Wednesday, February 3, 2010

First things first

When I spoke last month to the McMurry audio conference on “Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You,” I mentioned a hierarchy of editing values: accuracy, clarity, and precision. A listener eager to “convert the unbelievers” in her shop has asked if I would enlarge a little on that hierarchy.

Gladly. This text is revised from a post published on the old blog on November 15, 2007 (now no longer accessible at that site).

Accuracy comes first. If what you publish is not factually correct, you will look stupid, and your credibility will evaporate. You have to get people’s names right. You have to get place names right. You have to get the details right. If the reader sees that you have allowed factual errors, it won’t matter how elegantly you write or how fascinating your subject is. You may even be held up to contempt and ridicule.

Clarity comes next. If your writing isn’t clear, it won’t matter that it is correct. When you publish, you are imposing on the reader’s time, and the easiest thing any reader can do is to stop reading. It doesn’t take much, either. Don’t give the reader an excuse. Use conversational language instead of jargon. Cut padding ruthlessly. Read your text out loud to yourself; hearing what you have written will expose awkward spots.

Be precise. If you are a writer, words are your material, grammar and syntax your tools, and you must learn the technical details of the craft. You should handle your tools as expertly as a carpenter wields a hammer or a sculptor a chisel. You must choose your words with exactitude, not approximation. Get a couple of reliable manuals of usage and a serious dictionary. The difference between the right word and the almost right word, Mark Twain advised, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. You do not want to be an insect.

Get to the point. Steve Young, one of my former colleagues on The Sun’s copy desk, says that the most useful advice he ever got in college came from a professor who told him, “Say one thing.” Your article, however many subsidiary elements or subtopics it may carry, has to be about one main thing. Establish what that is, and tell the reader as soon as you can manage. Directly. Up front.

Be honest. Plagiarism and fabrication have embarrassed the small and the mighty, campus papers to the big time. You must indicate to your reader where your information comes from, how you know things; the reader has a right to see that. And you must do your own work. Remember what you were taught in elementary school: Don’t copy. Don’t tell lies.

Everybody needs an editor. H.L. Mencken wrote, “No man, I argued, could be expected to read his own copy; it was a psychological impossibility. Someone should be told off to go through it, and that someone should be responsible for undetected slips.” You are not a better writer than Henry Mencken. Get somebody you trust to look over your stuff and tell you honestly what works and what doesn’t.


  1. Okay... I'm going to tell the writer as soon as I can manage. Directly. Up front:

    "-I love this post."

    Thank you, John. It's a pleasure to read you. :)

  2. Thanks for the coaching. I've just found you and am sending your web address to my Berkeley editing class. (Of which I am a member, not an instructor.) One can never hear the basics too many times. I love the Menken comment. Aloha

  3. Wow, I'm impressed. Something that's so obvious, but nobody actually told me, throughout all my years of schooling...

  4. Under accuracy, I would add this key elaboration: Do not be misled by established narratives -- REPORT, dammit, because things change.

  5. This is clear and practical advice. The quote by Mencken reminds me of something Joseph M. Williams said:

    "When we read our own stuff, all we're doing is reminding ourselves of what we wanted it to mean when we wrote it. That means that we are our own worst editors. We are constitutionally incapacitated from looking at our own writing the way others will read it."

  6. "Say one thing" is excellent advice. I've been a reporter. I know how easy it is to get immersed in a story and find many interesting facts to throw into the pot. As an editor I've often pulled pieces of a story out and made them sidebars or even separate stories.

  7. I'm printing this out to show to my high school journalism class today. With proper attribution, of course.

  8. Be accurate, be clear, be precise, but also be interesting. Write a story that will be read to the end. Some stories, if they are to be read clear through, shouldn't be longer that a paragraph (and not one with five sentences). Sadly, the only way for a reporter to keep the reader from stopping in the middle of many assigned stories is to hide rather than write them. The place to bore is a bar. Newspapers, to survive these days, have to be interesting.

  9. Patricia the TerseFebruary 6, 2010 at 2:17 AM

    Along similar lines, the composer Vaughan-Williams, when asked if he "liked" one passage in a then- recent composition, replied, "I don't know if I like it, but that is what I meant."

  10. patricia godfrey aloha, got that manuscript for you to have first view, but theres no email for you on the web. your fiend from Berkeley Point editors class. please advise where to send