community issues Newswriting

Here’s some help in reporting on suicides

High-profile deaths always grab headlines. Suicides especially draw attention as witnessed by the deaths of renowned fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain. The news was carried in big and small newspapers alike.

Yet, when suicide strikes in our own communities, many newspapers ignore the news. It’s time that all newsrooms have a thoughtful conversation on how to report suicide in a sensitive and forthright manner.

Even newspapers that reject the idea of reporting suicides accept that some circumstances demand an exception. Many newspapers adopt a policy to report suicides only if they involve public officials or if they occur in public settings. The rising incidence of suicides, unfortunately, demands a broader approach. Suicide is in no uncertain terms an epidemic.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that suicide rates have increased in all but one state during the past two decades with half of the states showing increases of more than 30 percent. Nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016 – more than twice the number of homicides – making it the 10th-leading cause of death and one of three that is increasing. Among people ages 15 to 34, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in 2016. The rise in suicides in the United States crosses lines of age, gender, race and ethnicity.

There is no single approach, no right or wrong way to report suicides. Here are some things to consider when establishing guidelines:

  • –When do suicides warrant front-page coverage?
  • –How much detail should be included? Should the cause of death be identified?
  • –Should suicide ever be reported as the cause of death in an obituary versus in a separate story?
  • –What steps can be taken to ensure timely reporting?
  • –Should certain words or phrases be avoided in the reports?
  • –Should suicide reports be accompanied with hotlines where others can turn for help?

As with the development of any news policy, it’s important to broaden the conversation beyond the newsroom. Identify and talk with those individuals who may have valuable perspectives. Health-care professionals should be near the top of your list. Talk as well with school counselors, mental health advocates, clergy, law enforcement personnel and medical response teams. Ask to speak at a meeting of grief support groups.

Many communities have formal grief response teams that go into schools when a classmate has died. Connect with them, too. And don’t forget that your co-workers may be among the best resources. They and their families are community members, too.

Newsrooms often become preoccupied with reporting a news event, then fall short on attention to follow-up stories. Suicides can present an excellent opportunity for stories that address the causes of suicide, namely depression.

These can be worthwhile and educational stories. But newspapers must consider the impact on victims’ families and friends. No matter how the stories are pursued and presented, personal tragedy is the springboard for the coverage. Follow-up stories, no matter how well intentioned, will put a family back in the spotlight.

Responsive and responsible newspapers can do a great deal to help communities work through tragedies, but coverage must be done with sensitivity. Don’t automatically reject the idea of approaching families of the deceased. During my tenure at Red Wing, we connected with one family whose son took his life four years after losing his brother in a car accident, never recovering from his loss. It resulted in a front-page story and a remarkable series of events that resulted in the insertion of curriculum in eighth-grade health class addressing depression and the signs of suicide.

The sensitivity of suicide almost makes the subject taboo in general conversation, and it brings a feeling of guilt or embarrassment to mention in an obituary. That is unfortunate, because suicide truly is an epidemic as the statistics underscore.

A first step to addressing suicide is to acknowledge and talk about suicide in our communities. Newspapers are in the perfect positon to start and guide that conversation.

Suicides are the kind of news that should be reported if community newspapers truly are to be the recorder of local events – a living history of our home towns. They are necessary if community newspapers are to remain relevant and represent themselves as the source of local information.




A visit with your writing coach: Avoiding mangled metaphors

Mixed, mangled, or overdone metaphor is a leading contender for the Silly Little Mistake That Stops Readers Dead in Their Tracks.  Consider this from a newspaper story:  “She realized she had been walking blindly through life, mired in a void.” 

It’s “mired in a void” that stops you.  You can be mired in, well, a mire.  But a void is an empty space.  Can you be mired in an empty space?  And if so, what is it that’s miring you, exactly?  Not much, in this case.  Listen to the sentence again:  “She realized she had been walking blindly through life, mired in a void.”  The passage says she was walking—not mired, but walking.  You can’t be both mobile and immobile, even in a metaphor.

