Weird Ways of News.

Chapter Seven: The Pain and the Dread

Good writing ought to be fun. But doesn't seem to be. What did my old English teachers say? Mind yer' grammar! Don't use no double negatives! Misspelled wrod, automatic F! Something like that. What's the biggest punishment a hapless sixth-grader could face from a teacher pushed to the brink? The dreaded five-hundred-word essay—classroom equivalent of grunting out fingertip pushups at the shoes of a sadistically grinning football coach.

What do we learn from that? Writing = punishment. It's tough, it's painful, it's drudgery getting up a quality article designed to attract the attention of jaded readers. So we have long, glum guides stretching into chapter after tedious chapter of grammar, spelling, punctuation, organization, style, structure. I get tired just thinking of it. Writing this chapter is no fun anymore. I'm stopping.

I'm back. I made a quick sweep of the web to see what successful writers had to say about their profession. Little comfort there. Some seem to echo the sadistic coach approach. "Writing is easy," oozed Red Smith. "You just sit down at the typewriter, open up a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop." Even worse: "Being a writer means having homework for the rest of your life," groaned Lawrence Kasdan. Thanks, guys.

That from the authors of some really fun stuff. Kasdan wrote screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Red Smith wrote sports in New York and Philadelphia for about fifty years. Despite their damning drollity, I'm betting they had fun writing, at least some of the time. You can too. Why not reframe those dreaded five-hundred-word essays into something as easy to love as candy on a stick? I see you just can't wait to get going on that. My job here is finished.

Oops, you're still with me? Well, I'm glad, because now that I've recovered from that downer beginning, it's going to be fun writing another few words about media writing (7,956 to be precise, thanks MS Word.) Plus I'll be helping you to notch down the pain and dread that's probably been drummed into you up till now.

We're going to handle this unlike other writing guides you've read, beginning with only one assumption: you already have a modest grasp of written English. This is probably a safe assumption because you've made it through this book on making news. That's a fairly good indication you've come a bit beyond the average member of the masses, after whom, of course, we've coined the expression mass media. We're going to squeeze by the thick writing books to search for those inspirational keys to setting up a good basic read for the news pages. No frills, but a promise: if you master these simple techniques, you will not only be able to write a good, quick, basic news story—you'll also have more fun behind the keyboard. Okay, some of those Red Smith articles may have been darned tough to write. But who wants to open a vein to write a city council story? Take a deep breath, and write bright, but write tight.

Most of the time in the world of media writing, packages need to be kept small. That's not necessarily because good writing can't come in large packages. But in news writing large packages are less likely to be opened: long stories may not be read. Keep your writing as brief as necessary. It's better to have your audience read a little than ignore a lot. By the way, most of the bad examples below are based on real news articles, though I changed some things to avoid embarrassing the professionals. You think I could make this stuff up? Actually, I could. But why open a vein?

Good Writing and Colored Strings

Here's one for you visual learners. Picture a shoe box filled with short lengths of multi-colored strings. Each is slightly different in color, ranging from dark red to light blue. Your job is to tie all of these strings together into one long length. But you Shoebox.don't tie just any string onto any other string, helter-skelter. Instead, you tie the strings together so that each color smoothly leads into the next, so that the colors of adjacent strings differ only slightly from each other. Now, you wouldn't tie a light pink string onto a dark blue one, right? That would be a jarring juxtaposition, and you could easily tell the difference between the two strings.
Instead you begin to group the strings together according to color: blues with blues, reds with reds, etc. After you've done that, you refine your groups further, light blue to dark blue, light red to dark red. Next you try to match the colors so that they harmonize: purple is close to darkish blue, dark yellow isn't too far from light red, etc. Now you can begin to tie.

In the end, what will you have? A long string, made up of little strings, but together appearing as one strand that seems a smooth single length of subtle color transitions.

Those little strings are the individual facts of your story. Each is different, but some are more closely related than others. Your job when writing a news story is to group the related facts together so that your readers are carried from one idea to the next, smoothly, quickly, from beginning to end, without having one statement butt against another completely different statement.

For example, let's examine a student-related excerpt from the writing of one of America's nationally syndicated columnists, Ellen Goodman:

The sophomore had left college to "find herself," rather as if she were a set of misplaced keys. She had the notion that her mind was a collection of pockets and if she searched in each one of them long enough she would find the keys to unlock this self.

Months later she told her parents that she was deeply into the independent study called "Who Am I?" and by now, surely, she had become a professional introspector. A very private eye.

The woman didn't know this sophomore very well; she was a friend of the parents. But she knew others her age who conducted their own missing persons bureau: others who had turned inward to see what they could find and had found self-discovery a totally absorbing sort of trip.

