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Home > Publications > Quill > Words and Language Toolbox

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014
Words and Language Toolbox

Writing right doesn’t mean writing rote

By Paula LaRocque

Once, during my 20-year tenure as Dallas Morning News writing coach, an intern told me triumphantly: “Hey! I got all the W’s plus the H in my lead!”

Now, writing being what writing is — that is, infinitely various — I knew the intern’s lead could be great. It also could be dreadful. My money was on dreadful.

Why? Because that intern misunderstood the journalistic convention of who, what, why, where, when, and sometimes how. She saw it as rule rather than checklist.

When we turn convention into rule, we squander our creative potential as reporters and editors. This is so whether we enshrine stylebook or myth as Holy Writ. When myth masquerades as rule, it becomes wrong, say, to split infinitives or split verb phrases. Or to begin sentences with and or but. Or to use fragments or adjectives or adverbs.

But none of that is wrong. It’s a self-imposed straitjacket.

That doesn’t mean there are no hard and fast rules in writing and linguistics. But it does acknowledge that journalists tend to elevate “good practice” into rule because it makes life easier. We cling to convention for consistency and to avoid the time-consuming necessity of making myriad small decisions on deadline.

But some conventions result in awkward, unnatural rote.

In so fervently embracing a bedrock of journalism, for example, our intern supposed that if the W’s and H were good, stuffing them all into the lead would be even better.

But the W’s are merely reminders for rushed writers. They remind: If this W is vital, it probably should be high in the story. They don’t claim that every W isvital or that they all belong in the lead.

Among the more troublesome W’s are when and where. When’stime elements are often misplaced (namely, before the verb). And where, although desirable sooner or later, may be beside the point in the lead. Whocan also be a problem —weird names, unfamiliar names, and long and busy names, as well as obtrusive titles and IDs.

The lead below demonstrates an awkward handling of when:

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky broke Friday with fellow Republicans who have pushed for stricter voting laws as a way to crack down on fraud at the polls, saying that the focus on such measures alienates and insults African-Americans and hurts the party.

Did Paul “break Friday,” as the story says? Or did he break with fellow Republicans? Is the whenso important that it must destroy sensible diction? The journalistic habit of time misplacement is as perplexing as it is persistent. Thing is, we don’t talk this way (e.g. I will visit Friday the doctor). More graceful — and, at 29 instead of 43 words, clearer:

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky broke with fellow Republicans on voter ID Friday, saying the GOP’s focus on stricter voting laws alienates and insults African-Americans and hurts the party.

The whenalso is tricky in the lead below because we’re juggling two past tenses: Friday and two weeks ago. But more troubling is the awkward where:

A United States Special Operations commando and a Central Intelligence Agency officer in Yemen shot and killed two armed Yemeni civilians who tried to kidnap them while the Americans were in a barber shop in the country’s capital two weeks ago, American officials said on Friday.

This story has three where elements: Yemen, Sana (where the incident occurred), and the barbershop. Yemen is vital to the lead. It’s also the most recognizable. Sana is important but missing from the lead — in this story it’s stuck at the base of five long paragraphs, as if it were less important than the barbershop.

Is the barbershop vital to the lead? Parallel in importance to the what? Worth further stuffing an already long (46 words) sentence? No. In fact, its presence trivializes the lead because it’s mundane, it’s vaguely weird, and it doesn’t match the gravity of the story. Worse, it’s possibly amusing because it calls to mind filmdom’s many Mafia hits in barbershops.

A better place for this when is in a separate, subsequent sentence:

American officials said Friday that a U.S. Special Operations commando and a CIA officer in Yemen shot and killed two armed Yemeni civilians who tried to kidnap them two weeks ago. The shooting occurred in a barbershop in Sana, Yemen’s capital.

Those two sentences yield a more accessible 31 and 10 words, offer more information (Sana) and put the barbershop where it belongs: in a subordinate position.

In short, writing well can do without journalistic rote. But it can’t do without careful thought and natural diction.

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words,” “Championship Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line.” Email: Blog and website:

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