News writing is littered with such failed attempts at colorful expression—expression that makes readers marvel or, worse, laugh.  On the one hand, you want to say at least they’re trying.  And on the other, you want to say oh dear!

Take this metaphor (please!):  “Pus still oozed from the unhealed wounds of the Black Hawk Indian War as young James entered boyhood.”  Why not stop with the image of unhealed wounds?  Do we need pus, too?

Here are more manglephors from newspapers:

  • “Perhaps because of labor’s weakened condition, managements with iron fists are lifting the sword for the final kill.”  This sentence shows why successful metaphor sticks with a single governing image.  First, iron fists might make it hard to lift that sword.  Second, why do you need iron fists if you have a sword? 
  • “The conductor navigated Verdi’s Requiem with the touch of a surgeon.”  Navigate is a seafaring term, so related expression must likewise be seafaring—for example: navigated the shoals of Verdi’s Requiem with the skill of a sea captain.  Surgeon, however, is a medical term, so it mixes the metaphor.  Are we at sea or in the operating room?  Again, coherent metaphor sticks with a single governing image.
  • “The dirty trick is a scenario that some Republicans hope they can pull out of the mothballs yet again.”  This metaphor goes a couple steps too far by mixing a figurative scenario with figurative mothballs.  First, a dirty trick is not a “scenario,” even figuratively speaking.  A scenario is a synopsis of a play, a libretto of an opera, or a shooting script of a screenplay, etcetera.  So it’s not a successful metaphor for a dirty trick.  And it’s probably too much of a stretch to pull a dirty trick from the mothballs, let alone a scenario.
  • “Mazursky could have woven an enchanting fable from the fabric of Shakespeare’s Tempest.”  This sentence lacks metaphorical logic.  You don’t weave something from a fabric, you weave something into a fabric.  More logical:  “Mazursky could have woven an enchanting fable from the threads of Shakespeare’s Tempest.”
  • “All these factors have combined to transform the company, a high-flying success story just a few months ago, into a large question mark whose future is cloudy.”  A success story is a question mark with a cloudy future.  Imagine that.
  • “We hump snail-like to our end, leaving in our wake no trace of having been here.”  Another problem in logic.  The difficulty is twofold:  We’re not snail-like if we leave “no trace”—snails leave a trail of slime.  Further, a wake (which is a track left in water by a vessel or other body) also is a “trace,” so this incomprehensible metaphor says we’ve left no trace in our trace.
  • “His writing slides into your head like a fine oyster.”  Well, gag us with a simile.  To work, this metaphor must at least be complete:  His writing slides into your head like an oyster slides down your gullet.  Uncompleted, it’s understood to mean: His writing slides into your head like a fine oyster slides into your head.  But, completed, it’s all too much, isn’t it, this talk of oysters in your head, fine or otherwise.
  • “There are plenty of close-ups of the slimy lizard . . . a sinister little armored tank of a reptile.”  The tank metaphor is great, but lizards are scaly, not slimy.  (Snails and oysters are slimy.)

Mixed and overheated metaphors in the media are so common that The New Yorker often features them in an item called “Block That Metaphor!”  Here’s one such from the Chicago Tribune:  “So now what we are dealing with is the rubber meeting the road, and instead of biting the bullet on these issues, we just want to punt.”

That sentence makes us laugh because of its plethora of imagery.  We have the rubber-meeting-the-road image from drag racing, plus the image of resisting pain by biting the bullet, plus the football image of the punt.  Good metaphor helps speed the message along—it deepens and intensifies content.  But bad metaphor keeps us so busy with its mechanics that we lose sight of its meaning. 


A visit with your writing coach: Writing with clarity and simplicity


Recently, I spoke to a group of professional communicators about the hazards of pretentious mumbo jumbo in workplace writing. We talked about what happens when we use fuzzy but important-sounding language, or seek to impress rather than to communicate clearly and simply.

