Critiquing the NYT critique

Staffers warn of ‘gum in the gears,’ self-absorbed writing and too many rules

Just as interesting as the staff critiqueCritiquing the NYT critiques of the New York Times’ A-1 writing, detailed in the previous newsthinking.com posting, were the reactions of a handful of staffers to the critiques. Some of these responses were more detailed and more complex (and more self-indulgent) than the critiques. But they nevertheless open a window on the most admired newspaper. You can find your own foibles–and your own weaknesses–by reading them. Here are excerpts:

Critiquing the NYT critique

Critiquing the NYT critique

“I have found these memos inspirational”
The late David Rosenbaum gave me some of the best writing advice I have received at this paper. I had made an admiring remark in the mid-1990s about his prose. He replied that he mostly worked on keeping sentences short. Collaborating last week with Jim Yardley, I was struck by how well he follows the same advice. It is a lesson that many of the rest of us too often forget.

I have found these memos inspirational. I printed them out and read them on a train. I had been struggling with a broad trend story that had already gone through several drafts, including two different anecdotal ledes and two matter-of-fact ledes. After reading the memos, I found a 17-word lede to replace a 47-word, 2-sentence lede paragraph. The shorter version is not perfect, and may well need editing. But it is at least an improvement.

The printout of the memos will stay on my desk.

“I grow weary of writing
that calls attention to itself”

As a career copy editor, I can say I’m delighted to see both the initiative and the better writing. you did not ask for comment from all corners of the newsroom, but surely you knew you were exposing yourself to the possibility. and so I begin.

Although I was pleased by all the commentary, I did find myself muttering unhappily at the page a time or two. in both cases, I wanted to urge restraint in the way we write. I wanted to hear someone saying that we should calm down and state facts plainly, without ornamentation.

In the first case, a commenter wanted more dramatic writing about the riots in France. I think the idea was to write to the moment, to put down prose that rose to the occasion. It seems to me that urban riots and comparable events are precisely the time to be restrained and clinical. Now, I should make it clear that I don’t recall the coverage, so I cannot say I disagree with the comments; but I do wish to say that this was the point when I started having reservations. Someone should be saying that we should not sensationalize events, and that striving for effect can lead us that way.

In the second case, a commenter celebrated the lede on an article about Schwarzenegger’s quadruple defeat. Here’s the lede:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s carefully honed image as an Olympian above politics, the people’s governor, a man too wealthy to be bought, the invincible independent, all came crashing down Tuesday as California voters delivered a verdict on his four ballot measures: No, no, no and no.

I, too, loved that lede. It’s a perfect instance of writing above the level of the ordinary. On those terms it’s excellent. I would be unable, however, to answer an accusation that it is drenched in attitude. I don’t know whether we were pleased by developments or not, and I don’t know what the rest of the article said. I only know that I couldn’t answer the challenge.

If anyone emphasized that good writing is not necessarily flashy, I don’t recall it, and I’m disappointed. I grow weary of writing that calls attention to itself, and I long for a voice that says what it has to say, and then falls silent. I wish someone had reminded us all that good writing can use metaphor, simile and image, and that when it does it is most economical. It can get to the point faster, and before the jump.

“You’ve got to put that in the story”
I love this discussion. All these comments should be published in a book. They remind me of one of the best parts of being a newspaper reporter: hanging out with colleagues and talking about stories and reporting and writing and how to do it all better. There just doesn’t seem to be time to do much of that these days. As for original writing, I have to acknowledge how much I have learned from editor/geniuses like Paul Fishleder, Bill McDonald, Lawrence Downes, George Judson and so many others.

I also think of something I read in a transcript of one of Maureen Dowd’s sessions on writing at the paper. She said, I think, that you should always make sure to include the stuff you would tell your friends over the dinner table. I think she may have said this in the context of a profile she did on Warren Beatty that when she got to his house he had all the lights turned low, perhaps to hide the signs of age on his face and that originally she did not think to include that detail. But she told it to a friend and the friend said: “You’ve got to put that in the story.” And so she did. (I hope I am remembering this correctly; it may also have been about a profile of Kevin Costner, and how at the beginning of the interview, when she started the tape recorder, he said, ‘So are you going to play that for your friends?’ And she included that telling moment, which a lot of people, myself included, might have left out).

