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Get me rewrite

After roughly forty years, I am letting my subscription to Newsweek expire. It is not just that its content has thinned as its advertising has shrunk—I still subscribe to The Sun despite the same phenomenon. It’s that I have no confidence in its recent embrace of longer-form articles.

I offer you a specimen of the mediocrity that passes for imaginative writing in contemporary American journalism, the opening paragraph of an article in the most recent issue about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York:

As a cold, gray Saturday afternoon fades into evening, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—jeans, pale pink sweater, no makeup—sits tucked into a blue velvet armchair in her Capitol Hill office, trying to retain her composure as she talks through the events of the previous week. "To have something so horrific happen to someone so good and so promising," she says, blue eyes welling with tears, "it hit me very hard."

Senator Gillibrand is speaking of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. I have no doubt that her emotion is real, but the setting in which Michelle Cottle has placed it makes it look mawkish.

This paragraph has all the marks of the standard opening of a feature story that has been a cliche for at least a generation.

Item: We have the obligatory scene-setting, the blue velvet chair in the Capitol Hill office. This is like the table in the hotel restaurant where the noted author/actor/whatever we are interviewing is eating scrambled eggs for breakfast. (Scrambled eggs! For breakfast! Imagine! Of course, we’re at breakfast because our publication didn’t rate a lunch or dinner interview, but let that pass.) We’re alone with the senator in her very private office. Ooh.

Item: We note what the subject is wearing, the “jeans, pale sweater, no makeup.” If the subject were a man, we would note his jeans/suit, necktie/lack of necktie. But she’s a woman, so we have to know the answer to the makeup question.

Item: We present the obligatory quote/note of emotion to supply the human identification with the subject. And, in a vulgarity straight from the tradition of women’s magazine fiction, her blue eyes well with tears.

I don’t know what is in the second paragraph of that article. I never got that far.

Writing in The American Scholar in 1995 in an article, “The Press and the Prose,” Jacques Barzun cautioned against “fake fictional style”: “ ‘The sky is streaked with violet and the cocktails have turned watery by the time the Senator, a late arrival, clambers onto the dock.’ Now, I don’t want to read that. I want the traditional, first-paragraph lead, which when well done is infinitely better than this feeble imitation of story openings in the old Saturday Evening Post.”

Quite.

Feeble imitation of fictional technique is the hallmark of contemporary journalism, and Ms. Cottle’s opening paragraph is a classic example: artificial, banal, and cheap. I should pay to read that?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:01 PM | | Comments (6)
        

Comments

I think it's precisely because it's about a woman that we get all this guff. In the opening of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's North to the Orient — my favorite of all her books — she listens, before her plane takes off, to a radio announcer saying she is wearing a leather flying helmet, long leather coat, and thigh-high leather boots. It's July 27th on Long Island, and she is in fact bareheaded and wearing a cotton blouse and sneakers (no mention of a nether garment, but I presume there was one). But "the Great American Radio Public must not be disappointed", as she says with resignation.

The writer forgot to tell us what pictures are on the office wall, and what, knickknacks are on on her desk.

Given her lack of almost anything suiting her for public office - save that she is a Democrat in New York State - that's probably the best they could do. It doesn't excuse the shoddy writing, but there you are.

You won't have noticed, John, if you didn't read on, but (as so often with these contrived lead-ins) an editor with the good taste to jettison the first paragraph would have found ample material for an intro in the second.

The Wall Street Journal has done more than any other publication to encourage this style of story openings, in which False Significance of detail contends with Fake Portentousness of "atmosphere" to produce Instant Boredom in the reader.

If you don't have any news or new ideas to report, fall back on "human interest" or "personality" to cover the poverty of your subject matter.

Didn't nonfiction writing used to be even more descriptive than this? We just don't have time anymore for scene-setting.

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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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