Afterwards, a troubled professional who writes corporate publications — annual reports and the like — asked what she could do to “keep a foot in both camps.” She meant one foot in clarity and simplicity and the other in bafflegab.

“Why would you want to?” I asked.

“Well, to keep our credibility with our more intelligent readers. We have to write for ma and pa on the farm, and we also have to please a highly educated audience.”

What could I say? She misunderstands the nature of simplicity. But so do a lot of people. When I was teaching university writing, one of my students declared another professor to be “brilliant” because that professor so seldom said anything the student understood.

Let’s put aside the notion that ma and pa won’t understand anything very “intelligent”—the fact is there isn’t anything very intelligent about pretentious writing. To the contrary, one characteristic of intelligence is the ability to simplify, to make the complex easy to understand. Anyone can be unclear.

The way to credibility is to speak and write plainly without language that bewilders or misleads. And the way to lose credibility is to veil the message in showy blather. Did Lincoln’s audience at Gettysburg complain about the simplicity of his two-minute speech — a speech that still stands as a model of clarity and elegance?

Was Winston Churchill too clear when he said: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills”? That’s ma-and-pa writing, to be sure. But would Churchill’s more intelligent listeners have preferred “We shall engage in hostilities with incursive combatants in multiple locations”?

Or does it turn out that what pleases ma and pa pleases us all?

Despite the beauty and superiority of simplicity, dense and opaque phrasing flourishes everywhere. It’s a particular problem in specialized fields—business, science, medicine, education, government, and so forth. Paradoxically, the more challenging the subject, the weaker the writing usually is. But that’s the very time we must be at greater pains to simplify and clarify.

Listen to this CEO: “Financial exigencies made it necessary for the company to implement budgetary measures to minimize expenditures.” What would that CEO say if he were trying to communicate instead of impress?

The company had to cut costs.

Pretentious writing causes misunderstanding. When the message is obscured by verbal smog, the readers don’t, in fact, get the message. They misread and they misunderstand. The wasted time and effort as well as the cost of correcting mistakes make fuzzy writing an expensive habit.

Given its liabilities, what explains the appeal of bloated, pretentious language? (Or should I ask: “What elucidates the proliferation of indecipherable terminology and superfluous syllables”?) How does “he left his car and ran” become “the perpetrator exited his vehicle and fled on foot”? How does a banana become an “elongated yellow fruit”?

We could doubtless do a dissertation on the answers. But it’s enough to say that in trying to sound learned, to elevate our diction, we instead merely inflate it. Maybe we confuse simplicity with the over-simple. Maybe we think simplicity means “Run Dick Run.” But simplicity is neither barren nor elementary; it is just immediately, attractively, interestingly clear.

Should we avoid all long words and abstractions? No. It wouldn’t be desirable even if it were possible. A long word is the right word if it’s the best word. What damages clarity is piling up long and abstract words when short and concrete words are available. It’s writing “utilization” instead of use. Or “pursuant to” instead of concerning or regarding. Or “indicate” instead of say, show, or suggest. It’s “initiate” and “terminate” instead of begin and end, or “contingent upon” instead of depends on, “personal visitation” instead of visit, “telephonic communication” instead of phone call. It’s “financial wherewithal” for money, “funding” instead of funds, “programming” instead of programs.

How can we sidestep the snare of the pretension? As writers, we must stop mimicking meaningless language and buzz phrases. We must stop trying to impress and try instead to communicate—heaven knows that’s hard enough. In part, that means disabusing ourselves of the notion that big words “sound” better—more intelligent, more professional, more serious. In fact, short, familiar words promote communication, whether written or oral. Short words are small, strong, and suited to concrete story telling, while long words are bulky, weak, and suited to abstract report writing.

Would a good storyteller say: “He manifested displeasure as he gained access to his domicile”? No, the storyteller would say: “He scowled as he opened his door.” And, as we’ve seen, small words are not just for storytellers. They also benefit the complex and specialized worlds of informational writing. We should trust them more.