Notice Goodman begins by writing in the active voice, and continues to write that way. She doesn't rough up her reader's patience by flipping back and forth between the active and the passive. She weaves like strings together. She begins the second graf with the sophomore, as she does the first graf, but adds a new element toward the end: the parents. In this way she guides us from sophomore to parents—hummmm—not from sophomore to parents to sophomore—clunk, clunk.

The third graf introduces a third aspect, the woman. But Goodman brings back the sophomore and shows a relationship between the two, to guide us softly to another idea. Then Goodman brings in parents again, an aspect we have already been introduced to, and shows the connection between the two. The idea is, try to find some aspect in each fact of your story that can easily lead into another fact. Checking your grammar book, you'll find the colored strings filed under "transitions."
If a passage seems rough, you may need to lead your readers from one fact to another with a whole sentence of transition. For instance:

"I made a conscious decision to do that," he said. "A team must come to Chicago." Another decision Dr. Levine had to make was to tell the parents of the accident victim.

The phrase "another decision" slips readers from one fact in the story to a rather different fact. Without the transitional phrase, the shift would take a mental leap. Build bridges to help readers across rivers of information.

Words and phrases are often used as transitions, to indicate to the reader that you are shifting emphasis, introducing a new idea, or moving to a new string. Common transitions include still, on the other hand, however, though, of course, remember, last, then, finally, yes, no, but unfortunately, once again, and as well.

As you write, you may sometimes hit a wall—bonnnng—and you just have to move to a new idea, even though it's different from the last. What to do? Just plunge on to the new idea, and let your reader flounder about gasping, "wha', whey, whoa?" What do you think? Of course you move the earth to come up with a transition. For example:

Jones, a car assembly line worker, studies accounting at the university. "I hope I can get out of this rut and make something of myself," she said. Jones was raised on a small farm near Miles City, Mont. The youngest of eight girls, she....

Well. Can we leave this story as written? Of course. You can walk around with greasy hair and B.O., too. You'll get by, I guess. But not in present company—at least, not in the writing world. Find a transition, and quickly—you get thirty seconds. You're in the news business now, pal. Deadlines are us.

Okay, you're new; we'll cut you some slack. Try this, as just one possibility:

.... make something of myself," she said.
The noisy factory work has taken Jones a long way from her quiet rural upbringing. Raised on a farm near….

It's a little strained, true. So okay, think of something better, something to direct your reader smoothly from one idea to the next.

Transitions do not make your copy wordy. They are necessary to help your reader over the bumps as ideas migrate. All good writing includes such transitions, although you probably haven't been aware of it. That's the idea: don't let words get in the way of the story. Now that you know about the colored strings, try dissecting the writing around you for fun. News articles, brochure copy, cereal boxes, email—every chunk of wordplay longer than three sentences will likely include strings of more than one color. Do transitions mold ideas into a smooth read, or does disorganization leave the reader flailing for direction, like a trapeze artist groping for a rope?

Organization: Smoothing the Stepstone Path

Writing a news story slowly is not fun. It's also not a good way to impress content editors and news directors always under a whip of testy deadlines. A first step down the writing path to faster and funner actually begins with that tired saw of your less favorite English teachers: organization. Don't despair. This is not your professor's writing lesson.

New writers sit down at their keyboards with at least two things at hand: a jumble of facts, quotes, statistics, hearsay, lies, possibilities, inanities, grains of wisdom—and a waiting cursor.

It is the writer's task to gather up all this material. Mull it over. Cleave the important from the insignificant, the facts from the foolishness, squeeze into shape what's left, dump the rest, and shape the final article so cleanly that everyone will understand exactly what it means. Think of the writer as a sculptor, not with clay, but with a medium just as difficult: ideas.

Obviously, if the writer doesn't understand the base clay, how can she or he expect the reader to make sense of the story? Yet the clueless sometimes write it up anyway:

The West Gulch County Commission met Tuesday to discuss property taxes. Commission Chair Irving Nern stated that the county's assessment of 10 mills offers no differential for the county's small businesses. Commissioner Jayne Huntington said the tax assessment office ought to improve collection policy by reducing the Line Seven surcharge to improve the bottom line concerning tax-exempt organizations. "This is a big issue. We ought to consider an outside consultant," said Huntington. A tax increase would mean the average homeowner pays 5 mills more per year.

All right. A lot of people don't understand government tax structure, but that's no excuse for just moving your fingers around a keyboard, monkeyesque. To begin with:

1. Read all the facts and notes at your disposal, from beginning to end, before writing a word. Be sure that you have all the information at the top of your consciousness, and that you understand it. If you don't clearly understand what a source has told you, or what was voted on at a meeting, or how the gadget works, or how the accident happened, it's better to find the answers before you begin to write. This sounds like such a pain, this going over everything first. At the keyboard, however, it's much more fun to write when the topic is perfectly clear in your mind.

