Put your copy on a diet and give it a haircut: How to fix sentences that are too long and too heavy.

Consider this sentence from a sports story that ran Thursday:

Eyebrows were raised when Francona picked Bauer instead of Kluber, and the eccentric right-hander, perhaps best known for slicing a pinkie open while repairing a drone during last year’s postseason and bleeding all over the mound in Toronto, delivered a performance that started October just right for the Indians.

And this one from a news story about the sentencing of a defendant:

Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 15, were 12 when they were charged as adults after telling detectives they plotted to kill their friend Payton Leutner to placate Slender Man, an internet boogeyman they said would kill them or their families if they didn’t carry out the act.

And this one from a crime story:

Murphy of Milwaukee is charged with two counts each of fleeing and eluding, causing great bodily harm, two counts each of hit-and-run, great bodily harm, two counts of driving with a suspended license, causing great bodily harm, two counts of resisting an officer, causing injury, and car theft.

And this lead on a bankruptcy story:

In a busy day in Bankruptcy Court Tuesday, the UW Oshkosh Foundation filed a legal action against the University of Wisconsin System, won preliminary permission to pay out $500,000 between now and the end of the year and expressed confidence that 1,200 pages of documentation it filed with the court would keep endowed and other restricted funds away from creditors.

The common thread is that each of these sentences is too long and too heavy. Each one is a minimum of 47 words and lead is a whopping 60 words. Information of value exists in each of these sentences, but it is almost impossible to extract it from the writing itself.

The concept of “length” and “weight” are important in journalistic writing. Depending on your area of the field, what constitutes too long will vary. Broadcasters write in the shortest sentences (8-15 words usually) while text-based publications like newspapers and news websites run about 20-24 for body copy sentences and 25-35 words for leads. Magazine writers can go longer, but usually that’s for effect, using the length of a sentence to create pace or set a mood. In the sentences above, the length creates confusion and buries crucial concepts deep in the verbiage.

Weight, however, is primarily based on feel, word choice and sentence content. In counting length, the word “I” and the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” each counts as one. Obviously, in terms of adding to the complexity of the sentence, these words are not equal. In addition, the weight of a sentence can increase dramatically when a writer stuffs too many facts, numbers or concepts into a single story, thus weighing down the reader with information. Heavier sentences feel unwieldy and can leave a reader confused.

Here are three tips to identify problems like these and keep your writing lighter and and tighter when it comes to weight and length:

  1. One sentence, one concept: The reason you should start with a noun-verb/noun-verb-object structure and build outward is that you remain focused on the core principles that matter in the sentence. Each sentence should have a main assertion or a key message that you capture in the NVO core. Just like every paragraph in an inverted pyramid story should build upon and reflect the lead, every element you add to a sentence should build upon and reflect that NVO core. When you try to do too much with one sentence, you end up with sentences like the one you saw above. If you have multiple concepts, pull each one out and see if it can stand on its own as a single sentence. It’s better to have several shorter, easier-to-digest sentences than one long one that no one can get through.
  2. Read it out loud: One of the best tricks you can use to find grammar problems, structure problems and length/weight problems is to read the sentence aloud. If the sentence flows smoothly off your lips and clearly tells the story, you’re fine. If the sentence makes your tongue feel like it’s falling down a flight of stairs, you need to work on it. When it comes to length and weight, take a normal, human breath (not like the Titanic is going under and you’re trying to survive) and read the sentence out loud. If you get to the end and your chest starts feeling tight and you’re running out of air, it needs a trim. If you run out of air before you hit the end, you definitely need to go back through this and give it another look.
  3. Edit for your audience: In a lot of cases, we write from the perspective of journalists and other experts in the fields we cover. That’s where jargon, overly specific content and other problems tend to emerge. After you write something, go back and read it from the perspective of your audience. For example, if you wrote a story for your college newspaper about a student injured in an accident, you might include the phrase, “Smith was transported to a nearby medical facility for treatment of injuries sustained in the crash.” Does that sound like anything you would ever say? Have you ever gotten seriously hurt and yelled to a friend, “Hey Bobby! I need you transport me to a nearby medical facility!” Probably not. “Taken to a hospital” works a little better.
    In the court story above, the listing of the charges could be better handled in a simple breakout box where the author would list them out in bullet points. The lead on the bankruptcy should be two sentences, with a more generic explanation of the documentation in the lead if it needed to stay there. Also, you can get rid of throwaway terms like “in a busy day” or “the eccentric right-hander.” In each sentence, ask yourself if you are telling your readers what they need to know in the best way possible. If so, leave it alone. If not, make it so.

