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THE LANGUAGE OF NEWSWRITING

17 Oct

THE LANGUAGE OF NEWSWRITING

Written language is made up of three elements — words, sentences and paragraphs. It. is the way these elements  are  handled  that  makes  the  difference  between literary and news English. Briefly, let us look at these elements   separately.

A. WORDS

Words  are  your  basic  tools.  Like  any  skilled technician, you should be able to select the best tools to do the best job. This means you should use words that say exactly what you mean so they can be understood by  others. Every word used in a news story should add to the picture you are building in the minds of your readers. If you use an unnecessary, vague or unfamiliar word, this picture  becomes  blurred.  If  it  becomes  too  blurred,  it may give the reader a distorted picture of the facts. This is a form of inaccuracy that is just as bad as putting the wrong facts down on paper. It is an axiom of newswriting that words that do not work for you, work against you. Here are a few tips on making words work for you.

Avoid  Gobbledygook.— Gobbledygook  is confusing  writing,  often  marked  by  pseudotechnical language  that  readers  cannot  understand.  In  writing  a technical   story,   do   not   parrot   the   words   some technical-minded researcher pours out.

Simplify. Ask, “What  does  this  mean  in  everyday  English?”  Few people,   for   example,   know   what   “arteriosclerosis” means. But when you say “hardening of the arteries,” they immediately understand.

Avoid  Wordiness.— Many  nexperienced writers put unnecessary words into their news copy. Call a   spade   a   spade,   not   “a   long-handled   agricultural implement  utilized  for  the  purpose  of  dislodging  the earth’s  crust.” Short, common words are easy to understand when, in many cases, long words are not. If you must use a longer  word,  make  sure  you  are  using  it  to  convey  a special  meaning,  not  just  for  the  sake  of  using  a  big word.  Why  use  contribute if give means  the  same thing?   This   also   applies   to   veracity for  truth, monumental for big, apprehension for fear, canine for dog and  countless  others.  Practically  every  part  of speech  contains  long  words  that  may  be  replaced  by shorter and more exact ones. The same principle applies to  phrases.  Why  say  “afforded  an  opportunity”  when “flowed”  is  more  exact,  or  why  use  “due  to  the  fact that” instead of “because”?

Be  Specific.— Inexactness  is  just  as  bad  as wordiness.   Readers   want   to   know   specific   facts. Consider the following example of this

Vague: Thousands  of  fans  were  turned  away that  afternoon.

Specific: Three   thousand   fans   were   turned away before game time.

A v o i d    t r i t e    o r    h a c k n e y e d expressions.— These  are  the  mark  of  either  an amateur   or   a   lazy   writer.   Some   particularly   bad examples include the following: Cheap as dirt Smart as a whip Fat as a pig Nipped in the bud Good as gold Blushing  bride Grim reaper Wee hours Ripe old age Picture of health Crystal clear Quick as lightning Bouncing baby boy/girl

Use  Strong,  Active  Verbs.— Whenever possible, use active voice and the simple past tense. The use of these injects life, action and movement into your news stories. In using strong verbs, you will find some of the tendency for you to rely on adverbs to do the work is eliminated. In newswriting, adverbs often do nothing more  than  clutter  writing.  Consider  the following example:

Weak (passive   voice):   The   visitors   were warmly received by Capt. Smith in his office.

Stronger (active  voice):  Capt.  Smith  greeted the visitors in his office.

Avoid Military Jargon.— For those in the Navy, the phrase “general quarters” is clear enough. Yet for others, the phrase may mean nothing; to some, it may seem  to  mean  the  area  where  the  general  is  housed. When you assume that all your readers know general quarters means the command to man battle stations for crew   members   aboard   ship,   you   make   a   false assumption. You do not impress your readers by using words  and  phrases  they  do  not  understand;  you  only imitate  them. For  example,  an  unidentified  Navy  official  issued  a statement  explaining  that  the  purpose  of  an  overtime policy  was  “…to  accommodate  needs  for  overtime  . which are identified as a result of the initiation of the procedures contained herein during the period of time necessary  to  institute  alternative  procedures  to  meet  the identified  need.” In some situations, it is appropriate to use common military   phrases,   such   as   “fleet   training   exercise,” “ship’s galley” and “weapons system.”