2. Decide what kind of lead sentence you want to write. Will it be direct or indirect? A direct lead simply and specifically describes what happened, using the SAVE formula:

The East Kudzovine High School athletic director resigned Tuesday, citing a conflict of interest with his specialized athletic apparel business. Irving Fern will expand his business to a full-time concern.

An indirect lead looks for something more easily hookable:

A boss of sports can't be a boss of shorts, the East Kudzovine High School athletic director announced Tuesday. In resigning Irving Nern plans to be a boss of sorts, as he expands his athletic apparel business to fill his work week.

In the indirect approach of broadcast news, writers sometimes rely on conversational familiarities:

You may remember our story of the high school athletic director who set himself up in a weekend business selling gym shorts. Well, today Irving Nern decided business is better than education. He resigned as East Kudzovine High School athletic director.

Time is a consideration here. If you're cramped for it, you'll probably have to write a direct lead, because it's easier to formulate. And for some hard news stories—accidents, tragedies, important meetings, arrests, trials—an indirect lead is an edgy nuisance. In such cases, flipness annoys readers who are expecting fast facts.

3. After you've written your lead, go over it, make it smooth, polish it. Try using your ear—how does the sentence sound? The difference between writing non-fiction and poetry is not as great as you may presume.

4. After you write your beginning sentence, ask yourself, "what facts from the story will best support the lead I've written?" In most newswriting, you must immediately support your lead, or your readers will become bored and lose interest. Here's an indirect lead:

At first the cost seemed indigestible.

Geez, what does that mean? Better read the second sentence to find out.

The city of Clover would have to put up $2.3 million to build a south wing on city hall, plus another $1 million to remodel the old building.

Try a more straightforward lead:

The Rock County Commission Tuesday bent a kink into plans to build a second grain elevator near Pebbleton.

Yeah, what kink?

Acting on advice from County Director of Tax Equalization Clarence Miller, the commission rescinded its approval to exempt the elevator from paying property taxes.

Let's say you decide to try it coy and leave your reader in the dark by not following up your lead:

The Rock County Commission Tuesday bent a kink into plans to build a second grain elevator near Pebbleton. The county commission gathered Tuesday at its regular meeting in the courthouse. After minutes were approved, the chair presented five agenda items for committee consideration.

Arghh! Doesn't that just bug you? Some writers think they'll drag a reader further into a story by using the "suspended interest" style lead. Sometimes they're right, if they construct it well. More often, however, a reader expects time-saving standard local news will think, "This is baloney, I'm flipping to the sports pages."

5. After you've explained your lead statement, it's time to elaborate. A quote often works well here, or an amplifying fact, or a list of events leading up to the action in the lead:

The Rock County Commission Tuesday bent a kink into plans to build a second grain elevator near Pebbleton. Acting on advice from County Director of Tax Equalization Clarence Miller, the commission rescinded its approval to exempt the elevator from paying property taxes. "To exempt the elevator from taxes would set a dangerous precedent," said commission chair Irv N. Nern. "I foresee the possibility of at least a dozen other rural elevators demanding similar breaks, and the county is too small to put the whole tax burden on individual taxpayers."

You may wish to further elaborate on the lead—add more facts, explain how a decision will be implemented, gauge the effect it will have. Try to begin with the most important facts in your estimation, and end with the less important (inverted pyramid style). In making these decisions, you are the most powerful judge of what becomes news.

6. Write short paragraphs or, for broadcast, short sentences. This is news style. It brings inviting white spaces onto a page or, the broadcast equivalent, pauses. Can it be overdone? Of course; you can always go to extremes. Just because a little salsa on the taco tastes good doesn't mean a whole lot tastes better. If you only use one-sentence grafs, your story becomes so disjoined that it inhibits readability, a roughly-tied string.

7. What about an outline? You may wish to work one up to help you organize the body of your story. Some writers always do this, others when they have time. Still others write whole books without outlines. The one disadvantage to an outline: it takes time, and usually in the news business, time is what you ain't got.

8. And for an ending? It is acceptable to end a straight news story without any "ending" at all. Just quit writing; it is the fastest way to get done and to the soda machine. But more fun is to craft a clever wind-up. Your story appears more polished when you write an ending that harks back to your lead, tying up that package. One easy, fun option is to find a great quote to sum up your piece, and leave your reader with something to chew on:

The Rock County Commission Tuesday bent a kink into plans to build a second grain elevator near Pebbleton. Acting on advice from County Director of Tax Equalization Clarence Miller, the commission rescinded its approval to exempt the elevator from paying property taxes.

Blah, blah, blah, etc. Finally,

Miller's conclusions swayed the board to vote against the exemption. "It's like putting a cat in a pig farm," Miller said. "You think you have a great mouser, but in the end all you do is scare the sows."

