Search Results for: precision editing
Much of the best work we did this year had this in common: direct, evocative writing. Editors have long said it’s best to “keep it simple, stupid.” That’s not as easy as it sounds. But, we’ve often done it well. Here are six examples, in no particular order. Many more could be listed. Thanks go out to correspondents and editors who craft lines such as these every day:
– Julie McCarthy describing an earthquake survivor in Nepal: “A physician from Doctors Without Borders hovers over Aitimaya, inspecting her head injury while an IV drains into her bony arm. Stretched out on a dirty mattress, the only motion she can muster is a limp swat at the flies.”
– Gene Demby on the disturbing reason he and two friends (“black journos,” as Gene wrote) were having dinner in St. Louis: “We weren’t gathered for a birthday, or happy hour, but because a young black man’s body had lain out for four hours on a sweltering street.”
– Robert Siegel reflecting on the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris: “No one ever summed up the French Enlightenment by saying: ‘I disapprove of what you order at the cafe, but I will defend to the death your right to order it.’ But what happened here shows there is a real connection between big ideas about freedom and small, casual acts of friendship and recreation. One person publishing a biting satire and another reacting to it over a bite at the bistro are two sides of the same coin. The gunmen and suicide bombers who came here claiming divine authority understood that. The guns that were aimed at the few in January were fired without distinction in November. Everyone was a target. The French are Charlie. And in their grief, they need no reminding of it.”
– Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Tyler Fisher, Kainaz Amaria, Lauren Migaki, Claire O’Neill, Wes Lindamood and Becky Lettenberger on a fascinating “Look At This” digital trip to the Amazon. It begins with two simple sentences that draw visitors right in: “You were taught in school that the rain forest is like the lungs of our planet. It’s not that simple.” The lines that follow on the other images are all examples of spare, compelling storytelling.
– Jasmine Garsd on why it’s significant that Ruben Blades’ character in Fear The Walking Dead isn’t another Latin American stereotype and is revealing the scars many Latin Americans bear: “Here’s what’s important about discussing our historical wounds and our cultural fears: rather than divide us, they bring us closer to one another. Sometimes, they highlight the fact that we all have the capacity to be monsters.”
– Wade Goodwyn, summing up a performance by opera singer Frederica von Stade and a choir of homeless people: “It was an evening they said they’d remember the rest of their lives. For a night, two dozen of Dallas’s homeless were lifted from the city’s cold streets and sidewalks to bask in the warm glow of spotlights. For the usual hostility and indifference to their fate, they were traded love, respect and goodwill — one performance only.
Jonathan Kern advised in Sound Recording that “the goal is to write the way you wish you could speak — or the way you speak on your best day, when you’ve had just the right amount of caffeine and sleep.” He recommended “short, repetitive sentences.”
It looks like we’re still heeding Jonathan’s advice.
(Memmos; Dec. 29, 2015)
The New York Times is reviewing some of its reporting about the San Bernardino terrorist couple, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple writes. The Times is looking back at a story that said Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”
The Times is examining the story and the anonymous sourcing for that claim because the FBI says it has not found any public social media postings by Farook and Malik that might have “tipped off authorities to the couple’s extremist views,” as The Two-Way writes. Instead, it looks like the couple communicated via emails and private messages.
Whether the communications were public or private is important. Wemple calls it “a gigantic deal” because the Times’ story went on to say that American immigration officials failed to uncover “what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” That’s a damning conclusion if the couple had been communicating in the open. If they weren’t doing that, the story went too far.
But this Memmo isn’t just about what the Times did. It’s about what NPR did.
Carrie Johnson, Dina Temple-Raston, Phil Ewing, Martin Kaste, Nathan Rott, Richard Gonzalez, Matt Guilhem, the Two-Way team, the Newscast desk and everyone else who touched the story* stuck to what we were confident we could say and avoided things that weren’t solid. They were precise in their language. For example, we were careful to say federal sources were telling NPR that Malik had posted a message on Facebook “at the time of the shooting.” That information has held up.
*This list is not meant to be exhaustive. If you’re among the “everyone else,” thank you.
Crusty editors aren’t the only ones who extol the merits of “precision writing and editing.”
Here’s what comedian Hasan Minaj had to say about Jon Stewart during Elizabeth Blair’s piece on Morning Edition today:
“He’s always been really great about cutting. … Because we only have 22 minutes to convey a lot and in a field piece you only have 4 1/2, 5 minutes, maybe 6 minutes tops. … Cutting out extraneous stuff, even if it’s extra laughs. … Cutting those things out to convey the story and to convey the narrative and the argument. And you’ll still get great jokes in there. But once you really establish and lay that groundwork out, that’s where it goes to that next level.”
