John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Don't do this again

All right, I’m just a copy editor — and a cashiered copy editor at that — so you may wonder where I come off with attitude about how real writers write. (Several reporters have in the past.) In part, it’s because I was a reader first, and as a reader I identified stale devices with which writers, journalists in particular, imagine that they bring freshness and imagination to their work.

For fuller discussion, you should look at a compilation of cliche leads that Dick Thien offered to the American Copy Editors Society and a similar analysis at Bob Baker’s Newsthinking.

For some that I myself find particularly irritating:


Webster’s defines ...

First off, there is no Webster’s, or rather, no one Webster’s. Merriam-Webster is only one of a number of publishers using that name in the title. Second, giving a dictionary definition of a term as a starting point is such a fixture of low-grade sermons that a first-year seminarian, not to say a professional journalist, ought to blush at being caught resorting to it.


It’s official

It’s official means that some piece of information has been confirmed — meaning that you are telling the reader something already widely known. Usually readers expect a story to tell them things they don’t already know.


The conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom is also something that the reader has already heard. When a writer starts by saying what the conventional wisdom is, it’s usually to move to some fresh take on the situation. Maybe the writer could just start with that fresh take.


The pathetic fallacy

If I ever catch you writing that storm clouds couldn’t dampen the spirits of any person or group at an event, or in any other manner attributing emotion to meteorology, I’ll see to it that you are locked in a room listening to recordings of Wordsworth’s later poetry until you scream for mercy.


Christmas came early

Unless a holiday has some direct connection with the subject of the article, it’s as relevant as the weather. Particularly to be shunned are cheap and obvious efforts at irony: Just on the eve of Labor Day, Joe Sixpack got the word that his factory was closing and his job was gone.


The rhetorical question

Have you ever wondered where reporters get their ideas?

No I haven’t, and since I have no intention of proceeding to a second paragraph, I guess I never will.


The clumsy misdirection

Laura Snapdragon eats turtles by the dozen.

The chocolate, caramel and peanut candies, that is.


The that is serves to say, “Looky here: I made a play on words.”


Onomatopoeia

Foom! Foom! Foom!

That was the sound of the rockets as they were launched into the night sky to burst into sprays of color to celebrate America’s birthday.


It’s recommended practice to avoid sound effects in the rest of the story, too.


The Jacobean gambit

For the love of Fowler, please do not ever attempt to imitate the language of the Authorized Version of the Bible (popularly the King James). You are apt to get the grammar wrong (the –eth suffix being grammatically proper only the with singular third-person form of the verb), or you will cloak some mundane secular phenomenon in the language of religion, giving offense to the godly.


The outdated allusion

As Jimmy Durante used to say, everybody’s trying to get into the act.

The reader doesn’t know what “the act” is, and, unless you have confirmed that your audience is geriatric, the reader is probably clueless about the Great Durante, who climbed that golden staircase in 1980 and whose last appearances on television dated to the early 1970s.

It’s a good idea to write for readers who are alive today.


The disproportionate comparison

Though 1968 is best known for domestic turmoil and the war in Vietnam, it also has a local distinction. That year Baltimore County began trying to rewrite its regulations governing outdoor signs.

One of these things is not like the other. ...

13 comments:

  1. It isn't easy being green.

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  2. "It's official" is a way to say "after all those incremental stories we wrote, here's the one you should pay attention to."

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  3. It’s a good idea to write for readers who are alive today.

    And the man says he's not a real writer. Of course you're a real writer, or you couldn't write a thing like that.

    Though 1968 is best known for domestic turmoil and the war in Vietnam, it also has a local distinction. That year Baltimore County began trying to rewrite its regulations governing outdoor signs.

    Thanks for the much-needed guffaws.

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  4. So... are you of the "alright"-hating variety? Just for the record, of course.

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  5. Thanks for the helpful information.

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  6. I find I get less criticism when I write for readers who have died.

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  7. A lead made up entirely of slang for a story about slang.

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  8. It's that time of year again ... time to write the same story we wrote last year

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  9. I don't think the danger of offending th godly, or anyone else for that matter, is a good reason not to write something, or do anything really.

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  10. "If I ever catch you writing that storm clouds couldn’t dampen the spirits of any person or group at an event, or in any other manner attributing emotion to meteorology"

    I agree these things are almost always both cliches and to be avoided, but surely there's no emotion being attributed to the storm clouds?

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  11. Thank you for the lunchtime laughs, this is a good collection.

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  12. As a baby boomer, I often cringe when I see pop culture and song references in headlines or text that probably make little sense to anyone under 35 or 40. Perhaps folks in their twenties listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones but I'd hate to assume that. As much as I like Jay Leno, far too often he makes these references in his monologues (and his bandleader sometimes calls him on it). Then again, my son, who's 11, thinks everyone gets references to Green Day.

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  13. Last night WRC here in DC did a follow-up story on a man who was beaten in a robbery in his church parking lot on Christmas Eve. The reporter said he was beaten "within an inch of his life." Do they give reporters a ruler to determine this?

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