A visit with your writing coach: The perils of the anecdotal lead


When I discuss news writing on talk shows, listeners usually call in to complain about the anecdotal lead. Not that they know what to call it, but they do know how to describe it. Their complaints go something like this:

“I hate beginnings that don’t have any news in them. I hate beginnings that bore me with someone I don’t know who is doing something I’m not interested in. I hate to plow through all that stuff before I get to the news.”

If I ask for an example, they say: “All you have to do is look in today’s paper.” So I look in today’s paper, and this is the first lead I read:

“Dee Drake put down the rag she had been using to wipe the counter, put her hands on her hips and exhaled a small, exasperated sigh. It was another day of government gridlock, and the news out of Washington, playing on the television set above the bar, called for more of the same . . . . “My husband’s on Social Security and Medicare,” said Ms. Drake, the bartender at Alonzo’s Station Tavern, and resumed her wiping.”

Who would guess that this story is a report on the economy?

It’s hard to understand the media’s attachment to anecdotal leads. Most such leads are attempts to humanize stories. We begin with one person—a microcosm intended to represent macrocosm. When it works, fine. But it usually doesn’t work because most anecdotes are less interesting than the article itself and are therefore merely tedious impediments that delay the story. Check out the following anecdotal leads:

  • “It wasn’t gossip but good news that sent Georgine Farrill scrambling Saturday afternoon to call neighbor Charlotte Smith.”
  • “Aimee and Mark SooSoo owed so much money on their credit cards that the minimum payments alone added up to $2,000 a month.”
  • “It’s a sign of our changing times that LaRue Templeton showed up for the interview wearing a jump suit.”

The first thing we ask when reading such leads is “WHO?” Then our minds wander to other imponderables: So gossip sends Georgine Farrill scrambling? Is the SooSoo surname spelled correctly on their credit cards? How does LaRue’s jumpsuit signal “our changing times”?

To see how wrong-headed this approach is, consider that you and I meet not on the printed page or computer screen, but face to face. Would I begin our conversation by telling you that Georgine Farrill, whom you don’t know, phoned Charlotte Smith, whom you also don’t know? Or that the SooSoos, who live near Detroit and whom you’ve never met, are in debt? Or that LaRue Templeton, whoever he is, wears a jump suit that proves times are a-changin’?

Of course not. Such face-to-face approaches would be as bewildering and annoying as they are boring. So why the media’s blithe assumption that they would work in writing?

Such leads proliferate in part because some editors insist that writers get a human being in the lead—as if that were some journalistic Holy Grail. But just being human isn’t intriguing, and where did we get the idea it was? If the people in the lead are both unknown and dull, how could that capture our interest?

Consider an inherently interesting story—the closing of a hospital. In this case, Capitol Hill Hospital in Washington, D.C. Now, how do you close a hospital? What happens to all that equipment? You can’t just unplug it. What happens to the staff? What happens to the patients? Are they and their tubes wheeled to the exit on gurneys and stuffed into a U-Haul? See how fascinating this is?

Yet here’s the actual lead on the closing of Capitol Hill Hospital: “Rosalie Hansen placed her last patient yesterday.”

In focusing on one unknown employee and her uninteresting task, this humdrum lead ignores everything that could fascinate.

When you ask reporters or editors about anecdotal leads, they say they don’t usually find them interesting, either—but the readers do. Really? Who said? The readers themselves say they don’t find them interesting. We’re just not listening.

So we read: “Larry Nix and his wife, Linda, celebrate their birthdays, as well as their wedding anniversary, in May.” Now there’s a riveting piece of information. Or we read: “The tall fence, small cells, and prison scrubs are familiar to Yvette Jones, a Richland Hills Resident who said she used to work at a Texas prison.”

These are stories about (surprise!) a gift certificate scam and a protest against detaining immigrant families—both inherently interesting because of their news value. Their leads should have, but did not, reflect that news.