Also on writing:
(Memmos; Aug. 3, 2015)
What do you think when you hear the phrase “vast majority?”
Here are some of the answers I got today from 15 correspondents, hosts and editors on the third and fourth floors:
– “More than two-thirds.”
– “At least three-quarters.”
– “Above 90 percent.”
– “Nearly all.”
– “A lot.”
– “A @#$%load.”
– “A boatload.”
– “A phrase that shouldn’t be heard.”
– “An amorphous phrase that means ‘we don’t know how many for sure, but we think it’s a lot.’ ”
The Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, offers a definition that begins with this: “Possibly the most over-used, tired and tautological phrase ever to have survived in the English language.”
Thankfully, a search indicates that the phrase “vast majority” doesn’t make it into our stories every day.
But it was still heard 202 times in the past year. The odds are a bit better than 50-50 that it will be said in the next 24 hours.
That’s a problem.
After all, since we can’t seem to agree on what the words mean or when they should be put together, it seems reasonable to conclude that listeners aren’t sure either. What’s more, attaching the word “vast” to “majority” is a judgment call. Who’s saying it’s a “vast majority?” What’s the proof? Maybe it’s just a “significant” majority. Or a “sizeable” one. Or just a majority.
When possible, the best course is to use facts rather than just the “vast majority” label. Establish, for example, that
“92 percent of those surveyed agreed” and then, perhaps, talk about what such a “vast majority” means.
This brings to mind other guidance about:
Note: My thanks to listener/reader Anne Sovik for suggesting we look into “vast majority.”
(Memmos; March 18, 2015)
On page 33 of Jonathan Kern’s Sound Recording there’s an entry titled: “Avoid Meaningless Attributions.”
“Beware of the overused terms ‘officials,’ ‘analysts,’ ‘critics’ and ‘experts,’ ” Jonathan writes. His message: Obviously, we should push to use actual names as often as possible. But when we can’t do that, it’s often the case that other words can be found that are precise and offer relief from repetitive references to “officials say” this and “experts say” that.
The ubiquitous “experts,” for example, might be “biologists,” “historians” or “numismatists,” depending on their specialties. (Yes, Korva, we want you to use “numismatists” on the air some day.)
In some cases “officials” can just disappear from a line altogether. Jonathan’s example: Instead of writing “Ford officials say they’re coming out with a new hybrid car,” say “Ford is coming out with a new hybrid car.”
We bring this up because a look back over the past year indicates we’re not heeding his advice.
– “Officials” was heard 2,022 times.
– “Critics” was heard 1,055 times.
– “Experts” was heard 636 times.
– “Analysts” was heard 351 times.
Our guests were certainly responsible for many of the times those words were used. But NPR officials would have to concede that critics, experts and analysts are correct when they say that we’ve contributed more than our fair share. Robert Siegel can testify to that. He says in Sound Reporting that he has spent “a lifetime trying to pull ‘officials’ out of All Things Considered.”
But, But, But …
By now, every member of the Washington desk is poised to send an email that points out they often have to say “administration officials” or “White House officials” or “Justice Department officials” or some variation of those words that their sources insist on. We understand. All we ask is that alternatives be kept in the mix: “Top advisers,” “close aides” and others.
Emails are probably being drafted by the business desk (which has to deal with “analysts”), the science desk (“experts”) and others.
Dave Mattingly is surely wondering what he’s supposed to do when he doesn’t have time for even just a few more words.
Again, the guidance is to look for alternatives. After all, not only are the words overused, they can be problematic. “Experts,” for instance, is both vague and often too-readily bestowed. “Critics” can be a backdoor way of getting in the “other side” without identifying them.
(Memmos; Feb. 19, 2015)
At her favorite gourmet market last week, Korva went to the ATM machine, inserted her card, squinted at the LCD display, entered her PIN number and withdrew cash to pay for her RAS Syndrome therapy.
We’ll stop there.
“Redundant acronym syndrome” isn’t our most serious problem. There’s even a case to be made that saying something like “START treaty” instead of just “START” (the acronym for “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty”) may be a helpful error on the radio (though never online). If there was a sense that adding the word “treaty” helped the listener understand what you were talking about, the redundancy would be a relatively minor mistake.
But, listeners notice when we insert redundant words. They point out that we would not say “automated teller machine machine” or “liquid crystal display display” or “personal identification number number” or “redundant acronym syndrome syndrome.”