Watch Spelling And Grammar.— A JO, or a person interested in becoming a Navy journalist, should have better than average spelling ability. This person should also have a good command of the English language   as   far   as   correct   grammar   is   concerned. Therefore, no extensive lesson is given in this area of study, although some basics are presented in Chapter 6. One goal of every good writer is not to learn to spell perfectly,  but  to  learn  to  spell  well  enough  so  that  a mistake can be spotted when words are put on paper. When  in  doubt,  use  the  dictionary.  Dictionaries  are standard  stock  items  in  the  Navy,  and  every  public affairs  office  should  have  one.  (For  style,  usage  and spelling questions not covered in The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, use Webster’s New World Dictionary  of  the  American  Language,  Third  College Edition.) Additionally, keep in mind that virtually all word  processing  software  packages  contain  a  spell check  feature  that  you  should  use  at  every  opportunity.

Use A Stylebook.— In newswriting, the word style refers to the spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation  and  similar  mechanical  aspects  of grammar used in preparing copy (a term used to describe all  news  manuscripts).  Most  newspapers  and  other periodicals   have   their   own   style   sheets   or   local interpretations of style rules. The important thing for you to remember about style is consistency. The  recommended  guide  for  preparing  military news  is  The  Associated   Press   Stylebook   and   Libel Manual. However, any locally prepared style guide or style sheet is fine as long as it is internally consistent and is suitable for your purpose. For further information on stylebooks,   consult   Chapter   7   (Newspaper   Staff Supervision) of the JO  l &C TRAMAN.

B. SENTENCES

The second element of language is the sentence. The simple declarative sentence that consists of subject and verb,  or  subject,  verb  and  object  is  the  most  common form in normal, informal conversation. For this reason, it  is  the  best  sentence  structure  for  most  newswriting. Notice   how   the   following   sentence   becomes   more simple  sentences:

Sentence: Following  his  graduation  from  the U.S.   Naval   Academy   in   1948,   Brown   was assigned to the destroyer USS Roulston, where he served his first tour of sea duty for three years as assistant communications officer and junior watch officer.

Rewrite: Brown was graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1948. He spent his first tour of sea duty aboard the destroyer USS Roulston as assistant communications officer and junior watch  officer. Simplifying  sentences  is  not  difficult,  but  it  does take a little practice. In time, you can learn to use just the right number of words to achieve maximum clarity without destroying smoothness. There are no absolute rules, but a fair guide is to try to keep sentences to 30 words or less and to shoot for 17 to 20. Vary the length of your sentences. For example, you  might  use  a  four-word  sentence,  then  a  15-word sentence,  then  an  eight-word  sentence,  followed  by  a 30-word   sentence.   This   keeps   your   writing   from becoming singsong.

Do  Not  Clutter.— Never  crowd  too  many details  into  one  sentence.  Although  a  compound  or complex sentence may contain more than one thought, you  should,  for  the  most  part,  stick  to  sentences  that express one thought clearly and concisely. Otherwise, the  reader  is  apt  to  get  lost  in  a  mass  of  clauses  and details.

Do Not Repeat.— If you say in the lead of your story that 61 people were killed in a training accident, do not mention later in the story that 61 were killed. If the readers forget a fact, they can look back.  Newspaper space  is  valuable;  do  not  waste  it  with  redundancy. Refrain from beginning a sentence with the same word as  the  last  word  in  the  previous  sentence  and  avoid beginning consecutive sentences alike, unless you do it deliberately for emphasis.

C. PARAGRAPHS

The most general guideline for writing paragraphs is that they should be kept reasonably short. When ou use short paragraphs, you give the reader facts and ideas in smaller packages that are easier to handle. The mind can grasp a small unit of thought more easily than a large unit. Also, most news copy is set in narrow columns with only three to five words per line. This makes paragraphs of  normal  literary  length  appear  as  extremely  long, unrelieved  gray  blocks  of  body  type  (more  detail  on typography, the appearance and arrangement of printed matter  is  contained  in  Chapter  8).  These  large  gray blocks of type are monotonous to the reader’s eye and difficult  to  read. Paragraphs should be less than 60 words. Two or three sentences per paragraph are just about right, but it is   perfectly   acceptable   to   have   a   one-sentence paragraph, or even a one-word paragraph, if it expresses a  complete  thought. Yet, a succession of very short paragraphs may give a choppy effect to the writing. For best effect, alternate paragraphs  of  short  and  medium  length.  Never  begin succeeding  paragraphs  with  the  same  words  or  phrases. This, too, can cause a monotonous effect that will soon discourage  the  reader.

