Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How to Write Newspaperese

There's a big difference between the kind of writing I've been doing most of my life and the style I am expected to write now at the newspaper. My father faces a similar struggle. Writing like Hemingway isn't for everybody. For some it may seem as if they have to strip all the individual character out of their writing style and create flat, simplistic prose. But there really is a knack to getting out of the story's way, of becoming an transparent, or at least translucent, barrier between it and the reader.

Here are some tips. I think it's time to put them out there, in case anyone is reading who might consider going into the newspaper biz, or might want to submit their writing to a newspaper. Some of them are amazingly simple and easy to learn. Amazingly, that is, when you consider how far off target the average writing submitted to the paper is. Learn this stuff and you will save some poor editor a ton of rewriting.

First, forget about the Oxford comma. Don't take it personally. I'm all for the Oxford comma. I learned it and used it all my life. It makes sense to me. In the sentence "Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice are coming over tonight," the Oxford comma is the one immediately after Ted. But it's not crucial. The sentence is correct with or without it. In writing for newspapers, it is customarily omitted.

A few commas may seem like a small thing, but in the era of movable type it could make a serious difference in the amount of lead type on a page. I know, "commas save lives" and all that. And besides, nobody prints with movable type any more. But it can still mean a big savings in ink alone, not to mention the extra column-inches of space resulting from the difference in line breaks and whatnot. And besides, tradition is not something to trifle with. Newspapers are hard enough to read without switching things up all the time.

Other standard uses of the comma may also go out the journalistic window. I was brought up thinking the sentence "The committee will meet at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30, in the school library" should have two commas in it. That's probably still the best practice for writing outside newsprint. But in the newspaper racket, the comma after Oct. 30 may be dismissed. Or take the similar case of "Smith moved to Tulsa, Okla., this weekend." The comma after Okla., though exactly correct in formal writing, may be banished from newspaper prose.

Of course these guidelines are not to be applied mechanically. Watch out for independent clauses and parenthetical phrases, like "though exactly correct in formal writing" in the paragraph above. These may still be set off by commas. And sometimes you may simply feel a comma is needed to point up the structure of a particularly long and punctuationally unregulated sentence. Just be alert to the strong probability that you are going to feel that way more often than you should.

Some conjunctions and adverbial phrases, especially at the beginning of the sentence, seem to cry out for a comma to set them apart. Do not listen to their siren song. In sentences like "Later, the dog took a nap" and "In spite of poor weather, the team played well" do not need those commas. And sometimes what would have come before the comma can be sacrificed as well. Many sentences can get by without the rhetorical throat clearing words and phrases we writers like too much. "Be that as it may, etc." "For whatever reason, etc." "Indeed, etc." "Nevertheless, etc." The burden of proof is on them to defend their right to add lines to the story.

Newspaper writing can also dispense with many verbal commas, like the word "that" as it is often used. Two examples are in the sentence "The reason that Johnson left early was that his house was on fire." The word "that" doesn't add anything. The sentence would make the same sense without it, though the second "that" may sharpen the definition a bit.

I used to work for a magazine with a very strict style guide. Few of its rules resulted in more work than the one governing dashes and hyphens. Some poor editor or other (sometimes yours truly) had to go through every paragraph and make sure hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes were properly employed. The rules were something like: In a hyphenated word, use a hyphen. Between two numbers representing a range of numbers, use an en dash. As an alternative to a colon or parentheses, use an em dash. In any case, heaven forbid there should be a space on either side of the hyphen or dash.

Newspaper style is much simpler in some ways, but nastier in others. You may have to look up whether the word should have a hyphen in it in the AP Style Manual. And I'm sorry to say, the book has never been indexed properly, so you're probably just going to be wrong until somebody who knows the rule points out your error. But as a general rule, instead of an en dash you can use a hyphen. Instead of an em dash, you can use a hyphen with a space to either side of it. For many groups of words where you might expect connecting hyphens, none is really needed. Write "the third grade class" instead of "the third-grade class." Write "the seven year itch" instead of "the seven-year itch." And so on.