I know that last colorful quote makes no sense, but these old guys talk that way. Probably you'd come up with a better ending quote.

9. Reread your story one more time, two more times, as many times as you can before deadline. Think of your reader: Will he or she understand what you're trying to say? Have you grouped related facts together? Are transitions appropriate? Do they even exist? Does grammar sound correct? (Look it up if in doubt.) Have you run it through a spell-check? (Why would you ever not? I don't know either, but evidence from actual news pages shows that journalists sometimes must not bother.) Do sentences sound smooth or awkward? Hear the music of the sentences as you read.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Themes

People slaving against the infernal news writer's deadline sometimes seem not to be having fun yet. They cry out in frustration: "What's the secret to writing fast?"
Well, there is one.

The secret begins with a chain of principles at the base of many skills that demand quick action, from reading music to piloting an airplane. The chain revolves around this hub: have your job nearly finished before you start it.

In other words, be familiar enough with your task that, in your own mind, the work is finished. Like Mozart speaking in the old film Amadeus, it's "in your noodle." All that's left is to make your body translate it into reality. In the case of the musician, no chords, no scales, no grouping of notes is new. The patterns he or she sees on the staff call to the fingers, without much conscious thought.

For the pilot, the purr of the plane's engines, the gleam of the instrument panel, the response of the controls need no longer be noticed at length. They have been noticed so many times before that they are understood instinctively.

The experienced writer begins a story with that same knowledge of similar stories. The tools, the words, are trusted servants, ready for instant fitting into sentences similar to thousands of lines read and written in the past.

That writer of the routine news story can slap it out in 10 minutes because, in her mind, the story is written—it needs only to be transferred to a page. True, the result is not always art, but art takes time. If you have time, look for leads more creative, content more imaginative. If you don't, it's fun, even exhilarating, to whip out a respectable news story in minutes flat. As icing, it impresses the blazes out of an editor or news director.

How to do it? It does help to rest your butt on long experience in newsroom cubicles. But the skill blossoms from more than a garden of experience. "Experience" may mean nothing more than continuously breathing in and out for a long time. Work smart, learn the shortcuts, and you can shortcut the experience.

Besides writing, the smart beginning writer should read critically what experienced journalists publish and broadcast. "Critically" means using what you learn in this book. Particularly for news writing, we've talked about music of the word. Notice in others the rhythm of the beginning. The direct lead of standard news stories has a rather predictable cadence, almost like a poetic meter. Notice what the writers stress, what they play down. Notice the construction of the sentences, the smoothness (or, unfortunately, roughness) of them.

Your Tools

After you've read a few of these stories, you'll notice that news writers, like plumbers and carpenters, keep in their tool boxes a few wrenches they use over and over. Writers use them, like the tradespeople, because they work so well in so many situations, because they seldom fail, and because they're quick. Let's pull out a few of those wrenches from a news writer's toolbox.

Toolbox.Wow, are they beat up! Used over and over. Fortunately, they look tough. Say, look at this: a lifetime guarantee. In fact, the brand name still shows: "Favorite Themes, Inc., by R. F. Collins, Esq. (Patent pending. Very Pending. Don't hold your breath.)"

Hey, let's take a look at those dog-eared instructions at the bottom of the box.

Thank you for choosing the R. F. Collins line of writing tools. Guaranteed to make your job easier and, we hope, more fun, or return unused portion for full refund.
These tools are cleverly designed to help you shortcut the most difficult and time-consuming job of writing a news story: how to begin. Many journalists pull out these tools time and again, day after day, on small weeklies to big television news broadcasts.

They use them because:

• They attract readers.

• They please editors and news directors.

• They usually reflect the most significant part of a news story.

In fact, most play out the news values we considered way back in Chapter One. Can you identify how each tool fits onto those values?

Wrench #1: The Final Exit as Beginning

If any news story— accident, disaster, crime, etc.—includes the fact that someone has been killed, the death is usually the most important thing, and should make the lead. This reflects those contemporary values of our Western civilization. We value human life above all else. Or so we often claim.

Wrench #2: Critical Conditions

Critical injuries lead, just after deaths. Moderate injuries may or may not jump out as lead material, and slight injuries—"treated and released"—land way behind.

Note that the first two form the basis of that old TV newsroom saying, "If it bleeds, it leads." Clever cliché, but also mostly true. It's most charitable to explain journalists' tireless coverage of death and injury as a reflection of the value we put on human life. Journalists themselves often say it's a reflection of the reality that death and destruction are sad facts of our society. An alternative explanation of this bias leans toward a darker side. The many minutes local news shows devote to assault and murder hardly relate to a city's true crime level, research shows. That kind of coverage does, however, relate clearly to ratings. Nationally, during the ratings sweep periods, the major networks are much more likely to broadcast violent shows. It's no coincidence that newspapers offer front-page coverage of a local murder trial down to the last prurient detail. Death and injury fascinate, as long as it doesn't happen to us or ours. Rubbernecking has its certain charm only if it's not your own neck that's on the line.

