Monday, July 10, 2023

Yeah, you're not alone

You are writing a story about someone, let's call them X, who has a problem. X has a medical condition and cannot find or afford treatment; X is looking for housing and is unable to afford current rents; X is living in a neighborhood where police presence is sporadic and ineffective, and is afraid to leave the house. 

By the most remarkable coincidence, X exemplifies the larger issues in the story you are actually writing, so after three or four paragraphs about X, you drop them, perhaps to return for brief mention later in the article, and write the nut graph that explains the issue that your article is really about. 

But first you must write the essential transition: X is not alone. 

The thing is that this device, known as the "anecdotal lede" in the paragraph game, has become so familiar to readers over the past quarter-century or so that no transition is really necessary. The reader grasps what the game is. That means that the "X is not alone" transition is something more than a gimmick; it has become a cliche. 

When I was an editor at The Baltimore Sun and an "X is not alone" transition came across the desk, I immediately deleted it, to no harm to the structure of the article and no obstacle to the reader's understanding. We actually disparaged it in the house style guide, to which reporters paid fitful attention. 

But the "monkey-see, monkey-do" tendency in journalism is powerful, and you will see "X is not alone" all the damn time.

On one occasion I deleted it from an article, and the next day the reporter asked for an explanation of the change. A writer is always entitled to an explanation of changes in editing, and so I patiently explained that that transition had become a stock device that was not particularly helpful to readers and that we had been discouraged from using. 

The reporter answered: "It's not a cliche when I use it." 

You see what editors are up against.