For those listeners, redundancies are nicks in otherwise spotless stories. As Oxford Dictionaries notes in its guidance on “avoiding redundant expressions,” repetition can “give the impression that you don’t really understand the meaning of the words you’re using.”
It’s also worth noting that we benefit if we eliminate unnecessary words. Doing that makes room for other information and when you’re squeezing everything you can into a tight space, each word counts. “Precision writing and editing,” as we’ve said before, are important tools of our trade.
There are many lists online of redundancies, including those at:
(Memmos; Jan. 6, 2015)
What did Mark annoy us about in 2014? Here are the year’s “Memmos” divided into categories:
ATTENDING RALLIES AND POLITICKING
– “Why do we get some things wrong?” Our most common errors.
LABELS AND WHY IT’S WISE TO AVOID THEM
– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)
LANGUAGE TO USE AND LANGUAGE NOT TO USE
– Ebola; infectious or contagious?
– “Immigration” (and related terms).
– ISIS and al-Qaida; how to refer to their links.
– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)
STYLE & STANDARDS
‘TAKING DOWN’ STORIES
THINGS THAT SHOULD NOT BE FORGOTTEN
– Get names (why we don’t put random voices on the air).
– Good grammar.
– Never assume.
WHERE TO FIND GUIDANCE
(Memmos; Dec. 29, 2014)
“Will someone please tell me what is wrong with the word ‘happened?’ ‘Transpired, transpired, transpired.’ It’s far more irritating than ‘begs the question’ and that’s saying a lot.”
After getting that email, I opened Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. There’s a wonderful phrase in the book’s entry about “transpire”:
“Not to be used in the sense of ‘happen,’ ‘come to pass.’ Many writers so use it (usually when groping toward imagined elegance), but their usage finds little support in the Latin ‘breathe across or through.’ “
Or, choosing a highfalutin word and sounding stuffy.
Or, as Mark Twain put it, using “a $5 word when a 50-cent word will do.”
We’ve heard from emailers about many other words and phrases that can take you down the path to imagined elegance. They include:
– Going forward
– Ubiquitous [Which I originally misspelled as ubitquitous!]
– Comes amid
You can surely think of others.
There are times to use $5 words. Linton Weeks is a clear, concise writer. But he slips one or two $5 choices into many of his pieces. In writing about “when Thanksgiving was weird,” he described the costumes that Americans once put on while celebrating that holiday:
“Some Americans wore masks that made fun of people of other nations. … More refined revelers donned soft, ghostly, painted veils made of gauzy mesh that both disguised, and improved … a person’s appearance.”
“Donned” is the perfect word. In a post about the past, it feels just right.
But there is a real — not imagined — elegance to clear, simple story-telling.
Some recent examples:
– Howard Berkes’ “Delinquent Mines” reports.
– Ailsa Chang’s pre-election piece, “Sen. Mitch McConnell Has More Than Most Riding On Midterm Elections.”
– Dan Charles’ “Of Carrots And Kids: Healthy School Lunches That Don’t Get Tossed.”
– Linda Holmes’ “ ‘Grape Salad’ Is Not Minnesotan, And Other Lessons In Cultural Mapmaking.”
– Joe Shapiro’s “Guilty And Charged” series.
– Laura Sullivan’s “Red Cross” reports.
– Gregory Warner’s “Guarding The Ebola Border” story.
Every Newscast has a strong example as well. Jennifer Ludden’s report this week on a San Francisco law that mandates predictable work schedules is one. She packed a lot of information into a tight spot:
“Under the new law, companies must post schedules two weeks in advance … pay a penalty for changes made after that … and they must give part-time workers more hours before hiring someone else. Studies show the number of part-timers who would rather be full time has doubled since 2008. Chaotic schedules make it hard to arrange child-care, take classes, or hold a second job. A co-sponsor of San Francisco’s legislation is now in the state assembly and plans to propose a bill there. Advocates are also pushing for predictable scheduling laws in other cities.”
We can question some words in the pieces cited above. But the stories are mostly carried along by short, punchy sentences and good reporting. As you listen or read, you don’t stop to wonder what something means or to sigh at a malapropism (now there’s a $5 word!). The elegance of the stories is not imaginary.
Related: “Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips.”
(Memmos; Dec. 2, 2014)
Last week, a friend who’s been reading these “memmos” sent me an email that he’s held on to for 13 years. The message was written by Hal Ritter, a former managing editor of the Money and News sections at USA Today and until earlier this year the business editor at The Associated Press.
The topic: “precision editing.”