Wrench #3: Smashed Stuff.

When death and injury don't occur, property damage becomes most important, particularly if a photographer happened on the scene. Wrecked cars, houses, trees, streets, even minimalls (someone else's, that is), seem almost as fascinating as death and injury. Can we put a dollar figure on all this severe property degradation, preferably an astronomically high one? We can and we well, because almost as favorite a newswriting theme covers anything concerned with…

Wrench #4: Funds, Loot, and Greenbacks

Also stash, cash, scratch, treasure, dough, real estate, moolah, dinare, $$$, what else can we call it? Did we forget money?

Newspaper writers recognize that money is the compulsive focus of many Americans. The rest of us only think of it about 18 hours a day, so we'll be sure to read about it, whether it be how much money was taken in a crime, how much was spent by the city council, how much was won in a state lottery, or how much was borrowed to buy the building. If you're in a bind for a news lead, think of the bucks.

Wrench #5: Nothing's Certain but Wrench #1 and This

Taxes relate to money, for sure. They affect everyone's stash one way or another. Have you ever received a payroll check without taxes deducted? Ever bought something free from those annoying sales taxes? Well, yes, if you live in, say, Montana or Delaware. Then there are property taxes, and excise taxes, and customs duties, and value added taxes and—well, you know. When taxes are raised, reduced, discussed, spent, or misspent, you can usually build a lead from it. When you write about taxes, by the way, try to translate what the rate means to the average taxpayer. For instance, say, "The nine-mill levy means the owner of a $150,000 home will pay $100 more a year in property taxes." Perhaps that doesn't affect you directly as a renter or lucky freeloader or does not apply if you're under 18. It likely does indirectly, however. Where do you think landlords collect the money to pay property tax increases? Even freeloaders risk tighter belts when times get tougher.

Wrench #6: Fight!

If an issue was raked back and forth at a meeting by supporters and detractors, it has become controversial, and in the news business, that makes an interesting lead. It also helps you to slap out a faster story, because often people who are arguing spread about some great quotes you can sprinkle into your paragraphs:

The meeting produced a frank exchange between the two leaders. The mayor called the governor's proposal "a crock of dog spit." "If my plan is spit," responded Smith, "then the mayor's long-term task force has produced a festering of bat guano."

Actually, quotes this colorful seldom become available during public get-togethers, unless those disagreeing choose to appear on daytime TV talk shows. But less stout language often finds a familiar setting when public controversy flares into heated debate. It's sad that our honorable civic leaders sometimes stoop to such language. But it's loads of fun to write about.

Wrench #7: Don't I Know You?

If a person is well-known to your readers, that may be your best lead. Agreed, sometimes we may be playing to the lure of gossip, but viewers and readers are interested in the eccentricities of the locally famous. Principles or not, you need to broadcast and publish what people want to read.

Something Out of Nothing

Reaching for these tools in a pinch will help you write a news story faster, but there's more to speed than favorite themes. You really can write fast if you just copy something already written. No, no, not plagiarism. You copy your own writing. Skilled writers have most of the story written before they've touched finger to key. They do that by making something out of nothing.

Say you're covering that same old city council meeting. You've heard a few interesting discussions, squeezed between some interminable and insignificant dither. During the dither what do you do? Drink decaf and doodle? Tempting. Go to the restroom? Better not leave, or they'll sneak in something good while you're gone.

Instead you make something out of that dead time: you begin to scratch out an organization of probable lead items in your Reporter's Notebook, while keeping one ear open to the continuing discussion. You may have to make a few changes later, but you'll have a good start by the time you get back to the computer.
Likewise, you don't spend your drive time listening to golden oldie rap tunes. Turn off that car stereo. (It's often a button somewhere on the left side, in case you've never tried this before.) Mull over the organization of your story, the lead, the significant facts. When you return to your desk, you'll leap to the keyboard, zip off a story in 10 minutes, and impress heck out of your editor. Who says media people have to work lots of overtime? Only the slow ones do.

Grubbing the Stumps

The goals of both builders were the same: each planned to stretch a length of driveway from the main highway to his convenience store. But although they worked across the street from each other, their constructions were not at all alike. On one side, the builder poured his concrete carelessly, skirting boulders and tree stumps that got in the way, leaving deep cracks, ignoring piles of rubble poking through.
On the other side, the builder grubbed out the stumps before pouring concrete, and dragged the boulders away before laying the pavement. This man paved carefully, smoothing the wrinkles and cracks, creating a silken ribbon to his store.
Looking at the first builder, an observer became curious. "How come you're building a road though those stumps and stones?" he asked.