So a lot of times when I’m writing a story I guess this applies more to features than deadline news writing I try to pretend I’m telling it to a friend: “Listen to this, or you won’t believe this, or Let me tell you what happened.”

“Like many worker bees here,
I had many of the writerly instincts
drummed out of me during my training at the Times”

To begin with, I don’t think it is such a good idea to use our writers and editors to critique our writing. Let me first give credit where credit is due. I believe Dan Barry is the best writer currently at the newspaper, following in the enormous footsteps of Francis X. Cline. Still, I do not believe he said much of practical help to those of us struggling to write well. I also learned to write news stories by reading Robert McFadden, so his comments were useful. (A long time ago, Jim Barron taught me Bob McFadden’s formula, which goes action, reaction, significance, poetry, and chronology. This is essentially what he means when he says we need to get some of the juicy stuff in the first five graphs and leave the chronology of the story to the jump. The idea of having a quote in the first three graphs is also formulaic, but works.) I also admire Jim Bennet’s writing and found some of his comments on point.

In general, however, newspaper writers are lousy judges of good writing. If we were great writers, most of us wouldn’t still be toiling at the newspaper, but signing autographs at Barnes & Noble. If you want to improve writing at the newspaper, you should find some great writers who were once in newspapers and let them critique our pages. William Kennedy, he of the Albany novels, immediately pops to mind, but there are others. Also, good writing coaches are not always great writers, and we should scour the academy to find them.

I think it is also high time we dispense with a few myths. Good writing is not and never has been conversational. The argument that something is no good because “that isn’t the way people speak” is absurd. Do people really speak the way Joyce, Faulkner, Fitzgerald or any other wonderful writer you can think of wrote the way people speak. (Perhaps Mark Twain, but even Huck’s voice was more poetic than a real Missouri boy’s)

Writing is thinking on a higher and better level than conversation. And if we want writing that imitates speech, then we should allow the use of the second person, clichés, slang and contractions in our copy. “You can’t see the disaster unfolding here. It is silent and deadly, taking place on the microscopic level. But you can smell it. The disinfectant as you enter a house, the sickly sweet and nauseating smell of decaying health, of vomit and tears, of impending death.” In the Times however, one is taught to say One cannot see the disaster unfolding. … which is of course not how people speak.

We do not write the way people speak. We write better than that.

Second, I am so tired of listening to editors lecture us on clichés. Most of what we do is a cliché, beginning with about three-quarters of our story ideas. You cannot stamp out clichés entirely because they are little units of thought deeply ingrained in our society and language. Think of the biblical phrase “feet of clay.” One of our critics even said the writing in our features was an attempt to “gild the lily” using a cliché to damn clichés. Of course we should minimize the use of clichés. But the truth is when space is tight, on deadline, the judicious use of a cliché can save space and time.

Moreoever, every editor has his own personal list of clichés and so writers fall prey to the caprice of an editor’s pet peeves. If we are serious about limiting clichés, let’s assemble a real list of clichés everyone can agree on as awful. (Just as an aside, I would note that most people use clichés in conversation all the time, so if we want to write the way people speak, we should too.)

Third, the biggest cliché is the form itself. For instance, everyone agrees we have too many walk-in leads, also known as anecdotal leads or Wall Street Journal leads. This has become the fashion for writers trying to write a piece about a trend or a situation. Begin with the individual, usually the victim, and then expand outward to discuss the trend. The cliché endures because it works in a short amount of time:

John Manley lost his job last week, the latest casualty (war cliché) in an economic downturn (academic cliché) that has wracked Kansas in the last year. “They didn’t even give us warning,” he said.

“The boss walked in one day and said we had no jobs. I don’t know what I’m going to do, man. I got children. I look at them at night and I don’t know how I’m to feed them.” (cliché victim’s quote up high)

Mr. Manley is one of 400,000 people who have found themselves suddenly without work in recent months. Blah, blah, blah (Cliché expanding to the theme or trend)

All right, so we all agree this is a tired formula that was fresh in the 1970s and has grown stale. But the critics and editors in the memo haven’t given us examples of new and innovative ways to start a trend piece. Usually the only alternative we are given is to lop off the so-called anecdote and start with the “nut graph.” The trouble is the piece starts to sound like a term paper if you are not very careful.