That’s not to say all anecdotal leads are bad. Some work well—forming a seamless and natural segue from anecdote to story. But when they work, it’s because of one vital factor: Both subject and anecdote capture our interest.


A visit with your writing coach: Avoiding fad, cliche and jargon

Another tip to good writing is to avoid fad, cliché, and jargon. Fad is trendy, of-the-moment expression often generated by popular entertainment and entertainers. Clichés are once catchy but now tired expression. And jargon can be useful or bewildering, depending upon your audience.

Most professions generate their own jargon or terminology—there’s academese, legalese, bureaucratese, and others. The jargon in those specialties is usually OK if the writers are addressing readers who share not only their profession but also its vocabulary.

Media jargon, however, doesn’t communicate well. Journalese is hackneyed media expression that depends upon journalistic clichés so overused that they amuse more than they communicate. It’s journalese that gives us high-speed chases and bullet-riddled bodies. It gives us surprise moves and bizarre twists. It gives us drug lords and lone gunmen and grieving widows and bearded dictators and fugitive financiers.

Journalese also gives us an overworked vocabulary—verbs and nouns such as fueling or spurring or sparking or targeting or skyrocketing or spiraling or escalating . . . A storm dumps more than five inches of rain and spawns hurricane-force winds and golfball-sized hail.

In journalese, police find a dead body—as opposed to a live body—in a densely wooded area.

Or a highly placed official is under fire for allegations of wrongdoing.

What’s telling about journalese is that while media folks might write it, they seldom speak it. And if they did— well, imagine! Here, Russell Scott will help me show you how it could sound when two media types meet on the street.

Paula: Hello, Russell.

Russell: Hello, Paula. What’s going on at your journalistic facility?

Paula: Amid a burgeoning crisis spawned by my boss, he hurled a litany, even a laundry list, of verbal insults at me and launched an unprovoked attack on my immediate supervisor, 45. His behavior triggered a firestorm of criticism from staff members, who weighed in on the issue and unleashed a new round of difficulty.

Russell: Such a heated exchange can quickly escalate into a defining moment, or even a critical mass.

Paula: You betcha. In the wake of the controversy, the boss suggested I could level the playing field by an immediate withdrawal—by resigning!

Russell: Whoa, the R-word! Worst-case scenario!

Paula: I don’t know who the architect of that plan was, but I hotly contested it and mounted a staunch defense. But! Then the idea was hailed by high-ranking officials who said it might send a very clear signal to the staff, going forward.

Russell: More like a chilling effect, I’d guess. But at the end of the day, these unprecedented developments must seem a daunting challenge.

Paula: We’re in the midst of negotiations and hope to hammer out an agreement on a key provision. Looks like there might be some wiggle room. But the bottom line may be that there’s a thin line between a soft and a hard line.

Russell: So there could be a sea change, maybe even a ground swell. Instead of a staggering defeat, you could see a stunning victory!

Paula: Better than getting shipped off to delegate-rich New York to be a source on the ground.

Russell: Or to the oil-rich Middle East. So does this storm of controversy decimate your hopes for a promotion?

Paula: Those hopes are in a sudden downturn. Or a steep decline. Or a sharp decrease. Maybe even a free fall. But let’s just say I’m cautiously optimistic.

Russell: So you’re saying the outcome is unclear? Or maybe that it remains to be seen?

Paula: At the end of the day, that’s probably arguably true.


OK! So that’s how it might sound if journalists spoke as they wrote. Makes you wonder, though, if it wouldn’t be better if they instead wrote as they spoke?

I’m Paula LaRocque.


A visit with your writing coach: Keeping sentences short

In this segment of Tips From a Writing Coach, we’ll discuss the first of our writing tips: Keep sentences short.

Over the centuries, accomplished writers have agreed that less is more. Samuel Butler said a century ago that it was “easier to be long than short.” And another quotation—variously attributed to Cicero, Voltaire, Pascal, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway—goes: “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” Whoever first said it, they’re all correct.

