More than who, what, when, where
Some of you like to see what the act of editing is like, and this opening paragraph from an article, actually published in the Greyhound, Loyola’s student paper,* is an instructive example.
On Monday, March 16 at 7 p.m. in McGuire Hall Jennifer Storm gave a presentation about her memoir, "Blackout Girl," kicking off the events for Sexual Assault Education and Awareness Week. This event, hosted by the Take Back the Night Committee, Alcohol and Drug Education Support Services, the Department of Public Safety, the Women's Center, and several other organizations on campus, acted as a precursor for SAEAW's main event, Take Back the Night, which was held on Wednesday, March 18 at 7 p.m. in the Hopkins Courtyard.
Where to start?
Well, you may have noticed that this lead is eighty-seven words long. If you are writing a news article or a memorandum rather than a treatise, you’re better off with a single, concise sentence—maybe two, I’m indulgent—in the opening paragraph. But if you can’t establish your point in a dozen or so words, I suspect that you’re not clear on what the point is yourself.
You will also have noticed that the writer has taken Who-What-When-Where to the point of madness. This is indeed who, what, when, and where, and these eighty-seven words are entirely factual and, I presume, accurate. And all but one or two are entirely beside the point. Did you see anything of interest in it? Do you know anyone who would find it interesting? Can you imagine what kind of person would proceed to the second paragraph without compulsion?
If you are writing about a speaker, the thing the reader wants to know is what the speaker said. That opening paragraph should have included a single, hopefully arresting, quotation or summary of what Jennifer Storm had to say. (In fact, the published article—and I should get some credit for sparing you the entire text—does not actually get to what Jennifer Storm had to say until the sixth paragraph.) The day, the time, the location, the sponsors, and the allied events are all secondary and can be safely shunted to some point deeper in the article, if they are needed at all.
A competent editor would have reached down into that sixth paragraph and fetched up a single sentence to open the article, and then reorganized the entire thing on the basis of what a reader might be expected to find interesting. That editor would also have taken a sharp blade to the text, which ran for more than 1,600 words (!) and had more padding in it than Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.
For example, an introductory paragraph: At the age of 12, Jennifer Storm went out with a 16-year-old friend, her friend's boyfriend and another guy, had her first experience with alcohol and awoke to one of the guys sexually assaulting her. “Easter morning, instead of being at church, I was at the hospital having a rape exam done. This was my introduction to alcohol and sex.”
And then a summary paragraph, or “nut graph”: That experience, from her memoir, Blackout Girl, introduced her presentation for the kickoff to Loyola’s Sexual Assault Education and Awareness Week.
You, reader, you writer, if you have not asked yourself these questions in advance, you must pose them once you have a draft:
What is the main thing I have to say?
What is the main thing the reader will want to know?
Can I say it in a dozen words?
Can I do without a preamble? If I need one, can I keep it short?
*In my editing class at Loyola, I use texts from the student paper sparingly, because criticizing the work of student journalists is like fishing with dynamite—too easy to be morally sound.