About Writing

On Writing: Short Takes and Second Thoughts

By Mike Feinsilber

“Writing is a solitary, late night, early morning sort of thing. Unless you’re a literary genius—a Shakespeare or a Crane—it’s never a one-shot deal, always revision, revision, revision, over time. Writing well frustrates and exhausts, and one soon begins to think he’d rather scrape the inside of his skull with a spoon.” —Rick Cannon, a Gonzaga College High School English teacher, in a memo to his 11th grade students, as quoted August 27, 2012, by Jay Mathews, education reporter for the Washington Post.

First the guy, then his title. The first time I typed in that nifty Rick Cannon quote, I wrote: “Gonzaga College High School English teacher Rick Cannon.”  But I realized I was asking readers to plow through six words before they got the point: those six words are someone’s title. Far better is name first, title second, especially if the title is an artificial one and is full of nouns. When nouns pile up, each describing the word that follows—Gonzaga describing College, College describing High, High describing School,  and all there to describe English teacher—readers don’t know which is the operative noun. Put the name first and they immediately knows that those words after the name are identifying a person. Journalism is particularly fond of long and fake titles along the lines of:  “High-speed North American bicycle championship runner-up Harry Geedus…” They do no good; they confuse.
Again officially. Last week I railed against “officially” as redundant, usually unnecessary, an effort by the writer to pump in some pomp. On Saturday, August 26, the Washington Post made my point with its lead editorial, “A search for leadership.” The drop headline began: “As the campaign officially begins…” The first sentence began: “As the presidential campaigns officially kick off…” Subtract “officially” and what’s lost?
Your second most important paragraph.  The reader, just getting acquainted with your topic, will give you a free ride on paragraph one. Paragraph two hooks or loses the reader. If it merely repeats what you said in the first paragraph (and what the title or headline may have already said), the reader is going to think, “Okay, got it.” and move on to another story. Readers, impatient souls, are eager to move on. Your writing’s job is to keep them reading.
The redundant second paragraph happens more often than you might guess. The New York Times on August 26: “Republicans on Saturday cancelled the opening day of their national convention, saying their first concern was for the safety of delegates and guests in the face of Tropical Storm Isaac, which is strengthening and is headed toward Florida’s West Coast.”
Got it. So the reader reads on:
   “’Our first priority is ensuring the safety of delegates, alternates, guests, members of the media attending the Republican  National Convention and citizens of the Tampa Bay area,’ Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. The convention will officially open on Monday… etc.”
And with that, goodbye reader. The second graf has elaborated a bit but it hasn’t given the reader a reason to stay with the story.
If he does hang in there, he confronts mere recapitulation:
Graf 3: “Planners stressed that the official business of the convention will go on as planned later in the week.”
    Graf 4:  “’The Republican National Convention will take place and officially nominate Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and the party has other necessary business it must address,” Mr. Priebus said in the statement…”
(Here comes from me what journalists call the “to be sure” paragraph.)
To be sure, the Timesman was writing in a hurry on Saturday evening for the Sunday paper. Apparently all he had to work with was the Priebus handout. He had no time for additional reporting—were any delegates leaving Tampa in anticipation of the storm? But the consequence is a story that spins its wheels.
A final point: The Tampa story also makes a point I made in an earlier posting on this blog:  Quotes that come from documents rather than a speaker’s mind and mouth almost always are stiff, bureaucratic and not worth quoting.

Mike Feinsilber, a wire service writer for more than half a century and more recently a writing coach, is now preaching what he didn’t always practice, he admits.

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