THE ABCs OF JOURNALISM

Some  principles  of  newswriting  you  must  apply every time you attempt to put words on paper include accuracy,  brevity,  clarity,  coherence,  emphasis, objectivity  and  unity.

ACCURACY

If a writer has to pick one principle that should never be violated, this should be the one. To fall down in this area is to discredit your entire writing effort. As a JO, you will be working with facts. These facts will involve persons,  places  and  things.  They  will  involve  names ages, titles, rank or ratings, addresses and descriptions. You  will  work  with  facts  that  are  both  familiar  and unfamiliar  to  you. You cannot afford to be casual in your approach to facts. Your readers will often judge the Navy on what you say and how you say it. An easy way to lose the public’s respect and cofidence is by being careless in your  handling  of  facts.  When  you  send  a  story  to  a newspaper, the editor depends on you for accuracy in every  fact. The  Navy  news  release  heading  that  appears  on every  story  you  distribute  means  the  information  it contains is reliable and has been approved officially by the Navy. A mistake in a news story implies that the Navy  is  careless  and  undependable.  Datelines  tell  when and where the story is written and should appear on all stories written for release. In the text of the story, when and where may refer to the dateline.

Attribution

relates to accuracy. It means that you name the person who makes any statement that may be challenged. Good quotations liven a story, give it color and aid in development of coherence. Attribution also ensures that the reader does not get the impression the statement  is  the  writer’s  personal  opinion.  However, attribution  should  never  be  used  in  a  story  merely  to flatter a person by publicizing his or her name.

BREVITY

The question is often asked, “Should I be brief in my writing or complete?” By all means, be brief, but not at the expense of completeness. The key is to boil down your writing and eliminate garbage. A compact piece of writing is frequently much stronger than a lengthy story. An  example  is  Lincoln’s  Gettysburg  Address.  This speech has outlived a flock of long harangues by later statesmen.  One  of  the  reasons  for  its  survival  is  its brevity.

CLARITY

Nothing   is   more   discouraging   than   reading   an article and then realizing that you do not know what you read. A similar frustration arises when you are trying to follow directions on assembling a toy, particularly when the  instructions  read,  “…even  a  5-year-old  can  assemble this toy,” and you cannot do it, because the directions read  as  if  they  were  written  in  a  foreign  language. Assume that if there is any chance of misunderstanding, readers  will  misunderstand.  Reread  what  you  have written  looking  for  points  that  could  lead  to  readers’ misunderstanding.

COHERENCE

An article that skips illogically from topic to topic and back again in a jumbled, befuddled manner lacks coherence. Coherence means sticking together, and that is  what  stories  and  articles  should  do.  Facts  should follow facts in some kind of reasonable order. It may be logical order, chronological order, place order or order of importance, depending on the subject, but order of one kind or another is vital. Outlining will often help.

EMPHASIS

Make sure your writing emphasizes what you want it to. You assure this in newswriting by putting the most important fact first (the lead,  discussed later). There are other types of arrangements for emphasis that are used in feature stories or in.editorials. More information will be presented on this later in this chapter.

OBJECTIVITY

To report news accurately, you must keep yourself detached   from   the   happenings   and   present   an impersonal, unbiased, unprejudiced story. This is why you  never  see  a  good  reporter  at  an  accident  running around saying, “Isn’t this horrible? I feel so sorry for the family. Why, just the other day I was talking to ol’ Jed, and  now  he  is  dead.”  These  may  very  well  be  your feelings, but you must attempt to keep aloof in order to give an objective report. It is not your job to influence people directly, but rather to tell them what is going on. You direct their thinking only to the limited extent that you  make  them  think  for  themselves  by  an  unbiased presentation of the facts.

UNITY

A news story should deal with one basic topic. There may be many facts and ins and outs to the story, but it is still  one  story.  If  you  set  out  to  write  a  story  on  the services and activities available at the enlisted club, and end up with a biography of the club manager, the story lacks unity. The simple solution frequently is to write two  stories,  rather  than  trying  to  combine  a  mass  of information into one.

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2008 in Just Talk Active

 

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