Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Written at random

Talking with an admirer of the poetry of James Thomson, Samuel Johnson, who found Thomson deplorably wordy, took down a volume of Thomson’s verse and read aloud a lengthy passage. “Is not this fine?” he asked. After the listener expressed admiration, Johnson said, “Well, sir, I have omitted every other line.”
I sometimes think that much journalism could be approached that way, by omitting alternate paragraphs, without much damage to the fabric. (I actually tried that once with a Sun columnist’s work, and no one could detect the difference, though we were obliged to print the full text anyhow.)
For your inspection, an item from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel  forwarded by one of my many spies, with commentary following:
An off-duty Miami firefighter who recently returned from a rescue mission to Haiti died Thursday night after his motorcycle collided with a car, police said.
Leslie Luma, an eight-year veteran with City of Miami Fire-Rescue, celebrated his anniversary with the fire department Thursday. He was married and had three children.
"He was well-loved by a lot of his co-workers and his family," Fire-Rescue spokesman Ignatius Carroll told WPLG-Ch. 10.
The firefighter's motorcycle collided with a 2001 Ford Mustang near the intersection of North State Road 7 and West Park Road just before 9 p.m., said Police Lt. Manny Marino.
The Mustang's driver, Sherry Lynn Marks, 19, suffered minor injuries.
Luma, 37, was a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Team Task Force 2 and recently returned from rescue efforts in Haiti.
Preliminary investigation indicates that the crash occurred when the Mustang traveling southbound on North State Road 7 veered into the northbound lanes and collided with the northbound 2005 American Suzuki motorcycle, Marino said.
The crash is under investigation.


I suggest to the students in my editing class that jotting down a rough outline of the elements of an article is one way to get at structural issues. Look at the paragraph structure of this exercise:

(1) Firefighter killed in motorcycle accident.

(2) Anniversary of employment, details of family.

(3) Eulogistic quote.

(4) Detail of accident.

(5) Other motorist.

(6) Firefighter’s trip to Haiti.

(7) More details of accident.

(8) Investigation continues.

So the details of the fatal accident, which are what news this article has to offer, are broken up into four paragraphs, separated paragraphs containing other material. And the order of the paragraphs is apparently generated, like the winning Mega Millions numbers, at random.

It is then topped off with a headline written evidently by someone with a tenuous grasp of conventional English syntax. If it is necessary to pad out the headline by reference to the firefighter’s activities in Haiti (of which no significant details are given), then “Miami firefighter just back from Haiti is killed in Hollywood motorcycle crash” would have been less likely to puzzle the reader.


Once you eliminate most of the editors and copy editors, and overburden the remnant, this article and headline are the kind of dog’s breakfast that the reader can expect to find.

*Since this is becoming a stock observation at this blog, I thought I’d label it for you.


  1. I work with technical folks whose writing suffers many of the same problems. They haven't eliminated editors; they just never found much cause to bother with them.

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  3. @Darla-Jean -- I edit technical folks. Over time, one can educate them to the benefit of being edited, but it's a long road along which each individual technical folk must have his or her highly personal moment of epiphany.

  4. Where else but Haiti would a dead man come back from?

  5. This is my single biggest problem with newspaper articles. I just want to know what happened, but following the thread of events—which you'd think would be a simple and straightforward thing—instead becomes a scavenger hunt. I usually get bored or frustrated and give up before I get to the end.

    And I don't think the problem is just that newspapers are cutting back on editorial staff. In my experience (which, granted, is in book publishing and corporate editing, not journalism), too many editors are too busy fussing over details and miss the glaring structural problems.

  6. I read the newspaper daily and have fallen into the habit of noticing that articles are increasingly written like bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation, only not in any particular order, and absent any sense of flow... not to mention an actual point.

    Sigh. Perhaps I expect too much.

    Is it something in the water here in Flor-i-duh?

  7. The comment about omitting alternate paragraphs reminded me of this incident at a previous job. We had an outside columnist who faxed his columns in. His column was often way too long and had to be cut. One time the second page of the fax didn't come through. The first page of text fit the space for the column. With all the wordy pontificating it wasn't obvious that anything was missing. The column ran this way--missing half of the text. Nobody noticed until the columnist raised the issue a week later.

  8. @mike--In my day job, I teach tech writing in the same discipline for which I edit. I try to wedge in the value of hiring good editors--and of writing as clearly as they can to begin with!