 

5 good reasons to work for your student newspaper (plus one more great one)

Got some feedback on what a number of professors who might be using the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” textbook thought about the blog and one comment caught me off guard a bit:

How about a plug for student media?”

Student media is among the most important influences in my life, both as a student and as a professor. Without my student newspaper experience at The Daily Cardinal at UW-Madison, I would be working in a garage somewhere doing oil changes and wheel alignments. I owe pretty much everything in my life, from my first paid media gig to my full professorship to that little windowless bunker that still smells exactly the same.

If I plugged student media in my classes any more than I already do, I’d be a cross between Lloyd Dobler from “Say Anything” and “Vince from Slap Chop.”

Student media is important, but don’t take it from me. Give Joe Buettner’s piece on his student newsroom experience a read. Buettner is a student at the University of Oklahoma, an alumnus of The Oklahoma Daily and current sports intern at the city’s daily paper. His piece on “Five Reasons You Should Join Your College Newspaper” nails the main elements of everything I could tell you about the experience, the camaraderie, the excitement and more. (Plus, he’s like half my age and he’s done it recently, so it’s not me waxing poetic about the “old days” when Vanilla Ice was cool or something.)

However, since I get the “long view” of student media, let me add one more reason why you should join that has nothing to do with what you get out of it: Your work matters to people.

Look back at the Rice Thresher’s coverage of Hurricane Harvey or the Cav Daily’s coverage of the “Unite the Right” march. (Spoiler alert: I’m getting in touch with Tim Dodson on Friday to talk about the paper’s follow ups on life at UVA these days.) Also look at these pieces:

Beyond these “big” stories are the day-in, day-out pieces that tell people what parking lots are closed, what teams are on a winning streak, who got arrested and who won an award. People read this stuff in student media because in most cases, it’s the ONLY place you CAN read it.

You do a heck of a lot of good for yourself working at the paper, that’s true, but you also have the benefit of knowing you did something that affected other people. It’s as good a reason as any to figure out where on campus the paper is located and give it a chance to change your life.

 

“Smart Brevity”

Politico co-founder and Axios Media CEO Jim VandeHei just explained what made his brand of journalism successful in an 85-word blog post, reinforcing his motto of “smart brevity.” Here are a couple highlights we can all learn from:

 

  • Obsess about your reader/viewer/listener. Their addiction/appreciation equals long-term biz success.

  • Related to first one: Never do stupid tricks for clicks or ad dollars. Short-term high but long-term buzz kill for biz/consumers.

 

These two items are at the core of everything we talk about at the front of the books: The audience matters most. If you don’t know for whom you are writing, you aren’t going to be able to help them or make them want to seek you out as a source of information.

In addition, the reason VandeHei and his crew can write so tightly is because they have a strong working knowledge of the topics on which they write. I can always spot the student with the least confidence in his/her writing when we review stuff in class because that person always has the longest and most complicated sentences. The people who know what they are talking about? They can boil it down to the noun-verb-object in nothing flat. Even if you aren’t in a reporting class, you have to “report” enough (read, ask questions, bother people etc.) to have a good grip on the topic. That will improve your writing.

 

 

  • If you don’t know with precision what your company is doing broadly, and what you are doing personally, run. Clarity of purpose is 🔑.

 

This is more about making the company successful, but it falls nicely in with our discussion of writing. One of the hardest shifts we have to make in learning to write for the media is from the long, descriptive-filled sentences of English, sociology and history papers to the noun-verb-object, bang-it-out structure we use in our field. After years of writing one way, it can feel frustrating to strip a sentence down to its core.

The reason we need to do this is to give people what they need to know quickly and simply. That’s our purpose.

And after taking four times the word count to explain half of what VandeHei had to say, I’ll end here for the sake of “smart brevity.”

 

Are gnomes in your underwear drawer planning to murder you? (or why rhetorical questions undermine journalism)

When you write for the media, embrace simplicity. When I need to remind myself of this, I go back to a book by William Woo, the first person outside of the Pulitzer family to edit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, called “Letters from the Editor.” Woo frequently mentions his first editor, a man named Ray Lyle who ran the city desk at the Kansas City Time and who fit the crusty, grumpy editor stereotype perfectly.

Lyle’s edict to his young reporters was simple: “Write what happened.”

I thought of this when I got an alert on my phone today about a special report from one of my favorite publications:

Are all-inclusive resorts in Mexico drugging tourists with tainted alcohol?