"What's the difference?" replied the other builder. "People can still get to my place. It takes a little more effort, that's all. Good exercise."

Which road builder do you think enjoyed the best business? That's obvious, of course: the one with the cleanest restrooms. And the nicest driveway.

News writers build stories like road builders set concrete (except that they sweat less and have fewer backaches). Some writers try hard to grub out those literary boulders, stumps, and other "read blocks," to roll out a smooth route for their readers. Others strew impediments along the way, forcing readers to stumble through ill-chosen words and poorly-constructed phrases.

What's the difference, as the road builder asked the other? Well, no one has to take your road; it's up to you to attract them to it, pull them onto it, and keep them on it until they reach an end.

A common impediment too many news writers fail to cull from their work is called, grammatically, non-parallel construction. It comes in many forms: verbs that don't agree, phrases that switch voices, suffixes that change form, adjectives repeated and then later dropped, articles dropped and later added. It doesn't matter so much if you can name the misfits. What matters is your ability to feel the bumps as you cross over them.

When you drive a rough road, you feel the clunk of a deep pothole or wide crack. When you read, you should feel an uncomfortable chunk when you confront non-parallel construction. It's more fun to write a smooth road, and certainly more fun to travel along it.

Not fun:

I look forward to meeting with you, and to discuss your college plans.

PrrrrrrrrrWHUMP! Feel that bump? It's right after the "and," because the infinitive "to discuss" does not match the present participle "meeting." Make your verb forms match and blend:

I look forward to meeting with you and discussing your plans.

Not fun:

Construction engineers must find answers to the questions of ground stability, materials quality, worker efficiency, and containing the high costs.

All is going smoothly, then BONK, you hit that last phrase. Where did that unmarked present participle "containing" come from? This kind of non parallel construction, in a list of several elements, is particularly common.


Construction engineers must find answers to questions of ground stability, materials quality, worker efficiency and cost containment.

Not at all fun:

The teacher is expected to grow professionally by attending workshops and to read scientific journals.

Fun as can be:

The teacher is expected to grow professionally by attending workshops and reading scientific journals.


Melodic fecundity and courage to try new chords are characteristic qualities of Schubert's music.

A little more fun, at least parallel:

Melodic fecundity and harmonic audacity are characteristic qualities of Schubert's music.

Not so fun:

He says the program aims at returning more authority to state government, and reduce federal regulation.

Fun, fun, fun:

He says the program aims at returning more authority to state government and reducing federal regulation.

Effective use of parallel construction may make your writing so strong it not only breaks though roadblocks but compels readers to follow your sentences and thus your article. Strong and repeated parallel construction attracts readers as repetition attracts music lovers. The magnetism may stem from the repetition in nature itself, its undulating waves, its rustling leaves, its eternal cycles of birth and death and life renewed. As a writer, even a non-fiction writer, you become a creator, and after a while you realize that all artistic creation is kin, beginning in nature. Yeah, I'm talkin' to you, news hack.

For instance, try to feel the attraction of these leads built on parallel construction, from published news stories:

More than its founder could have dreamed, the world changed. And more than its builders could have hoped, the building did not." (Cathy Mauk, Fargo (ND) Moorhead (MN) Forum)

Through the gloom drift the girls, shrugging hat angles in the mirrors, rehearsing blouses beneath their stretched necks, dancing out of the dressing room in unzipped minis, trading clothes, fingering though a haystack of baubles. (Michael Kernan, Washington Post)

Our lies about our histories tell the truth about our souls. (William Crawford Woods, Washington Post)

On Hopping and Singing

"Write bright!" the English teacher tells us.

"Make your writing sparkle!" the journalism professor tells us.

"Make your writing hop and sing!" an outspoken editor of a midwestern daily used to say.

Hopping.That's all fine, sounds fun, especially in this age of Zumba and Body Pump—writing should be fit too. Question is, what do we mean by all this dancing around stuff? How can you make your writing vigorous, and make your readers excited and anxious to read what you write?

Singing.Nothing magic here. Good newswriting begins with knowledge and practice, and ends with talent and inspiration. In fact, good newswriting doesn't even need much of the last two, so don't despair if your cup looks a little dry today. Many a professional writer has produced hundreds of perfectly serviceable news stories showing little evidence of genius at the keyboard. The writer of this book, for instance. So let's forge ahead, talent-free or not, toward shining up those paragraphs.

Do you collect stamps? No? okay, then. Do you collect sports cards? Barbie Dolls? Star Wars spin-offs? Anything? No, money doesn't count. Well, as a writer of news you're going to have to begin collecting something: jewels. Great thing is, these jewels sparkle like mad yet subtract nothing from your money collection. I'll start your collection with two really pretty ones.

