.
It is natural for writers to attempt things, but not all attempts succeed. The editor who allowed this text into print did not do the writer any favors. Publication may have given the writer encouragement at further experimentation in the overwrought, and it certainly exposed the writer to public ridicule. The editor’s job is to protect the writer from his or her misjudgments and excesses, and to spare the reader those same misjudgments and excesses.
An editor’s failure to do so can usually be attributed to one of three causes: bad judgment, laziness, or cowardice.
*Especially now that even Orrin Hatch has joined the ranks of the spineless lefty Islamophiles who think that the Constitution grants even those people freedom of worship.