If you want to really destroy clichés, try writing a crime story where the news of the murder occurs in the last paragraph. That would be breaking the cliché. But you’ll never get it into the newspaper, because the exigencies of giving the news first dictate the form. You cannot “bury your lead” (another cliché).

Two other examples were mentioned in the critique. The one about polio “stealing” through an Amish town, and the one about “colicky babies.” The first is a basic then-and-now lead, or you-thought-it-was-over-but lead. Polio was eradicated along time ago. But now its come back in the Amish community. Most of us can rattle these leads off like the clichés they are.

So editors and writers, lets assemble a list of new formulae for the trend pieces…We need to come up with new alternative leads we like and teach them, and then do themes and variations, until they too become tired clichés. And then perhaps we’ll go back to the Wall Street [Journal] lead, because it’ll seem fresh again.

My rules would be these, and they were the same for T.H. White:

o Let the verbs carry the sentence. Find the verb and you find the story. The polio is stealing through town. Perfect verb, thus the lead moves. This is what Barry is talking about when he says give the prose “topspin.” The story is action and the action is the verb.

o Cut all the adjectives and adverbs you can. Newspaper writers tend to confuse turgid prose with good prose. Read the story aloud. If it’s hard to say, it’s got to many useless words.

o Stick to the active voice whenever possible. Only use the passive voice when the actor is unknown or unimportant.

o Get good, short, pithy quotes.

o Be concrete in your descriptions.

o As Barry said, don’t be lazy. Reach for the better verb, the better image.

o When using a metaphor or simile, make sure it is counter intuitive and fresh. Read a lot of poetry. Listen to good song writers.

o When a cliché pops into your copy, see if you can find a fresher way to put it.

o Write more features that are actually features, focusing on one person or group, because they are weird people in a normal place, or normal people in a weird place. Write fewer trend pieces that simply us a person as a way to get into a term paper on drug abuse, poverty, whatever the ill de jour is.

o Keep you sentences short as possible. Don’t let parenthetical phrases and attributions slow down the narrative. You’ll have time at the bottom of the story to provide all the details, including longwinded titles of officials. I remember Bill Keller, when he was foreign editor, once advising me to leave out the name of Rwandan woman out of the lead, since it was long and unpronounceable. So we used the pronoun “she” in the lead and left her name for the second or third graph. It worked like a charm. (cliché) There is an old joke about Times writers. When they want to write “A gorilla ate a banana with a far-away expression, as if daydreaming of better times” we write “A gorilla, a large primate found in Uganda and parts of Eastern Zaire, ate a banana, an elongated yellow fruit from the tropics, with a far away expression, as if daydreaming, a wakeful state in which a person fantasizes, of better times, according to a witness, who insisted on anonymity, because he was no authorized to be in the gorilla cage.… No wonder our bloody sentences go so long.

o Contrary to what our reviewers said in the memo, I would resist the urge to overwrite in hard news stories. Stay away from flowery or forced prose when the news is compelling on its own. Keep the language simple, the descriptions concrete. If seventy people die in a ferry boat accident, we don’t need to dress the action up too much to make people understand how horrible it was. Sure it’s important to “lace it with the immediacy of the moment” (possible cliché, certainly not the way people talk) but not with unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. “Seventy people drowned in the East River yesterday afternoon after a ferry hit a submerged tree and sank…” is pretty powerful. Save the poetry for the fourth or graph in McFadden’s formula, the poetry graph. There you can talk about the black water, the screams of children, the chaos of people trying to save their loved ones, the groan of the metal giving way, the giant gurgle the ship made as it

…Like many worker bees here, I had many of the writerly instincts drummed out of me during my training at the Times. Prohibitions abounded, and advice on improving prose was sparse. The formulae for the stories were rigid. I was taught the first three graphs needed to contain a quote and the all important “nutgraph” or “billboard”. I was taught never to use the first or second person. I was taught to write all stories as if the person reading them knew nothing, leading to an abundance of parenthetical phrases, dependent clauses and long attributions. All of this destroys narration.

