When students begin my Writing For The Media class, they often feel defeated right off the bat. Our first assignment of any substance is to rewrite a lead and I tell them right off the bat that it will take us about three or four one-hour class periods to analyze professional writers’ leads, write them, analyze their efforts and rewrite them to any level of decency.
Four hours to write one sentence? They look at me like I’m demented.
Then, after it takes four hours and they STILL feel like they have no idea if it’s exactly right or not, more than a few of them tell me a simple truism: “This is way harder than I thought!”
Unfortunately, they often follow it up with this: “Maybe I’m just not meant to be a writer…”
The truth about writing is that nobody is “meant to be a writer.” It’s a skill that takes a long time to develop and even more practice to hone. Even the best writers fall on their keys occasionally, so it’s also a humbling skill that can seem to turn against you and cripple you like a bad back.
I tell the students, “Don’t worry. It’ll get better. We’ll get there together, I promise.”
Those that stick with the class often find that to be true. Then, they start realizing how horrible a lot of the writing around them is and feel really good about how far they’ve come.
If you’re looking for a good place to get that basic ego boost, you should look no further than Facebook’s Marketplace. Even the most mediocre of writing students can feel like Hemingway after cruising through a few ads there.
The advertisements I’m talking about aren’t those that promise “Hot young singles in your area want to talk to you!” Or “One simple trick will enhance your manhood.” Or “Grow back all your hair with this safe, natural supplement.” (Or as I like to call these things, the “Fisher-Price My First Midlife Crisis Kit.”)
I’m talking about ads that regular people in your area post to try to sell everything from used deodorant (it’s out there) to used vehicles. It is here where tortured prose goes to be tortured some more.
For those of you looking for writing lessons in places beyond the textbook or the news sites, send your students to this Valley of Duh and they can learn some valuable writing lessons like these:
VERB TENSE MATTERS: In my writing class, we talk about the verb of the sentence as being like the engine of a vehicle. A strong and powerful verb can really make that sentence fly. A weak verb requires you to prop it up with a dozen adverbs and other descriptors, the way you would have to turbocharge a Yugo.
The tense of that verb can also mean the difference between a great sentence and a horrible correction.
Here’s a fun example: We are looking for a “beater” truck to help us around the Ponderosa these days. The idea is that between Amy’s need to haul mulch and the requirement that we haul our own trash to the dump down the road, we want something with an open bed that can accomplish dirty tasks. It can look like someone set fire to it and put it out with a set of golf clubs, but it needs to start easy, run reliably and stop when we push the brakes.
In flipping through Facebook ads, we found a 1978 Ford F-250 that looked good. The ad noted that it wasn’t much to look at but it “starts and runs great.” So, we drove about an hour up the road to see it.
The first clue things were wrong was that it was in a storage shed behind a bunch of other crap the guy and his kid were frantically moving out of the way. The second clue? Under the hood of the car, the carburetor (which is vitally important to starting and running) was being held open with a screwdriver. When it came time to start the truck, the kid got behind the wheel and the seller began pouring gasoline directly into the engine.
Even then, it didn’t start. It didn’t even make a sound, as the battery was dead, too.
“I thought you said this starts and runs,” I said.
“It did when I put it away last spring,” he replied.
You don’t have to be an expert in much of anything to know that a lot can change in 15 months. If you look back at your Facebook memories from last year at this time, something tells me that you’ll notice more than a few differences between then and now. Hell, 15 months ago, the only reference to a “coronavirus” was probably how you described the morning after a rough Cinco de Mayo party.
After a few more attempts to start it, I told the guy that I was leaving.
Thus, “starts and runs” should have been “started and ran a while ago.”
FACT CHECK THE HELL OUT OF STUFF: As the above example demonstrates, not everything you see in these ads is factually accurate. I suppose I could give the guy a pass on the starting and running as it actually did at one point. (I mean the Enterprise didn’t beam that truck into the storage unit.)
I’m a little less forgiving about things that clearly aren’t true.
