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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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:48 AM | | Comments (19)


Not sure I would call those opposing the NYC mosque "people."

Your column is a big help to my hobby of writing. I can now see where I've gone astray at times....Keep the lessons coming.Thanks......

Thanks for the lessons...It helps me with the hobby of writing...Can see where I've gone astray at times...

re. mosque.....
Isn't it amazing what mankind does in it's name.?

Hey, I bet we could do this in technical writing, too! I bet readers would _really appreciate_ it, to:

"The user glanced at the clock. Half an hour left in the workday, and there were will hundreds of pages to go. He'd already spent an hour reformatting paragraphs: select a paragraph, bring up the dialog box, reset the indentation and line spacing. Over and over, page after page. It was looking like it would be a long evening.

What the user didn't know was that if they'd learned how to use styles, they could have been on the bus home already."

Wow, Orrin Hatch? Color me surprised.

And Mike's comment sounds painfully familiar.

Yes, Orrin Hatch. From Fox13 in Utah:

SALT LAKE CITY - The proposed Islamic Center and Mosque near Ground Zero in New York has drawn protests from many Republican leaders. Major national GOP figure, Senator Orrin Hatch is defending the right of Muslims to build there. "If the Muslims own that property," said Hatch. "It's private property and they want to build a Mosque there, they should have the right to do so."

Most prominently, Hatch sponsored the religious land use and zoning bill, which passed the U.S. Senate unanimously in 2000. Hatch said it is really an issue for New Yorkers and for the Mosque builders themselves. "The only question is are they being insensitive to those who suffered the loss of loved ones? We know there are Muslims killed on 9-11 and we know it's a great religion," Hatch told FOX 13.

We had a bad storm here in Fl. as I was posting.....Didn't know if the post got through, so I re-posted. Computer went on and off....Which version is better.?
May as well get a lesson out of it.....

Alright, so I can understand your qualms with the opening paragraph. But like -- he was dead! That just... first it was hot, and then policemen...and then BAM! The twist! Blew. My. Mind.

Chillax, dude.

I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened. All of us ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated, but this is not the case.

I know those opposing the NY Community Center continue to say that that the majority supports them, but as history has taught us the majority is not always right. Would women or non-whites have the vote if we listen to the majority of the day, would the non-whites have equal rights (and equal access to churches, housing, restaurants, hotels, retail stores, schools, colleges and yes water fountains) if we listen to the majority of the day? We all know the answer, a resounding, NO!

Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics and do what is right, not what is just popular with the majority. Some men comprehend discrimination by never have experiencing it in their lives, but the majority will only understand after it happens to them.

People who disagree with JEM are ill-formed. This sums up the problem nicely.

Sorry - I meant ill-informed - although JEM might argue it either way.

Luke: Brilliant analysis. So much smarter than those opinions from those who oppose the ground zero mosque. I can see why your side is winning the debate on this one.

As for you, John, it must really suck to live in a nation where 60 to 70 percent of your countrymen are racist, knuckle-dragging Islamophobes. I mean, that's the reason why they don't think a mosque in the vicinity of ground zero is a good idea, right? It can't possibly be anything else.

While Mr. Kirchherr has approximated Mr. Mencken's view of the American populace, I don't think he has quite grasped mine.

Mr. Ackley's comment in the Ragweed Sunday thread and Mr. Kirchherr's comment here make a rather distasteful assumption that one might think a quick study of American (not to mention world) history would disabuse them of.

I do not care how many people think the proposed NYC mosque is insensitive, or evidence of terrorists suborning the city permit process, or whatever it is they think. And while I'm at it, Mr. Ackley, I don't care how many people think that gay marriage should be illegal, or that immigrants should be denied basic civil rights. Adducing these (presumed, though unsubstantiated) majorities favoring unethical, immoral, and/or unconstitutional positions, as though the mere fact of majority opinion is evidence that such positions are correct, is a highly ineffective argument.

Jim Crow laws were enforced in my lifetime; I was a child when Virginia v. Loving was decided. Red-baiting affected my family. Japanese-American family friends were interred during World War II. Majorities of Americans supported racism and eagerly embraced McCarthy-era paranoia; does that make either good policy – let alone morally or ethically supportable? We are a nation with a long history of slavery, for heaven’s sake; does the fact that it was, for centuries, the law of the land and the economic engine of half the country make slavery defensible? Did slavery only become wrong when public opinion turned against it?

This, in part, is why we have three branches of government, one of which is not elected: to protect us from the tyranny of the majority. It is the function of the Supreme Court to adjudicate without consideration of the will of the electorate, as some check against the elected branches which are charged with carrying out that will. It is why the Bill of Rights was adopted – to give us some protection against a government elected by the majority, reflecting majority sentiment, that might be tempted to trample on the rights of those not currently in the majority.

I am happy, proud even, to be in the minority, if I think the majority is wrong. I imagine most principled people feel the same way. In fact, I would have though this was an essentially conservative point of view: the belief that there are values and principles that are unchanging, not subject to the whim of the people, not to be abandoned when the culture goes haring off after some new idea.

If you think you have an argument to make against a mosque in New York City, make that argument on its own merits.

Why are the deputies guarding house number 222? Should they have been aware of the dead man? How incompetent are they?

This paragraph reads like the leadin to a not-very-good mystery.

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

The funniest thing I have read all day is Mr. McIntyre commenting "Chillax, dude."
And while I agree news should be less like a bad mystery novel and more like news (facts, real information), I would read that bad mystery novel.

The mosque affair could have nipped in the bud if someone had said: "Building a mosque isn't illegal. Being 'insensitive' isn't illegal. If you don't like the mosque, enact some laws that make it illegal. (And good luck with that.)"

Denying me the right to marry the consenting adult of my choice is insensitive, but pointing out the insensitivity doesn't make the "religious" folks back down. I hope their insensitivity will be rendered moot with some fairer application of law (and that's existing, constitutional law, not the new laws that would be necessary for forbidding mosque-building).

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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
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