A guide to keep you and your boss on the same page from ‘BBI’ to ‘power verbs’ to ‘speed bumps’
She: I feel like we never talk any more.
He: I don’t know what you mean.
She: See? It’s like we don’t speak the same language.
This could just as well be a frustrated dialogue between many Editor/Reporter couples whose relationship has been tarnished by an inability to find a working vocabulary. Reporters are from (fill in the planet), editors are from (you get the point).
Most of the time the fault is the editor’s. Writing is an internalized, non-verbal process, and many writers have trouble expressing what the hell they’re trying to do with their copy. As an editor I can live with that, because my newspaper doesn’t pay reporters to communicate with editors–it pays them to communicate with readers. Editors get cut no such slack. Too many of them do their jobs without sufficient structural vocabularies. (My first editor would often critique an unsuccessful effort by saying, “It didn’t grab me.” Another had a vocabulary so specific to his personality that reporters would quiz each other: “What’s he mean when he says we have to ‘meatball’ my story?”) They don’t know how to say what they want, they don’t know how to criticize, they don’t know how to praise–and they don’t know what to do about it.
As an antidote, I’d like to offer “A Vocabulary For Writers and Editors,” compiled by Susan Ager, the Detroit Free Press writing coach, with a few additions and changes by Laurie Hertzel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Editors: Read this. Writers: Make your editors read this. Both sides: Use this, or invent your own as a way of improving the honesty and depth of those critical conversations between editors and reporters. There’s no “Divorce Court.” We’re stuck with each other. Try to build your proposals and suggestions around specific, structurally based terms that keep both sides on the same page, like:
ANNOUNCING THE QUOTE: A waste of space and the reader’s time. Example: Smith said she couldn’t remember the last time she was so flattered. “I’ve not been complimented like that in many years,” she said.
BBI: Boring but important. Scatter boring but necessary details through a story. Don’t pile too many in one place, or the reader may check out. Better yet, pair dull details with interesting details. Example: Neuharth went to Northern State Teachers College for a few months before enlisting in the Army. He served with distinction in the 86th Blackhawk Infantry Division during the war and came home to live with his bride in a trailer. He worked at a carnival darts stand and finished school.
BLOB WORDS: “Program,” “situation,” “institution,” “facility,” are examples. They say nothing specific, bring no pictures to mind.
DULL: If it’s dull but necessary, keep it short.
EMOTIONAL TRUTH: Writing in such a way that readers not only learn the facts of an event, but can feel the joy, sorrow, anger, envy, love, hate, poignancy that the participants felt.
FOCUS: Figure out the one story you’re trying to tell, and tell it. Avoid trying to tell more than one story in a single article. It may get published, and it may even get read, but it is likely to confuse or irritate the reader.
FOCUS SENTENCE: “This story is about ……….” If a writer can’t write a single, interesting sentence about her story, she should struggle until she can. Without an interesting focus sentence, the story is bound to be dull.
FRONT-END EDITING: Helping a writer focus his reporting. Then helping him focus his story by posing questions, suggesting approaches before the writing begins. The opposite is REAR-END EDITING, usually done by the seat of one’s pants when a story is turned in–past deadline, long, and unfocused.
“HEY MARTHA” STORIES: The stories that lead a reader to say over the breakfast table, “Hey, Martha! Listen to this!” These stories are often read aloud.
JUNK QUOTES: Quotes that are long, rambling, vague, or obvious. Or all of the above. In many cases, junk quotes should be killed. In other cases, the writer may be able to summarize/paraphrase briefly and brightly.
KICKERS: A silly word for endings. They’re very important. They wrap up a story in a neat package. They leave the reader with a good taste. They close the curtains and turn down the lights.
KILL YOUR BABIES: Yes, you must get rid of some of your very favorite passages–often descriptive –because they’re not necessary to the meaning of the story. Sometimes a writer’s babies are little asides he or she felt were so interesting they ought to be in the paper. Fine, but not in this story.
LAZY LEDES: “It is” and “There is” and “This is a story about” are lazy ways to start stories. Sure, sometimes that’s the best approach. But rarely.
METAPHORS: They’re wonderful things. But they must be universal, so must readers can connect. Here’s a good one from the Wall Street Journal: Breeding fruit flies with oddball traits–orange eyes or curly wings–is as easy as selecting options on a new Camaro.
MICROJOURNALISM: Pick one example, examine it in detail, and let it illuminate a larger problem or issue. This approach allows the reader to feel some emotion about a person or conflict.
NARRATIVE: A story told chronologically, as it unfolded, as it happened in life. Also known as a TALE, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Variations include the HOURGLASS, in which what happened is summarized at the top and then the story is told from the beginning. Narratives are compelling because all of us have a childlike need to know “What happened next?”
ORIENT THE READER: Never forget that, unlike movie theaters, you are unable to dim the lights on readers’ lives before you begin your story. Instead, you must yank readers out of their own lives. They’ll give you a few seconds to orient them to the story you want to tell. But long drawn-out mystery ledes, in which it’s not clear what’s up, irritate readers and drive them away.
OUT-OF-TIME QUOTES: Quotes spoken to a reporter. The reader is reminded that he is reading a newspaper story. IN-TIME quotes are better. They are spoken in the living of life. They make the reader feel in the midst of the story as it happened. Example: “Goddamn it,” the mayor muttered to his press aide moments before the speech began, “I forgot my notes.” An out-of-time quote about the same moment would read: “The mayor told me right before his speech that he had forgotten his notes,” press secretary Bob Berg said.