But brevity is a lot easier recommended than executed. Bear in mind that the period is one of the reader’s (and the writer’s) best friends. Generally, when a sentence approaches 20 words or so, we should seek a way to end it. Remember, however, that sentence length average is more important than the length of any one sentence. Aim for a wide variety of sentence lengths. Variety not only makes your writing conversational but it also helps avoid tedium. That said, a safe average is 20 to 25 words. That means you’ll have short sentences (as short as one word), medium-length sentences (12 to18 words), and longish sentences (18 to 25 words).

But word count doesn’t tell the whole story. Let’s repeat the sentence that ended my last statement, for example. That sentence has 21 words and should be OK. Here’s the sentence: That means you’ll have short sentences (as short as one word), medium-length sentences (12 to18 words), and longish sentences (18 to 25 words).

Although that sentence has, as I said, only 21 words, it qualifies as a “difficult” sentence because of its numbers and its parenthetical interruptions. Those elements have a lengthening and muddying effect because they disturb the natural sentence flow of subject to verb to object.

Does this mean that I mustn’t write that sentence? No, it doesn’t. Does it mean that I need short, crisp sentences before and after? Yes.
Now, notice the ploy I just used. Instead of making the passage even more complicated by surrounding the difficult sentence with equally difficult sentences, I instead asked short, simple, conversational questions—Does this mean I mustn’t write that sentence? Does it mean I need short sentences before and after? Those short questions allow me to answer with even shorter sentences: No, it doesn’t. And: Yes. That kind of pacing adds pause and the oral equivalent of “white space”—which gives the reader a rest. That kind of pacing also is more interesting because it adds variety—the kind of variety natural in speech.

Before we go on, let’s mention a software tool that will help you judge the simplicity of your own writing. Microsoft Word, which you probably use, has a readability index that measures the sentence length average of a piece of writing, its grade level, and its “reading ease.” (This readability index tool is usually in your computer’s grammar checker software. You can turn it on in Word’s “preferences,” and it will appear on your screen automatically after you’ve run the grammar- or spell-checker.) Now, we know we’re looking for a sentence-length average of below 25. Beyond sentence length, studies show that most readers—even the highly educated—prefer to read at a 10th-grade level or below. We also learn that a suitable score on the “reading ease” index is above 60.

So let’s see what this Word software has to say regarding the readability of this somewhat technical commentary you’re listening to. My remarks to this point have an average sentence length of 15, a reading grade level of 7.9, and a “reading ease” index of 65. We also find that the average number of characters per word is 4.6. So my short words—as well as short sentences, low grade level, and reading ease index—should ensure a simple and accessible writing style.

Therefore, what I’ve written so far should be clear. However, let’s note that you’re not reading but hearing. The demand for brevity and simplicity is even more critical for a listening audience. After all, listeners can’t look back at the spoken sentence; they must rely on memory. So, for speeches or other oral presentations, we should perhaps meet even more stringent demands for brevity and simplicity.

Am I suggesting that you analyze every sentence you write the way I just analyzed one of mine? No. But if you’ve never discovered where your writing “style” resides, it would be good to find out. Is your sentence length average typically 25 words, or 50? Is the grade level of your writing the 10th grade, or the 20thgrade—that is, 8 years in higher education? Is your “reading ease” score 60, or 30? All this information can be yours with the click of a computer mouse.

Again, the goal of these readability tools—as well as of my writing tips—is to craft prose so quick and natural that the reader understands with a single reading. No need to re-read. No need to puzzle out the writer’s intent. In other words, no need for the readers to do the writer’s work. Much besides sentence length goes into that kind of readability, but other considerations aside, long, dense sentences always make fuzzy reading. I won’t try to prove the point by reciting to you a long and densely written passage. Trust me: You wouldn’t like it!


A visit with your writing coach: What is good writing?

We talked last time about three basic attributes of good writing.  Those ideals were accuracy, clarity, and brevity.  If our writing—any writing—is accurate, clear, and brief, we won’t go very far wrong.  