My first thought: Good God, I hope not.

My second thought: Don’t ask me. Tell me.

The use of rhetorical questions is a threadbare device that has become all too common in today’s writing. In a quick look through my Twitter feed, I found these from major media outlets:

WSJ

APQuestion

Of course my favorite question headline/promo is this one:

Shoes

The story about the all-inclusive resorts wasn’t done asking questions either. “Extortion?” “Was it robbery?” “Sexual assault?” And then this:

Could it be what the attorney for the Conner family alluded to in his report: All-inclusive resorts using cheap, bootleg booze to cut costs?

The story is an intensely reported piece from a journalist I have long admired. The depth of the digging demonstrates how hard it can be to get at the core issue of a complex international topic with limited access to almost non-existent official reports. However, each rhetorical question undermined what the reporter actually had: A number of people reporting similar incidents, having similar outcomes and finding little in the way of answers.

Journalism is about getting answers for readers and providing them in a simple and straightforward way. This is one of the reasons to avoid rhetorical questions in your writing.

Or to paraphrase Ray Lyle, just tell me what happened.

 

 

“Held a news conference” (or how many news agencies does it take to write one good lead about a naked on-fire guy?)

Leads are incredibly complicated things to learn how to write. You have to pack a ton of information into about 25 words, cover the 5Ws and 1H, hit on the FOCII interest elements that are present, engage your readers and draw people deeper into a story. That’s a tough thing for one sentence to pull off.

One way to guarantee you will put people to sleep is to focus on procedure leads. Any time you have to tell me that someone “gave a speech and…” or “held a news conference and…” or “held a meeting and…” I’m guessing the news (whatever there is) is sitting right after the word “and.” It’s not fair to say you can NEVER write a “held a news conference” lead, but let’s just say when you have a naked guy that the cops set on fire with a taser, you’re probably missing the bigger news. Consider this story’s lead:

MANITOWOC, Wis. (WBAY) — Manitowoc Police held a news conference Tuesday to address the tasing of a naked man during a struggle with officers.

Why would a reader care that the police held a news conference? Let’s consider the other items that might make the lead before that:

  1. It took three taser hits to get this guy under control.
  2. One of those tasings connected with a lighter in his hand, creating a “flame burst” that set his beard and chest hair on fire. (or at least “singed” him, depending on your point  of view)
  3. He punched a cop in the face and continued to struggle throughout the arrest.
  4. Did we mention he was in the middle of the street naked?
  5. He appeared to be under the influence of something and had a warrant out for his arrest in a nearby town “for something OWI-related.”

However, in the noun-verb-object structure we so love to discuss in the “Dynamics” books, what we have here is:

Police hold news conference.

jiFfM

EXERCISE TIME: Give this a try. Look up all the information on this guy and his weird exchange with the police (you can even watch the whole presser online) and write a better lead. The rules:

  • Write it as if you covered the news conference today. Thus, “Tuesday” is your time element or “Sunday” is your arrest day (if you want to go that route)
  • It must be one sentence, 25-35 words, and touch on as many of the 5Ws and 1H as possible.
  • Apply the FOCII elements (Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Immediacy, Impact) when you write it.

Post your version here and let folks see what you came up with.

Cops set nude man on fire, see paragraph 11 (or why you should use the inverted pyramid better)

Oddity is one of the five interest elements we discuss at length in the “Dynamics” series. If people can say, “Did you READ THAT? WOW!” you have a winner. In short, embrace the weird. Consider this lead:

MANITOWOC – Police officers arrested a 32-year-old Manitowoc man Sunday evening for standing in the street without any clothes on.

Public nudity isn’t normal, but it isn’t that odd, either. Here are links to several “public nudity arrest” stories run over the past month or two. Also, the lead here in noun-verb-object order is “Police arrest man.” Not exactly compelling… but keep reading…

Second Paragraph:

Officers found Travis L. Tingler in the 1100 block of South 25th Street near Hamilton Street, where he was shouting toward a home at the intersection that he had a knife and was going to gut people in the house.

Getting there…

Eighth Paragraph:

Police talked to a girl, who was holding a baby, in the home. She said Tingler was dating her mother and they had lived in the home for about two years. She said he started drinking alcohol three hours earlier and started to act weird, making comments such as “Stay in the light and never come into the dark.”