I could go on and on about the proper deployment of semicolons, apostrophes, single and double quotes - did you know, for instance, that only single quotes are used in headlines? - parentheses (avoided as a rule)(irony intended), when commas should be inside or outside quotes, etc. You know what, though? The best way to learn this stuff is to pay attention to the red marks you get from a seasoned proofreader and try to assimilate the rules they are applying to your work.

Five Ws
Forget about answering the questions "Who, what, when, where, why" and "how" in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. That type of opening gambit is old hat. The successful news lead will tell your reader just enough to get what the story is about. You can answer a couple or three of the W words in the first graph, then fill in the others in the next graph or two.

If you're really going to say who did what when and where in one sentence, it should ALWAYS be in this order: "Don Perkins won the grand prize in the pie eating contest at 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 at Mack's Heart Attack in a Sack Shack on Elm Street in Centerville." Rule 1: Get to the subject of the story (who) with as little preamble as possible. Rule 2: Put the main verb of the story (what) as close to the subject as possible. Rule 3: As for when and where, put time, date and place in that order and move from specific to general in each case. But again, err in favor of pulling details down into subsequent paragraphs in preference to packing too much information into the lead.

Unless you have to edit non-professional writers' prose for a regular publication, you probably cannot imagine how irritating it is to get paragraphs full of Scrambled Eggs, Sausage Patties, Hash Browns, Biscuits and Gravy, Coffee, and Orange Juice. None of those words is supposed to be capitalized. You would probably be surprised how few of the words the average person casually capitalizes are capitalized for good reason. It's an abuse of big letters that, again, used to be the bane of typesetters in the era of movable type and that, again, still leads to unnecessary expense in ink and column inches. Just stop it. You're better off assuming the word shouldn't be capitalized and letting the proofreader correct it if it should.

In general, a word should be capitalized if it's at the start of a paragraph or sentence, introduces a new thought after a colon (though not if it's just a list of items), is part of a proper name, or serves as someone's title immediately before his or her name. If it's longer than a word or two, the title should rather be placed after a comma to the right of the person's name, in lowercase letters. The AP manual draws a number of finer distinctions. Be receptive to them when your proofreader dings you on them. Or, if you never actually see their red marks, reflect on what's changed about your work since you sent it off to be published. Notice the ways it looks different and try to grasp the reasons for that.

Lord, have mercy. The rules governing which numbers are to be spelled out and which can be represented by Arabic numerals, or even (gulp) Roman numerals, are crazily numerous and riddled with exceptions. And as I mentioned before, the AP manual is badly indexed. Its cross references direct you to topics that do not exist, and fail to mention entire realms of inquiry that you may have overlooked. I, for one, only recently discovered that ranges and ratios, like "7 to 13," should be written that way and not, as the "numerals" section in the manual suggests, as "seven to 13." Also, children's ages are always given in Arabic notation - "9 years old" or "age 9" - in spite of AP's general rule that whole numbers under 10 should be spelled out. It had never occurred to me to look up a section on ages because I would have thought the section on numerals would cover such exceptions.

Of course, one number I can't help noticing is the number 1978, which is the year my copy of the manual was printed.

Other stuff
In the middle of a sentence, the E in e-mail doesn't have to be capitalized, but it should have a hyphen after it.

When you mention a website in a newspaper story, feel free to leave off the "http://" bit - though I personally like to leave the "www." bit on.

There is no such thing as italics in AP style. If you're wondering whether something like the name of a ship or the title of a book should be italicized, the answer is no. Underlining is right out. The only question, then, is whether or not to put the title of something in quotes. My strategy, when I'm thinking clearly about things like this, is to look up a website that lists what kinds of titles AP does or doesn't like to enclose in quotes. Most of the time, when I don't do this, I'm probably wrong. It's important for me to remember, though, that if my mistake gets past the proofreader, it's still my mistake.