By saying we won’t go very far wrong, I’m not promising perfection, but I am promising that the writing will be successful.  It will be readable and understandable—that is, it will do what good writing is supposed to do.
And what is good writing supposed to do?  Good writing is simply good communication—that is, it transmits a message precisely, plainly, and quickly.  It has, in short, the same humble goal as speech.  It’s no accident that the best writing is also conversational writing.
In other words, writing well can be hard, but it isn’t as hard as we make it.
How can we ensure that our writing is as good—and as easy, both for reader and writer—as possible?  Are there shortcuts to the readable and understandable prose that readers want?  There are.  And I’m going to share some of those with you right now.  You might want to grab something to write with.  But if that’s not possible, don’t worry—we’ll discuss these tips one at a time in future commentaries on writing well.  
Also, these tips are examined in detail in Part One of my book The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.
The tips we’ll discuss are not by any means all there is to say on the subject.  But taken together, they form the bedrock of good writing.  Right now, we’ll present the tips without elaboration so you’ll see the whole picture before we look at its parts.  Notice that these tips are relatively easy to put into practice, and that they apply to any kind of writing.
The first of my writing tips says to Keep Sentences Short. 
The second is to Avoid Jargon, Fad, & Cliché
The third says to Be Wary of Anecdotal Leads 
4.  [is to] Avoid Pretensions
5.  [is to] Avoid Overblown or Mangled Metaphor 
6.  [is to] Cut Wordiness
7.  Avoid Vague Qualifiers
8.  Don't Back into the Beginning
9.  [is] A Primer on Pronunciation
And my tenth and final tip says: Don’t be Fooled by Language Myth
Those are some of the most important shortcuts to writing well.  If we make them second nature, all our writing will be not only easier and quicker to read, but also easier and quicker to write.
Please join me next time—when we’ll discuss exactly what it means to keep sentences short and why it’s really not quite that simple.  And how short, precisely?  That short?  Really?  All of them?
I’m Paula LaRocque.



A visit with your writing coach: 3 attributes of good writing

In the following Q & A, we ask author and educator Paula LaRocque about the basics of writing well.

Paula is one of the country’s foremost writing coaches. She’s taught thousands of professionals in the United States, Canada, and Europe. She served as writing coach for the Associated Press, the European Stars & Stripes, and the Drehscheibe Institute in Germany. She taught writing at Texas Christian, Southern Methodist, Texas A&M, and Western Michigan universities, and for 20 years was writing coach at The Dallas Morning News. She’s author of four books, and in 2001 received the Associated Press Managing Editors highest honor: the Meritorious Service Award for Exemplary Contribution to Journalism.

Q. Paula, thank you for being willing to speak with us about writing.

A. You’re welcome.

Q. We know you’ve developed specific guidelines for writing well. We also know that one of those guidelines is to get right to the point. So let’s get right to the point: In a few words, what constitutes good writing?

A. Accuracy. Clarity. Brevity.

Q. It’s that simple?

A. It’s that complex. Accuracy is simple enough. No decent writer questions the need for accuracy; you just commit to truth and fact in content, and to Standard English in form. Nor do writers balk at the need for clarity and brevity—in someone else’s work.

Q. Not in their own?

A. I’ve found that the weaker the writer, the stronger the resistance to clarity and brevity. We can liken that reaction to the mountain granny’s response to the preacher’s Sunday sermon. Every time the preacher condemned the sins of the other parishioners—moonshinin’, say—she’d cry Amen, brother! and spit tobacco juice emphatically into the spittoon. Or say he condemned lyin’ and thievin’. She’d cry Amen! Amen! and send saliva ringing against the spittoon. And when it came to coveting thy neighbor’s wife—well, it was Amen! Amen! Amen!

But! When the preacher mentioned the “sins” of chewin’ tobaccy and dippin’ snuff, the ol’ granny sat back in disgust and muttered: “Now he done stopped his preachin’ and gone to meddlin’!”