The First Jewel: A Heart Unsullied

Connoisseurs value the crystal sparkle of a diamond untainted by a dirty yellow tint. More tint, lower quality. Writers value a clean direct phrase uncolored by messy Diamond.verbiage and circumlocutions. (Put that into your google and surf it.) We've talked about avoiding forms of the verb "to be." Avoid tired phrases built around that pooped verb, such as:

There isn't enough money to sponsor a chess tournament this year, according to the principal.

There were 6,000 people at the civic center Friday for the job fair.

There was only one good rain in June.

Rewrite the weak "there is/there are" beginnings:

The school can't support a chess tournament this year, according to the principal.

A job-seeking crowd of 6,000 jammed the county fairground Friday.

A shower soaked the area in June, but after that, nothing.

Have you ever left a big high-fat muffin on a napkin, even for a few seconds? Leaves a greasy stain, makes you wonder what you're eating. Verbal fat stains a sentence, makes readers wonder why they're reading. Look for phrases such as "it is," "as a result of," "what…is," "due to," "because of/has caused," and "the fact that." Squeeze verbal fat from the examples below and replace it with something sparkling. Drop in the SAVE formula to improve the fit.

Weak examples:

It is the school board's position that fees increase 10 percent.

As a result of the fund-raiser, Johnson will be marching in the Rose Bowl Parade.

What the student senate plans to do next is examine options for cost and effectiveness.

Due to unexpected showers, the road crew will postpone work until next week.

A mailing delay has caused the extension of the deadline to file.

The fact that Jensen plays basketball will enhance his ability to find college scholarships.

Sparkly rewrites:

The school board believes fees should increase 10 percent.

The fund-raiser collected enough to send Johnson to march in the Rose Bowl Parade.

Next the student senate will seek cost-effective options.

Unexpected showers forced the road crew to postpone work until next week.

Officials extended the filing deadline after a mailing delay.

Jensen's basketball skill will enhance his college scholarship potential.

Red flag.You could do better yet, I know. As a general guide, you might develop a red flag instinct facing any phrase using a "the/of" combination.

Red flag up:

The conversion of a fieldhouse into a cinema was the topic of a meeting Thursday.

A high acceptance of gambling for charity is the outcome of a recent poll taken in Glitchville.

Green flag.Green-flag rewrites:

City leaders Thursday debated a plan to turn Tinytown fieldhouse into a movie theater.

A majority of residents want to gamble legally in Glitchville bars, according to poll results released Tuesday.

The Second Jewel: A Spirit Unbowed

We mean well, we news writers. We really do. We like to find clever comparisons to help readers get the picture. Problem: no time, no energy. Why find clever comparisons yourself when you can rely on clever ones worked up by others? Comparisons such as "get the picture." Because everyone does this, the same cute phrases, once so lively and vigorous that they danced across the page, get so overused that they slog along like molasses in January (see?).

Clichés work on three levels. Lowest is the old phrase loved to death like a worn teddy bear: "bee in his bonnet," "thorn in her side," "leave no stone unturned," "nose to the grindstone," "like a chicken with its head cut off," "beehive of activity," etc.

Many of these are so awfully old they describe a way of life few of us recognize anymore. Have you every seen a decapitated chicken? Used a grindstone? Worn your Sunday bonnet around a hive? The originally colorful comparison to a real event has withered into these antique clichés like horse-drawn carriages clomping through our cobblestone streets. Still, we let them clomp through our news stories for want of anything fresh. Sometimes you can rework an old cliché into something new. A story about lawyer's deciding to advertise: "He opened Pandora's briefcase." The twist on the Pandora's box cliché brightens up the old saw, but you can only get by with this about once in a hundred stories.

A second level of cliché may be easier to recognize: hack phrases based on popular television shows and movies. For instance, who can forget that venerable phrase, "Sorry about that, chief." Or that amusing retort, "Well, excuuuuuse me!"

What, you don't remember them? Well, they once were among the hottest expressions going, buzzing around everywhere. Of course, the first was from the 1960s, and the second from the 1970s, both based on popular television programs.

What was in fashion then is out of vogue now. But we have a healthy batch of replacements based on our new television shows. How about these: "Been there, done that;" "I hate when that happens;" "No-brainer"; "You are the weakest link." In fact, by the time you read these cute expressions, I predict they're already on the way out. What's hip right now?

It's strange, mused a journalism writing coach. We would rather repeat fake lines spoken by fake people living fake lives than come up with something fresh and original. I don't know if it's that strange, given that our common culture nowadays bases itself on popular television. You tell your friend, "I don't think so, Steve," and he recognizes the reference to a show you've both watched. Click, you're in sync.