Perhaps it is time to rethink all of these notions. And we might want to reach outside of newspapers, to writers of fiction, non-fiction books and magazine articles, to find new tools of the trade. (cliché)

“There should be no rules”
These memos are great; it is incredibly terrific reading thoughts on writing from this crowd. (I mean, you could charge money for this).

But to me, the most important rule about writing is this: There should be no rules. I’m exaggerating, but only a bit. I get very annoyed when every six months ago, some editor decrees that there shall be no more anecdotal leads, or no puns witty or not or no more use of the words launch or irony (the news desk won’t allow it!), or whatever. Don’t get me wrong; I happen to agree, for example, that we overuse anecdotal leads and that they should be employed sparingly in these days when people can leave your story with a click of a mouse. But to me, good writing is about taking chances. If it doesn’t work, fine, don’t do it. But I think it’s a bad idea to constrain writing in advance in any way. I don’t want to have to worry when I’m sitting down and trying to think of interesting ways to write a complicated story that I can’t use this word, or try this route, because it is going go automatically get vetoed in New York good or bad, sight unseen. And I think what happens a lot if a senior editor or the News Desk makes some strongly worded request about writing involving an individual story and that is transformed over the coming weeks into an immutable decree by editors further down the ladder.

Again, I want to stress that most of these requests/rules/decrees do not achieve a bad result. but I think we need to be very careful to distinguish between giving guidance and hamstringing writers who want to try to do cool things. The reigning in, if it is necessary, should take place at the end, not at the beginning.

Oh, and one other thing, and I don’t mean to rant here.

I think it is absolutely essential for our stories to be scrupulously fair and balanced: I thought that growing up reading the paper, and I believe that today more than ever, given all the scrutiny we are under, including by a fair number of people who do not wish us well. That said (a phrase, by the way, that should be avoided at all costs in copy), I think that we are in danger of becoming blog-shy that we pull back punches in anticipation of some shot we might take in a blog or some Web site. Much of that critique is legitimate and helpful; but a lot of it is not, and in fact is not intended to be.

Case in point: I did a Week in Review story over the weekend exploring the question that Democrats might, at least in theory, be politically better off in the long term to come just short of winning the mid-term elections. We went to great extremes to make clear (my editor, Mary Suh, was scrupulous about this right up to the midnight deadline) that we were not saying Democrats were URGING this or that this would be a good POLICY result, but just that this is an interesting political question being discussed out there. Of course, we were Blog-slammed the next day by people saying, incorrectly, that we had written a story arguing that it would be better for Democrats to lose.

Final point: In the process of preparing an advance obituary of former President Bush, I had the privilege of reading Maureen Dowd’s coverage of him in his failed 1988 reelection campaign. It is some of the best copy I have seen: Great writing, great edge, great observations, very revealing about the man (and to be able to say that now as someone preparing his obituary is a high compliment indeed;. But I have to say, after I finished reading her stories, I wondered: Could that appear today? Would that survive the editing process? What would the blogs say? I would like to think yes, but I’m really not sure.

“Gum in the gears”
I agree. Fewer anecdotal leads. But I think there is another source of some of the worst writing on the front page.

For me, as a reader, just as big a problem is gum in the gears.

A story is humming along with a certain sense of momentum, an engine in tune, idea bleeding into idea, paragraphs ending with an obvious question that the next paragraph answers before posing another one. And then, gum. Icky clauses or inorganic tidbits that have someone gotten larded into the mechanism, hobbling the rhythm, popping the gaskets, adding a nasty clunking sound that pulls you out of the story and reminds you, oh yeah, I was going to get another cup of coffee or did I remember to recharge my iPod last night?

Fewer anecdotal leads, yes. But also less gum, please.

Bad anecdotal leads are, I would imagine, almost always the fault of the writer, who can’t think of anything better or doesn’t try hard enough. But where does gum come from? My guess is that it is a by-product of the editing process, and it accumulates most often late in the day, when mandates from above Move this higher! Add this point! Isn’t this reference too obscure? give line editors and tired writers, sitting at home at the end of a long day with a TiVo remote in their left hand and a blessed Scotch in their right, little time to turn the gum into grease.