Q. [Laughter] I guess it depends upon whose ox is being gored. But why would anyone resist such worthy ideals as clarity and brevity in writing?

A. They are worthy ideals, but achieving them often takes hard, slogging work. After all, simple English is no one’s mother tongue. And the weakest writers are going to have to work the hardest, and to change the most. So it’s often easier to reject the idea that one’s writing is unclear than it is to clarify it.

And let me ask you: When are writers rewarded for the extra work of being clear and brief? Clarity and brevity are all but invisible. The readers know only that they’ve read quickly and understood well. It might not occur to them that being able to read quickly and understand well is to the writer’s credit. Literate readers will immediately understand when the writing is accurate, clear, and concise. I can add that the writing we love—the writing we call seamless or beautiful or compelling—is inevitably clear writing. Maybe we love without always knowing why.

Here’s another question: When are we taught to recognize the simple mechanical attributes of muddy writing—especially when the writing is our own? Put another way, when was Blather 101 part of the curriculum? Consider the CEO who wrote: “Financial exigencies made it necessary for the company to implement budgetary measures to minimize expenditures.” When I suggested that he write instead: “We had to cut costs,” he accused me of changing his style. Here’s an educated professional who thinks mumbo-jumbo is a “style.” And worse, that it’s a style worth cultivating.

Q. Are there simple and recognizable mechanical attributes in poor writing?

A. Yes. And some are as easy and routine as the number of words in a sentence. Or the number of ideas in a sentence. Or the number of prepositions. Or numbers themselves.

A. OK, so let’s have a crash course in Blather 101.

A. Trying to impress rather than to communicate. Wordiness. Empty, showy, pretentious, abstract, timid, overqualified, euphemistic phrasing. Hiding one’s uncertain grasp of the subject in gobbledygook. Or hiding one’s fear of clarity in a veil of ambiguity . . . I’m remembering a reporter who remarked when we’d rewritten some of his stories: “If I’m going to be that clear, I’d better also be that right.”

Q. So how about a crash course in good writing—Writing Tips 101?

A. You’ve heard writing experts say to write as you speak. But that goes too far and yet not far enough. It’s more helpful to say that we should write as we speak when we speak well. Avoid the trite or hackneyed—journalese and media-speak, for example. Skip clichés and trendy talk and use your own fresh vocabulary.

Know there’s a difference between simplicity and the simple-minded, and put away forever the notion that clarity dumbs anything down. Write below the tenth-grade reading level as calculated by your computer’s software—because studies show that even the most highly educated readers prefer to read at or below that level. And remember that the more difficult the subject, the simpler the writing about that subject should be. I say this because some writers use the difficult subject as an excuse for a difficult style.

Prefer short sentences and short words. Prune prepositions and numbers. Lose qualifiers such as very, really, completely, rather, quite, etcetera, and use instead precise words that need no qualification.

Oh, and have little faith in your computer’s grammar checker. What the computer does well, it does very well. But it is a machine and therefore reacts in rote. But grammar and usage are not always rote. In short, artificial intelligence is wonderful, but sometimes we need the real thing.

Q. So we’ve gone full circle—back to accuracy and the importance of accuracy.

A. Yep. And I done stopped my meddlin’. . . . Let me just add that what we’ve said here is largely abstract. But in my writing tips to come, we’ll put some meat on these bones. We’ll look at concrete and simple techniques for making any writing better—as well as easier and faster.

Q. We’ll look forward to that. Thank you, Paula LaRocque.

A. You’re welcome.

Newswriting Reporting

How to develop a ‘document state of mind’ in the newsroom

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, discusses how to create a “document state of mind” in the newsroom of a community newspapers. Mark’s instruction is adapted from a workshop hosted by the Texas Center for Community Journalism on investigative reporting at community newspapers.

Newswriting Reporting

How to bulletproof your news story

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, teaches how to “bulletproof” a news story. Mark’s instruction is adapted from a workshop hosted by the Texas Center for Community Journalism on investigative reporting at community newspapers.