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Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Generation J Toolbox

Don’t overlook writing basics in favor of flashy tools

By Robert McLean

Journalists are among those professionals expected to know how to write a sentence. Whether in print, online or in a broadcast script, we reporters and editors need to know how to draft sharp, precise copy at a moment's notice for public consumption.

It’s tempting for younger journalists to gloss over these rules in favor of impressing editors and audiences with flowery narrative styling and the latest, flashiest tools. However, journalists coming out of school or in the first few years of their career would do well to remember that the fundamentals of good reporting and writing are just as important as knowing the latest social media platform.

Some syntax and AP Style rules are easily forgotten in the heat of breaking news or a tight deadline. In the best of times, we can replace those clunky chunks of text with something easier on the eyes, but our audience will benefit if we write cleaner from the get-go.

Here are a few suggestions — for journalists young, old and everything in between — on how to craft the best copy possible when sitting down at the keyboard.

Avoid using “It is …” or “There are …” sentences

Boring sentences kill copy. My beat reporting instructor in j-school said sentences that start with “It is …” or “There are …” are the most boring sentences possible, and I couldn’t agree more. We use sentences like this in everyday speech, but they don’t really work in news stories.

Look at this sentence, for example: “There are five city council members who sponsored the bill.”

The statement conveys the idea, but it also puts the audience to sleep. The writer needs to invite readers to continue to the next sentence.

Writing with more punch, a writer could say: “Five city council members sponsored the bill.”

The sentence is shorter, eliminates the “There are …” construction and has more pop.

Write in the active voice: Passive voice doesn’t just make for boring copy; it can also confuse the reader. Honestly, I didn’t understand what the passive voice was until I was 25. Ever since then, it’s stuck out like a sore thumb when I encounter it.

Passive voice is a sentence that leads with its object. For instance, “The camp was attended by 13 people.” This sentence is passive because 13 people is the subject, and the camp its object. To make it active, invert its order: “Thirteen people attended the camp.”

Use “of” constructions sparingly

I really dislike “of” constructions in sentences, but they can be useful at times. I’ve found they’re too wordy and can usually be trimmed down without losing the meaning.

For example: “The hat of the cab driver.” Trim this to “The cab driver’s hat.”

However, times will come when an “of” construction works well, and journalists should judge when best to use it.

Don’t switch tenses in reference to the same event

Switching tenses leads to confusing sentences for readers and the writers. For instance: “Springfield police said they investigated a shooting at Grover and Main streets Saturday. Authorities say the shooter fled on foot.”

The first sentence is written in the past tense; the second sentence is in present tense. If the writer starts with “said,” maintain tense throughout the copy. Consistency in copy is critical to retention and readability.

No one can deny that well-crafted copy is difficult to draft. While excellent writing can be found online and on newspaper pages, poorly written copy is more common.

As journalists, we must draft stories that pack a punch. With these guidelines in your toolbox, I hope your perfect story is closer than ever.

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