In news stories, however, readers seem more apt to groan than to smile when you report, "The robber pulled a no-brainer, telling the cashier to fill a sack with cash. Police hate it when that happens."

If you can avoid writing in clichés based on antique metaphors and pop culture expressions, what's left represent your own words. Maybe clever, maybe not, but honest and straightforward news writing beats hackneyed banality in my book (and don't use that annoying "book" cliché).

Less obvious but more sinister is a third level of cliché, based on an assumption that you know something about a situation when you really don't. For instance, a few years ago a commercial airliner crashed in Florida. Some reporters wrote that it went down into a "snake-infested swamp," assuming, perhaps, that all swamps in Florida must be snake-infested. In this case, however, the swamp did not have snakes. And in any case, snakes, or any other animals, don't really "infest" anything. They just live there. The cliché repeated a stereotype based on what we think that part of the country must be like.

Reporters used to throw clichés at any group without regard to ethical arguments attached to the label. A female college student became a "pretty co-ed." Ethnic backgrounds of people charged with crimes was always worth mentioning, unless the accused was Caucasian. Most journalists today try to avoid this sort of sexist or racist cliché, but minority groups still complain of unfair treatment. If the group referred to resides in a foreign country, the cliché radar still registers too often. Chinese: inscrutable. Middle-Eastern Muslims: terrorist. Sub-Saharan Africans: starving. French: arrogant. You may argue that these clichés are based on truth, but a grain of truth is not a beach. Do you think of yourself as a fat blowhard who dresses like a slob, talks loud and throws money around? Most of us don't. But much of the rest of the world maintains that cliché about Americans. The SAVE formula, remember, asks us to deal in facts (accuracy), not assumptions.

A coil of string, a set of wrenches, two jewels. Odd stuffing for a toolbox, but a boon for those with weak shoulders: A metaphoric toolbox has no weight, yet flips open the moment you hit the QWERTYs. What's more, you can add more jewels, more tools as you acquire them with experience, until that toolbox ends up as stuffed as, well, Pandora's briefcase.

More to read

Joseph Pulitzer

• Hiley H. Ward, Mainstreams of American Media History. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1997, 243-68;

Fun to Read Writing Guide

• William Zinsser, On Writing Well. An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 2d ed. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980;

Writing Tips and Hints

• Stephen Wilber, puckish writing coach and columnist, at

By the way...

Graf: Journalese for paragraph. Most of the time journalists claim to be sticklers for proper spelling. But it seems okay to misspell in their own jargon: Graf for paragraph, lede for lead, hed for headline. Okay, these are the only examples I can think of. But still.

"Awk": Favorite word of English teachers working the red pen over student essays. Something the grader doesn't like, something "awkward." Usually your writing attracts this red mark when it's grammatically correct, but rough. What does "rough" mean? Hard to explain. Hence the simple "awk." Trying to hear the "music" or flow of the sentences as you read will help you to understand the awks. To begin with, attention to transitions, verbs, and versions of the SAVE formula will help you to become an awk hawk.

Pulitzer's principle: Joseph Pulitzer is perhaps the most famous editor and publisher in American history. His endowments for prestigious journalism prizes, as well as for New York's Columbia University journalism program, assure his crown as high priest of the country's journalistic standards.

That said, Pulitzer made his fortune running a sensational rag called the New York Journal around the turn of the last century. Crime! Lust!! Celebrity scandal!!! Exclamation points!!!! Not what you'd consider respectable journalism. Pulitzer argued, however, that he offered this kind of content to attract working people and new immigrants who had never before read a newspaper. He hoped to forge in these folks the habit of news consumption. Then he could encourage more sophisticated interests by dribbling inside pages with more serious news. Sensationalism to Pulitzer was the beginning of education. Even today, as every good teacher and counselor know: you meet 'em where they're at.

Fast typing and home position: We learn how to "touch" type by hovering our fingertips above certain keys, namely, asdf and jkl;(QUERTY keyboard). We call this "home position." Some people assume the odd arrangement of the letters from this position is designed to assure the strongest fingers type the most common letters, but it's not exactly that. The QWERTY keyboard (read your upper left row of letters) appeared in 1874, apparently to separate metal typewriter keys, and avoid jamming by fast typists.

Well, well, here we live in this sophisticated post-industrial age of computers, still banging out news stories on our QWERTYs. A newsroom legend tells of a local reporter famous for rapping out fast stories: he whipped into the newsroom one night, drummed out an entire story from his notes without even glancing at the screen, sent the story off to the editor, and flew out again, perhaps for a late-night latté. Only when the editor called up the story did he realize the reporter had typed the entire thing with his hands shifted one letter off home position, as he read: Yjr Gsthp Voyu Vpimvo; Yirdfsu s[[tpbrf s ,rsditr yp tsodr yscrd 2- [rtvrmy.