Getting weirder… Hang in there…

Paragraphs 11 and 12:

Police reported Tingler somehow picked up a lighter during the struggle, and when the stun gun probe hit the lighter, a combination of lighter fluid and electricity from the stun gun caused Tingler’s beard and chest hair to catch fire. (Emphasis added)

An officer tried to pat the fire off his body, and Tingler continued to fight even after the fire was put out. He then punched an officer in the face. An officer used a stun gun on him from about 6 feet away, and he then fell and hit his head hard on the pavement.

As the person who forwarded this to me put it: “They set him on fire and you don’t find out for 11 grafs. 11!!!”

If you read the whole story, you find that the headline does mention this, but headlines aren’t there to bail out bad writing. You also find out that the reason this story has this problem is the reporter wrote it chronologically instead of relying on the inverted pyramid.

Very rarely will I say this, but sometimes being arrested naked isn’t the biggest part of the story.

h/t Alex Nemec

UPDATE: Apparently, the paper got the date wrong, so during the “rewrite” of this to fix that problem, they updated the lead:

MANITOWOC – Police officers arrested a 32-year-old Manitowoc man Friday evening for standing in the street without any clothes on. In the process, they accidentally set him on fire.

Not great, but at least they got there…

 

Cliffhanger questions are for “Game of Thrones,” not journalism

The goal of good writing is to make sure you answer the questions your readers have. At the very least, you don’t want to create questions and then leave them unanswered. CNN’s report on the latest poling numbers for President Trump does exactly that:

Washington (CNN) Only 36% of Americans approve of President Donald Trump’s performance in the Oval Office, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll has found.

That gives Trump the lowest approval rating at the six-month mark of any president in 70 years, ABC News reports.

As the story goes on, I kept waiting for the answer of, “Why 70 years ago?” Did they only start doing polling like this 70 years ago? Was there a guttural level of unique hatred for Truman or Eisenhower at one of their six-month marks? How close was the closest guy to this number for Trump? Or as Sunshine would say:

I kept reading and kept looking, but no dice. As the story wore on, CNN seemed less interested in answering the questions I had about that record-breaking low and more interested in pelting me with as many numbers as possible. It was like CNN kept loading up a bratzooka with percentages and firing them into the story:

In the end, I went elsewhere to find the answers, namely the ABC story CNN references. To be fair to CNN, the video did cover some of the items I wanted to know, but as a journalist you a) can’t assume the audience is going to look at the video and the text, even if you set it to autoplay and b) you don’t want to force readers to look elsewhere for answers.

This is especially true if it’s your fault they have the questions in the first place.

Noun, Verb and Object: The Holy Trinity

At one of my teaching stops, students were required to fill out an evaluation at the end of the class and explain what they learned. Some wrote a lot, some wrote things that are anatomically impossible for me to do. One student wrote simply this:

“Noun, verb, object: The Holy Trinity.”

If you want to write well, he’s not far off. The thing that makes most sentences good is that they consist of concrete nouns and vigorous verbs. They also tell simple stories in active voice: The noun-verb-direct object order.

Slide02

Above is a simple sentence diagram (It’s even a bit off, in that the “object” should be “direct object,” but you get the idea). In fourth grade, Sister Mary Kenneth beat this into us over and over and over: Draw a diagram and dissect the sentence. (She was about 183 years old when she taught me all those years ago; It would not surprise me if she were still out there somewhere, scaring the hell out of preteens in an English class…)

The goal here isn’t necessarily to fully diagram a sentence or to create an intricate overall visual structure, but rather to help you boil down your thoughts to a few simple words. If you can build your sentences with a good NVO structure, you can avoid using far too many adjectives and adverbs. You can also improve the overall clarity of your approach to content and build your stories in a more reader-centric fashion. Consider this lead:

Firefighters fought a blaze at a burning house, Tuesday evening, in Springfield, that was caused by electrical failure in a storage room.

If you want break that down into a simple sentence diagram, or at least locate some of those “main idea” words, look for the verb:

Action word: Fought
Noun (who did the fighting?): Firefighters
Object (what did the firefighters fight?): A blaze.

So in short, you have a core sentence that says “Firefighters fight fire.” Isn’t that what they always do? Instead, look at what matters most: What the fire did. How bad was the fire? Try this instead:

An electrical fire caused $150,000 damage to a Springfield home Tuesday, after a freezer malfunctioned in a storage room and sparked the blaze, fire officials said.

NVO = Fire caused damage.

Other good starts could be “Fire damaged home” or if people were hurt/killed “Fire hurt/killed people”

At the core of all strong sentences are those primary elements, so when you write, look to see how your sentences stack up.