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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.