I called Hal to get his OK to share some excerpts. There are lessons here for reporters, producers and editors — whether they’re working on pieces for the Web or the radio. Just substitute some words — “listeners” for “readers;” “correspondents” for “reporters;” “pieces” for “stories” and his advice works well. It could easily be a note about “precision writing”:
“1. First, precision editing means getting it correct. Grammar, punctuation, usage and syntax are perfect. No rule is broken — or even bent. … Every day, I see verbs that don’t agree with their subjects, pronouns that disagree with their antecedents. … I see words that are misspelled. … I see prepositions used as conjunctions. And on and on and on. …
“2. Second, precision editing means squeezing every unnecessary word out of a story. I swear I can delete 15% of the words in some stories and not lose a thing. Word editing means when you see ‘away from,’ you delete ‘away.’ ‘Gathered together,’ delete ‘together.’ ‘Fell down,’ delete ‘down.’ ‘Burned up,’ delete ‘up.’ ‘In order to,’ ‘in order for,’ delete ‘in order.’ And many words, like ‘new,’ you can delete almost every time you see them. You can’t build an ‘old’ building. If you go through a story before sending it to the copy desk and challenge every word, you’ll be amazed how many you can delete. And how much crisper the writing is when you’re finished.
“3. Third, precision editing means writing for readers, not for sources. And that means getting rid of jargon or insider expressions. Language from Wall Street or Capitol Hill or Hollywood or the locker room that our readers won’t understand. Or retaining the jargon and explaining it. Completely and conversationally. Readers will thank you for doing that. Sadly, I’ve heard some reporters say that their sources will make fun of them if the reporters don’t write the way the sources talk. I say to hell with sources. Readers are the only people who matter at USA TODAY. Plus, those sources are wrong. The newspaper that does the best job of explaining jargon, completely and conversationally, is The Wall Street Journal. And The Journal‘s readers are likely to be well-versed in the jargon to begin with. A seventh-grader can read business and financial stories in The Journal and understand them.
“4. Fourth, precision editing means eliminating clichés and hackneyed expressions. Most of the time. I added that qualifier after rereading this week three wonderful pages that [Theodore M. Bernstein, long-time assistant managing editor of The New York Times] devotes to clichés [in The Careful Writer - A Modern Guide to English Usage]. Bernstein’s last sentence on clichés is this: ‘The important thing, however, as must be clear by now, is not to avoid the cliché, but rather to use it only with discrimination and sophistication, and to shun it when it is a substitute for precise thinking.’
“5. Finally, precision editing means careful attention to sentence structure. I believe that clear writing is 90% about sentence structure. What’s the best sentence structure? Simple. Subject, verb, object. One independent clause. An active verb. Little or no punctuation. The worst sentence structure? Complex. 40, 50 or even 60 words. Several dependent clauses. Lots of punctuation.”
My thanks to Hal for permission to share all that.
Someone may be about to suggest that the rules are different for radio. I would suggest that’s wrong. For one thing, USA Today‘s best stories at the time of Hal’s note were much like NPR’s and about the same length. The writing was tight and conversational. USA Today writers and editors would sweat over how many characters — not just words — they could fit on a line. Think about how much effort goes into shaving seconds off some of the pieces that NPR produces.
Also, a reading of Jonathan Kern’s Sound Reporting supports my case. Here’s some of what Jonathan says about “how to sound like a real person”:
– “First and foremost, say your sentences before you write them down; or at the very least, say them out loud after you’ve written them.”
– “Don’t use words on the radio you wouldn’t say at other times.”
– “Don’t use syntax that does not occur naturally.”
– “Use present participles — the ‘present progressive’ tense — to describe things that are going on at the moment.”
– “Don’t paraphrase actualities as if you were reading a quote from the newspaper.”
– Keep your sentence structure simple.”
– “Watch out for grammatical errors.”
– “Recognize clichés and look for alternatives.”
– “Avoid unnecessary jargon, acronyms and initialisms.”
– “Check for typos, missing words and other clerical errors.”
For those who want to read even more about proper usage, The New Yorker this week offers a piece on “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar.”
(Memmos; Nov. 4, 2014)
When making a general assertion of fact in a story, the reporter and editor should be able to immediately identify the source and explain why that person or organization is credible and authoritative. This is essential to the editing process and it also lets us stand by our reporting in a clear and convincing way if a story comes under question. We should never be in the position of looking for corroboration after a report has been published or broadcast.
In addition to this care in the way we source general assertions of fact, the language of such assertions must be precise. We shouldn’t put ourselves in a position where we believe the thrust of a statement is correct and supported by the facts, but the statement is open to question because we didn’t express it with enough precision.