We don't convey thanks, congratulations or invitations in a news story. People who want to invite so-and-so or thank such-and-such should take out an ad. This can be tricky because sometimes the fact that, say, the Chamber of Commerce voted to thank the City Council for something is actually part of a news story. Reporting the fact without violating this taboo can be anything but easy. Your choices are either to skip it or to phrase it in a totally neutral way. Telling news sources they can't say such things in a story can become even more tricky when they are also advertisers.

Maintain the appearance of journalistic objectivity by confining editorial remarks to the editorials and purging them from other stories. This can also be quite tricky. Sometimes a tint, or taint, of the first or second person sneaks into a story in a non-obvious way. Obvious things to look for, of course, are the pronouns "I, we, you," except within a direct quote. But there are also less obvious artifacts of an editorializing journalist who can't help putting himself in his own story. Imperative verbs are among them. References to the weather, without attribution to a character in the story, are as well. Saying everyone "enjoyed" something (without polling every single person involved), or evaluating a sale as "cheap" or a meal as "delicious," can transgress the bounds of what an objective journalist can report. If you have never experienced the frustration of being told something you wrote cannot be stated in a news story, you haven't been writing for a newspaper more than a week.

Speaking of that, always write "more than" and never "over" an amount. Always write "approximately" so much and never "about" so much. Always say an event "is scheduled" to take place at such and such time, date, and place (in that order, right?), never that it "will" happen and most definitely not that it happened, even if it falls within that awkward twilight time between the deadline for the paper and the publication date. Why? Because we are reporters, not oracles of the future. We report facts, not assumptions.

Whenever possible, end the story by saying when the next event is scheduled to take place and/or whom to contact (and how to reach them) for more information. And if at all possible get somebody close to the story to fact-check it for you before it goes to press.

Your photo looks nice, but it's no use to a commercial weekly newspaper without local faces in the frame and local names in the cutline. When you submit it, please identify everyone in it by name and please, PLEASE get them spelled right. The two most common sequences of names in a caption are "Mildred Smith, left, Ethel Johnson, Violet Burns," and so on toward the right in a single row, and "Front row: Mildred Smith, left, Ethel Johnson, and Violet Burns; second row: Eunice Collins, Beatrice Wilkins," and so on to the right, all the way to the back row. Occasionally, if the nature of the photo calls for it, we'll do something like, "Clockwise from top: Mildred Smith," etc. Your alphabetized list is no use to us. We might as well just say, "A bunch of people," or "Members of the quilting club," etc.

All these tips have to do with things I have learned about newspaper writing within the last three or four months. I have learned many of them by making mistakes and growing from them. So an appropriate closing move is to discuss that most dreaded feature of journalism: the correction.

There are two methods. Method 1: The headline is "Correction," or if necessary (and God help you), "Corrections." It should appear somewhere around where the mistake happened in the previous edition. It should explain where the mistake was and the nature of the error, then give corrected information, if possible without repeating the mistake or (heh!) adding a new one. Then it should apologize for the error and any inconvenience it may have caused, full stop. Example: "On page 2 of the Nov. 5 issue, a story about the Board of Elections incorrectly stated the date and location of the board's next meeting. The Board of Elections is scheduled to meet at noon Friday, Dec. 5 at the Last Chance Saloon on High Street in Centerville. We apologize," etc. Only repeat the erroneous information if a clarification is really necessary, such as: "Mona Swanson was incorrectly identified as the chairman of the board. Actually Swanson is the secretary-treasurer. Joanne Brown is the chairman." Or: "The meeting will be Friday, Dec. 12, not Dec. 5 as previously reported."

Method 2, to be used especially when correcting a photo caption, a wedding or birth announcement, or an obituary, is to re-run the whole story or photo with the facts corrected and an editor's note explaining the situation. For the really atrocious mistakes, of which I have made plenty in a short time, there is nothing for it but to grovel in abject apology in the editor's column.

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