If there is more gum in straight-news stories than in features, and I would argue there is, it is because they are, by their nature, pushed through the system on the fly. Some gum is inevitable, even necessary. Good writing is a crucial goal, but it’s not the only goal. So I guess I would say, just as it is important for writers to resist the impulse toward anecdotalism, it is also important for those whose slightest word sends tremors through the organization to ask whether some extra tidbit or 8 o’clock epiphany is really worth the likelihood that gum will be its unintended consequence.

If it is, then let it rip. If not, then let it pass.

I tried to think about my own writing sins and out of that came a few other stray thoughts:

It takes time to read The New York Times, especially if you intend to also think about what you have read. That’s one of the things that makes it The New York Times, and the reason that we are slowly accumulating the most sophisticated, diverse, highly educated and discriminating readership in the history of American journalism. So we need to take into account those time-deprived, stressed-out, jump-averse readers, but I am not sure they should be at the very center of our thinking. I would argue for writing that distinguishes us from other news outlets by being, up to a point, more sophisticated, more demanding, more unusual and more risky.

The New York Times is written for a special, self-selected class of readers who are, by definition, more willing to spend time and mental energy to understand the world and take pleasure in its complexity. We are never going to be everybody’s newspaper, and wouldn’t be The New York Times anymore if we tried. Some people would be happier with USA Today. We must wave goodbye, sadly, and wish them well.

Don’t try to write the way people talk. Colloquial language, for occasional effect, is well and good, but newspaper prose is best when written in a more sophisticated idiom. This is not an argument for stuffiness or standardized word choices. It has more impact. Putting too much colloquial language in a story undercuts the power the most important weapon in your arsenal: The quotes. They are simply less effective when what surrounds them is in the same colloquial voice.

“It really does help”
I wrote my article which appeared and heard that it was fine, everyone loved it. Then, while I was waiting for it to be published, I read the [A-1 writing] memo and looked again at my article. I found myself nodding my head in agreement. Then I took at look at my own story. Lo and behold, I had committed all sorts of transgressions, which led me to re-write the top. It really does help to be reminded of what not to do. And those editors who liked the story before? They told me not to change it, but then agreed that it was much improved.

“What a blessing it is”
This will be brief, with a possible addendum, since I was so inspired by the critiques of our front page writing that I’m in the process of trying a brave new way to do a lead on a “feature” story that avoids the formulaic Joe Blow anecdote, Joe Blow quote, nut graf, talking head quote. My model is Gardiner’s polio piece and the many analyses about why that lede catapults the reader into the story without being either a meandering anecdote or a predicatable thumb-sucker. For sure, I didn’t find all the commentary equally interesting nor did i agree with a lot of it.

That said, how invigorating to have the same lede hailed by one of us and excoriated by another. As my grandmother would say, that’s what makes horse racing. Also, to be almost 60 years old, and a pretty good writer if I do say so myself, and to come away from those memos having LEARNED SOMETHING is a huge deal. what a blessing it is to work among people so smart, so dedicated to a craft that seems to be in its death throes and so willing to take the time to share their gifts with others when I bet [management] didn’t pay them OT to do it.

Now let’s see what the copy desk does to this lede I’m writing!

“Preparation is going to
make a huge difference”

There’s almost no breaking news story, except for maybe the tsunami, where the writer doesn’t know some kind of background about it in advance. This is Journalism 101 but preparation is going to make a huge difference. Here’s an example: on Tuesday, we knew that auto sales were coming out. We also knew that Detroit was up to its ears in new SUVs. Jeremy got started on an SUV story that we morphed into the auto sales story to make it more meaningful than just, “car sales dropped 4 percent in April.” I was really happy with his story and wish it had gotten better play, but it did the job.

Likewise, it’s tornado season in the Midwest, it will soon be hurricane season in the South, someday Gerald Ford will die, etc. And perhaps the Obit process is a good hint here. As we are covering stories and we know there’s going to be a big development, we put not just B-matter but turns of phrase in a file for the day. I went to a writer’s workshop last year where one of the speakers said she always keeps a little notebook in her bag and writes down observations as she sees them, then pulls out her book when she’s looking for inspiration. All those things are of good use when you’re on deadline, they have been to me, anyway.