Mr. Scott beamed them to a hospital (or why jargon is killing our writing)

Some of you reading the “Dynamics of Media Writing” will go into the news business, where you will end up digging through press releases, trying to find information of interest to your audience. Others of you will go into public relations or marketing and spend time writing press releases and other material intended to pique the curiosity of the news media.

Regardless of which side of the release you are on, good writing and clear communication matter, which is why you need to do your best to eliminate jargon, also known as “cop-speak” or “industry-speak” or just B.S.

Let’s start with the release writers. You need to keep your audience in mind. In most cases, you aren’t filing a formal report, but rather an explanation of what happened in a way that makes sense to people not in your field. One of the best ways to see if you are doing this is to read your work and ask if it sounds like anything you would ever say to another human being outside of work. Consider some of these taken from actual press releases:

“The deputy made contact with an adult female in the vehicle.”

“Hey Jimmy, how was your date last night?”
“Excellent! I made contact with the adult female in her vehicle. I then escorted her to a local alcohol-provision establishment!”

“The body was located in the area of a flowing well which is adjacent to the road West of Kutz Road.”

Well, that really cleared things up…

As reported in our recent earnings briefing, IBM continues to rebalance its workforce to meet the changing requirements of its clients, and to pioneer new, high value segments of the IT industry,

“How was work today, honey?”
“Not too good. I got rebalanced…”

As a PR professional, honesty and transparency remain core values for you. Jargon muddies the water and makes you look like a weasel. Say what you mean and say it to the best of your ability.

The same is true for news writers. When jargon slips into the releases you use to tell anxious readers what company will be cutting jobs or how bad the fire was at the local restaurant, you need to cut through those thickets of verbiage and let reality shine through. This is particularly important when it comes to phrasing that makes no sense. Consider this stuff taken from releases that often weaves its way into stories:

[The fire] was determined to be electrical in nature.

As opposed to what? Electrical in spirit? Did it go to fire college, hoping to be a forest fire, but it couldn’t pass botany, so it went with what it always knew it needed to be: An electrical fire.

He was transported to a nearby medical facility.

First, unless something like this was happening, no he wasn’t…

Second, would you ever say that to somebody if you got hurt? “Mom, I think I broke my ankle! I need you to transport me to a nearby medical facility!”

“Two armed gunmen entered the store…”

Do unarmed gunmen just carry pistols in their mouths? 

A leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told a group of University of Wisconsin students Thursday that abstaining from meat cannot only alleviate global hunger but is also healthier and can save innocent animals from unnecessary suffering.

As opposed to all those guilty animals and that necessary suffering?

When it comes to writing for any branch of the media, go back through your piece and see if you are overwriting, using jargon or in some other way making a mess of things through word choice. Simplify and clarify are the watch words of a nice, clean edit.

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.

 

 

You earn the fungus on your shower shoes

The 1988 movie “Bull Durham” features Tim Robbins as an up-and-coming phenom pitcher and Kevin Costner as a weathered, veteran catcher on a minor-league baseball team. Costner has been brought to this tiny outpost in Durham, North Carolina to teach Robbins how to become a major leaguer. This involves more than which pitches to throw or how to control his fastball. Life lessons are peppered throughout the movie, including this bit of wisdom:

In other words, when you make it to the pros, you can do things that you can’t do when you’re still learning the craft. Once you figure out how everything should work according to the rules, then you can start breaking them if you have a reason to do so.

The same thing is true when it comes to writing for various media outlets. One of the biggest complaints beginning writers have is that they have to attribute everything, write in the inverted pyramid, use descriptors sparingly and stick to a bunch of really strict rules. Meanwhile, when they read ESPN, the New York Times, Buzzfeed or a dozen other publications, they see everyone out there breaking the rules. In some cases, the writers shouldn’t be breaking those rules and thus they end up in trouble for not nailing things down, attributing and telling the story in a more formal manner.

However, when writers do break rules and it works, it is because they know what the rules are. In the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing book, award-winning journalist Tony Rehagen makes this point clearly:

Another aspect of writing like this is to understand that rules exist for the benefit of the writers, he said. Even though he knows he has more freedom as a writer, he said he doesn’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of doing so.

“Well, first of all, you sort of have to earn the right to break a rule,” he said. “If you want to lead with a quote, it had better be a damn good quote. If you want to bury the nut or (gasp) not have a nut graf at all, you had better have complete command of your story and have structured the hell out of it. That takes skill that even veterans don’t possess on every piece.”

To break a rule, you have to know what the rule is, have a reason for breaking it and break it in a way that improves your overall story. That’s something excellent writers like Rehagen earn over years of improving on success and learning from failure.

Start with the basics and master them before you start looking for other ways to do things.

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.

 

 

A horrifying and mesmerizing narrative opening

In Chapter 4 of the Dynamics of Reporting & Writing, we talk about how a narrative open can be valuable to putting the readers in the right frame of mind or helping to draw a “word picture” for them. The goal is of any one of these things is to make the readers feel like they are right there, seeing what the words are describing.

The example we created for the book pales in comparison to this real narrative opening that Tisha Thompson and Andy Lockett wrote in “I Just Wanted To Survive.” Give this a read:

Niko Kollias watched his blood swirl down the bathtub drain. There was so much. And it was coming from so many places. His head. Both of his legs. And the gaping cuts where they had sliced the webbing between his toes.

Even more blood was coating the clothing iron sitting on the sink. He didn’t know where they’d put the hedge clippers; he was just glad they were gone. He could still see the roll of duct tape nearby, covered with the bloody fingerprints they’d left behind when they taped his hands and feet together before slamming the rebar and heavy metal pipes down onto him, over and over again. His khaki pants and ripped University of Rochester Football T-shirt sat crumpled in the corner, the blue and yellow of his college colors turning brown as his blood began to oxidize in the fabric.

Kollias wanted to take off his ACL brace, the one he’d been wearing after knee surgery for a recent football injury. He wanted to clean it and his skin underneath. But he worried that if he pulled the brace apart, his leg might actually fall off. His femur was shattered; he’d felt it explode after they shot him there when he tried to run. He didn’t realize they’d also shot him in the calf of his other leg. He could no longer feel that leg and couldn’t see it because so much blood kept pouring into his eyes from his scalp, over which they had smashed a long, fluorescent lightbulb. It was only then, when the blood just wouldn’t stop from that last blow, that they halted their attack and threw him in the shower.

He could hear the men in the room next door, laughing, smoking weed and maybe still wearing those terrifying plastic masks.

But who were they? Kollias didn’t know. He could see only their eyes through the masks when they attacked him. He couldn’t even see their mouths move as they screamed for revenge. As he sat in the folding chair they’d put into the grimy shower, Kollias, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound University of Rochester senior defensive end, realized he had no idea where he was, who the men were or even what they wanted from him. All he knew was that they had shot and then beaten him for more than three hours.

As he sat there in the shower watching his blood pour down the drain, Kollias had no idea that it was all connected to his football team. And he had no way of knowing that the torture had only just begun.

To finish reading this story of survival, head here.