A number of years back, it dawned on me that my mouth quite frequently overrides my brain’s veto when it comes to self-expression. It came to a head the other day when we were going over fire briefs in my writing class and a student had parroted a poorly written press release:
“The fire was deemed electrical in nature.”
As we picked through the content, I was trying to find a polite way of explaining the jargon in that sentence lacked value in telling the story. This is what fell out of my head:
“Electrical in nature? As opposed to what? Electrical in spirit? Did the fire aspire to be a forest fire when it grew up, but when it attended fire college it couldn’t get past the science requirements? Y’know, so it went home and joined its dad’s electrical business, because people need electrical work, and it had always been in his nature to stay close to his fire family…”
This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, in that year after year, former students will tell me something I said that stuck with them like, “I’m at the third paragraph and I haven’t thrown up yet, so I think we’re good,” or “If you have a problem with anything, don’t be afraid to come see me. I’ve yet to stab anyone in the face with a pencil for asking a question, and I’m not looking to break that streak.”
My reaction is usually, “I don’t remember saying that, but knowing me as well as I do, I’m pretty sure you’re right.”
With that in mind, here are a collection of “Filak-isms” that I do remember using to help kids improve their writing. I hope these help:
Filak-ism: A random observation, borrowed idea from a movie/song/TV show/book, odd concept or weird phrase that has been warped in the mind of Dr. Vince Filak for broader application within journalism situations.
Today’s post marks the 150th blog entry since July 1. In recognition of this… um… achievement (?) I figured I’d celebrate with a few famous Filak-isms meant to help your writing. Hope I don’t break anybody’s brain with these…
Here we go:
“It’s an attribution. It’s not the front pocket on your suitcase.”
The idea behind an attribution it to tell people who said something in a direct or indirect quote. That’s the whole reason for its existence. However, for some reason, people try to do more stuff with it and make their copy almost unreadable:
“There are a lot of opportunities for officiating in our community,” explained physical education teacher Sean Stout, who will teach the class beginning next fall or next spring, depending on how many students sign up.
“I can’t say enough about what AAU did for me when I was younger,” said Heise, who graduated from Lena in 2017. “It allowed me to really zone in on my skills and perform at a higher level, which helped me play at the top of my team in high school and then in college.”
The attribution isn’t supposed to be like that front pocket on your suitcase, where you cram all the crap you forgot you needed to pack in your bag. In each of the cases above, you could probably write an entire paragraph of paraphrase out of what these folks stuffed into the attribution. Doing so would have made the content more readable and less cumbersome.
Journalists rely on sources to tell the reader things that are important. When opinions show up, they need to be attributed to a source. This is especially true when the opinion is something this weird:
OK, it’s a review, so you get a bit of an “opinion pass,” but where did you get the “golf courses just scream great food” thing? Country club? Sure. The Par-3 muni track out near the lakefront? Yeah, you’re not even getting any Grey Poupon to put on your luke-warm wieners out there.
“Honey? I unexpectedly severed one of my blood-carrying vessels! Could you transport me to a nearby medical facility?”
I have two passions in life that can lead to a lot of unintended medical bills: I refinish and restore old furniture and I repair and restore my beloved 1968 Mustang Coupe. In the course of both of these hobbies, I have on various occasions, caught my hand in a running fan, dumped brake cleaner in my eyes, set fire to upper arm, cumulatively swallowed a quart or two of coolant, sanded off the top of my thumb, punched a hole in my index finger and cut my hand so deep my wife could see my thumb’s tendon.
And that’s all I can remember. That might have something to do with me smashing my head into a few things.
In all of those experiences, never once did I rely on jargon to express myself:
When the determination is made to proceed with an involuntary Baker Act, private medical transport services (i.e. American Medical Response or similar private medical vehicle transport services) can be used to transport younger students to the mental health receiving facility. In the case of a formerly violent/combative student (during the crisis) or a combative student, the private medical transport service can transport the student to the nearest mental health receiving facility.
If you find yourself using words you would never actually use in real life, consider rephrasing your work so that you don’t sound like a person perceived to be lacking intelligence, or someone who acts in a self-defeating or significantly counterproductive way. (AKA an idiot)
“Congratulations. You just drafted a punter with the first pick in the draft.”
The idea of a good lead is to have information that is most important at the top of the story. The 5W’s and 1H give you some direction and the FOCII elements provide you with a good lens through which to view the who, what, when, where, why and how.
That said, the order of the elements in the lead matters as well.
I’ve explained to students before that you should look at your lead like it’s the first round of an NFL or NBA draft: The best players should be in that round and the best of the best should be at the front of the round while lesser great players are found near the end.
When you decide to lead with the “when” aspect of the story in the lead, you’re essentially wasting that first pick:
On Monday morning, paramedics from the Joliet Fire Department responded to a single-vehicle crash on the Des Plaines river bridge on I-80 eastbound and a four-car crash at I-80 westbound near Larkin Avenue.
A May 31 jury trial was scheduled for Renee L. Lange, 46, Oconto Falls, on charges of identity theft to avoid a penalty and identity theft to harm a reputation in connection with an incident that allegedly occurred Feb. 3, 2017.
If the most important thing you want to tell your readers in the most important sentence you are writing is a time element, you really need to go back through your story and rethink your whole approach.
“Take a normal human breath, not a ‘The Titanic is going under and I need to survive’ breath.”
A good way to determine if a sentence is too long or too involved is to take a breath and read it out loud. If you start feeling a tightness in your chest by the time you finish, it probably needs a trim. If you run out of air, you definitely need to go back through the sentence and do some serious cutting.
The point is to keep the sentences short, not to test the tensile strength of your lung tissue, like these sentences do:
The 17-year-old Portage High School junior, who won’t be old enough to vote until November, became the first high school student to be appointed to a city board or commission, when the Common Council voted 6-1, with one abstention, to appoint her and three others to the Historic Preservation Commission.
Following the backlash over images of a seven-year-old boy being placed in handcuffs, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools on Saturday unveiled changes to the district policy that dictates when teachers and other school staff can call police to deal with emotionally troubled students.
These sentences are 50 and 43 words, respectively and unless you have the lung capacity of a blue whale (or the student I had one year who swam distance for our university), you aren’t getting through them on one breath. That doesn’t mean take a bigger breath. That means go back and cut these down.
“Really? Did you check with every guy in Burundi?”
Burundi is a relatively small, landlocked African country of about 10 million people. I think I learned about it one night when my daughter, Zoe, was an infant and I had both a need to get up with her every two hours and a really lousy cable package. Not much on at 4 a.m., let me tell ya…
In any case, I think back to this place whenever I get sentences like this:
When the Bulls signed the moody Rondo in the summer of 2016, nobody thought he would evolve into the difference between winning and losing a first-round playoff series, yet Rondo’s injury against the Celtics, more than anything, shortened the playoff run.
Really? NOBODY thought any of these things? How do we know that none of these things was even an inkling in the mind of a visionary, a dream sequence on “Dallas” or the imagination of an autistic boy that kept us riveted for about six seasons of “St. Elsewhere?” Better yet, did you survey the entire nation of Burundi to make sure nobody thought about whatever it is you’re telling me with absolute certainty that nobody thought about?
Every time you think about using an absolute term (nobody, everybody, all, none), think about Burundi and reconsider it.
I’m sure if you took a class with me, you remember your own personal favorite Filak-ism, so feel free to hit me up and ask for an example. I’ll add them to future posts.