We went to see a 1964 Ford 100 that seemed to fit the bill. When I got there, everything was what I wanted: sturdy truck bed, good tires, strong brakes and more. The problem? The truck was listed as having an automatic transmission, something that wasn’t true.
(In case you are unaware, if you have THREE large pedals along the floor of the driver’s side of the car and you need to step on the one on the far left frequently as you shift a stick near your right hand as you drive along, this is a MANUAL transmission. It’s also known as a “stick shift” because you are shifting it manually, with that little stick.
If you have TWO large pedals along the floor of the driver’s side and you need to apply the brake only ONCE as you shift your car to the “D” spot on the gear shift, wherever it is located, and the car does the rest of the gear shifting for you, this is called an AUTOMATIC transmission. It means the car “automatically” shifts for you as you go faster and faster and faster.)
Truth be told, I can’t drive a stick shift. Well… That’s not entirely accurate. If you got mauled by a bear and I had to get you to the hospital to save your life and the only car available was your stick-shift car, I could get you there. You would live, but we’d be holding a funeral for your clutch and gearbox.
This guy was not alone in listing his vehicle with the wrong transmission. I saw FOUR of these online that listed the trucks as being “automatic” when I could see pictures of both the shifter and the clutch in the ad. When I asked a couple people about the inconsistencies, they said, “Oh… Yeah… then I guess it is a stick…”
When it comes to your own writing, fact check the hell out of stuff before you publish it. If you aren’t sure about nuances like the difference between a bacteria and a virus, look both of them up and make sure you’re right. If you don’t know what a word means, look it up before you toss it in there because you’re pretty sure about it.
And, if you don’t know the difference between an automatic and a stick shift… Well, you probably didn’t read this post carefully enough. Go back and take another look.
CONSISTENCY AND CLARITY COUNT: When it comes to your writing, you want people to feel informed and grounded in the topic. Being consistent in your writing helps with this. When you get contradictory information in a piece of writing, it can be more than a little jarring. Case in point:
In reading the opening, I’m looking at a $4,000 truck. When I get to the body of ad, it’s $10,000 (or best offer, which I’m guessing won’t be at the $4,000 level).
Another ad showed a truck with a plow for $2,000. The body of the ad noted, “Don’t low ball me by offering $4K for both the plow and the truck.” I wasn’t sure how offering twice what you asked for something would be a “low ball,” so I asked the guy.
“The truck is $2,000 but it doesn’t come with the plow. That’s at least another $5,000.”
So, maybe mention that?
Another oddity of inconsistency comes from a seller who notes “Truck runs, drives and stops as it should. Will need to be trailered.”
OK, wait… If this thing is road-worthy, running, driving AND stopping as it should, WHY do I need to tow it out of there?
In the field of professional advertising, what these folks are doing would be called “bait-and-switch,” where a business offers one thing and then quickly switches it out for a more expensive item or inferior product. I wouldn’t accuse these folks of this tactic, as I think they’re just bad at communicating what they want.
Still, if you’re trying to reach an audience, this can be annoying for your readers.
EVERYTHING CAN USE AN EDIT:
“needs rear main seal eventually ,leeks new brakes”
(I’m guessing it either leaks from the rear main seal or the guy is using giant scallions to stop his truck.)
“needs new breaks and break lines”
(What do we need to break on it?)
“Has manuel transmission”
(I wonder who Manuel is, but if he can run the stick-shift for me, I’m interested…)
“I have a 1966 ford Ltd for sale starts, runs, drives ,surface rust only I have two separate interior for it everything works as it should blinkers, whipers, windows everything works price is negotiable please feel free to contact me with offers and for more information”
(Located on just above and slightly to the right of the space bar is the period key. Try using it once or twice. Or more.)
“2WD, 4SP, 350 CI, Need brks, batt. U haul, 2500 obo No LBall.”
(This is either a text message in code or a ransom note crafted by someone with limited access to magazine covers.)
I’m hopeful these bits and bites of information can help you as you look to work on your writing.
And, yes, we’re still looking for a truck.