OVER-ATTRIBUTION “Smith was listed in fair condition at Henry Ford Hospital, according to a hospital spokesman.” Attribution is necessary only if the reader needs to know where we got our information, or if we could be legally liable, or if we’re not sure our info is accurate. (But if we’re not sure it’s accurate, we shouldn’t print it, right?)
POWER VERBS: Verbs that snag, tickle, punch, pull, push, pummel, nudge,slam, cajole or ensnare the reader. Most newspaper verbs are weak.
QUOTES: Keep ’em short and powerful. Don’t let your sources drone on and on. Think of quotes as the spices, the seasoning in your story–a few potent quotes can go a long way. Instead of flipping through your notebook for obligatory quotes, use the ones you remember off the top of your head (check them later for accuracy, of course). The memorable quotes are the quotes you should use. The others should probably be killed or paraphrased.
READING ALOUD: Sage advice: Write a story so you could read it aloud in a barroom or in a courtroom. In either case, it should be clear and straightforward. And the sentences should flow so well that you needn’t worry about where to take a breath.
RECONSTRUCTION: We miss most events. But we can still describe them, in two ways. We can use out-of-time quotes from people who were there, recounting what happened. Or, we can reconstruct what happened by interviewing participants in detail about the sights, sounds, smells, sentiments of the events. Then we can write it as they experienced it, as if we and the reader were there.
RULES: There are none, except accuracy.
SCENE: Show me what happened. Show me emotion. Show me telling details. Make me feel as though I were there. But keep it crisp and uncluttered.
SIMPLE SENTENCES: The best sentences have one punctuation mark. The worst sentences have lots of punctuation marks. Readers find simple sentences easier to understand.
SPAGHETTIING: What happens when a writer has no plan or map or outline for a story. The writer may manage a lede, but doesn’t know where he is going or what he wants to accomplish. His story becomes tangled, sometimes so tangled that an editor can’t find a way out. But the reader can.
SPEED BUMPS: Those little annoyances–awkward phrases, vague words, unclear passages, unexplained numbers–that slow down the reader. They may also force the reader off your road. Common speed bumps: Numbers that are not made meaningful. Long titles. Jargon, especially legal and financial. Overused attribution. Insider references. Jokes that aren’t funny. And, finally, last names on second references that are so many grafs below the first reference that no one can remember who the hell Smith is.
SUITCASE LEDE: A lead that attempts to tell the reader everything, usually in a sentence with many punctuation marks. Such a lede usually includes an age or two, a hometown or two, some jargon, and perhaps the name of an official with a long title. Such ledes are not seductive.
TALKING HEADS: Faceless, personality-less people, speaking quotes in a story. Usually there are many talking heads in such stories. We get their name, a long title, and a quote. Usually the quote is long, vague, or both. Reaction stories are often filled with talking heads. Other stories include many talking heads because a writer wants to convince an editor that many people were interviewed. Reading one of these stories is like going to a big party and shaking hands with 100 people but getting to know no one.
TELLING DETAIL: The color of the wallpaper in the halfbath of your home is not nearly as telling as the color of your underwear. But in a story about Chrysler’s annual stockholders’ meeting, the color of Lee Iacocca’s underwear is not “telling detail.” Instead, the “telling detail” may be that he popped two Exedrin before taking his place at the lectern. Many writers believe any detail is better than no detail. Wrong. The only good detail is telling detail. It should reveal something of the person or situation.
THE 2-3-1 RULE: For impact in a sentence, save your best, most important, most resonant and dramatic word for last. It is the most powerful position in a sentence. The second-most powerful position is at the beginning. The weakest position is in the middle. The same rule applies to paragraphs and stories as a whole: the end packs the most punch. And, as a rule of them, never end your sentence on a preposition…of, from, to…..
TITLES: Job titles can be foolish. Wouldn’t we rather know what people do for a living than what their business cards call them?
TRANSLATE: Help me understand, especially numbers. Tell me 100,000 people dead of AIDS would fill the University of Michigan stadium. Tell me three ounces of meat–the recommended daily maximum–is about the size of a deck of playing cards. Help me picture things.
UMBRELLA ATTRIBUTION: Tell me once where you gathered your information, and then get on with the story. Examples of handy umbrella attributions:
Here’s how police described the incident:
Here’s what police and witnesses said happened.
Experts explained the event this way:
Although accounts differ, Smith’s victims describe his general method this way:
VOICE: Every story speaks to the reader in a voice. Often it is the voice of an after-dinner speaker who talks for an hour while everyone fidgets and prays for relief. A good newspaper speaks with many voices, but they should be the voices of human beings talking with intelligent friends over breakfast about what they have found out about the world.
VOMIT YOUR STORY: Good advice for writers. In polite language, it would be, “Just write it. Don’t look at your notes. Just tell me what happened. Don’t worry about grammar, syntax, or prettiness. Just write it.” But, after the story is written, it still must be edited and polished. Some writers vomit everything in their notebook straight into a story and then turn it in. This is not wise.
WAFFLING: Saying it straight out apparently would be la pretty good idea, police said.
WRITING WITH AUTHORITY: The opposite of waffling. Become an authority, then write like one. Tell the reader what you know straight out. But you can’t write it clearly and with authority unless you first understand it.
A companion to this vocabulary list is the May 21 posting in the “Nuts & Bolts Archives” called “40 Ways to Improve Collaboration at Your Newspaper,” a list of 20 things that editors and reporters want from each other, and 20 things that line editors and copy editors want from each other.