Confusing word of the week

Here’s one I come across all the time…mixing up quite and quiet. They both sound the same, but have completely different meanings.

The difference is simple…

Quiet means silent, soundless, not noisy etc.

For example: Things are very quiet here at the moment

Quite is an adverb used to describe something somewhat remarkable or noteworthy

For example: Mike was quite tall OR I have quite a heavy workload

That’s it…quite easy to understand the difference after all, isn’t it? Now, quiet down and get back to work.

Keep it simple

“Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify.” — Henry Thoreau

Simplicity is the key to good journalism. Write clearly, write concisely, write honestly – and you’re on the way to writing well.

We live in a world that is governed by incredibly complex systems – both natural and manmade. The job of the journalist is to break these down – get to the nub of an issue and make sense of it all for your reader.

Simplicity is a virtue, and like most virtues, it can often be difficult to maintain.

There are many temptations, seeking to lead us from the path of virtue. For a hack, the greatest of these is the temptation of complexity. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of over-complication. We think it makes us seem smart – and as such is a classic example of the ego getting in the way of the writing.

Researching a story, speaking to sources, unearthing and making sense of data gives us access to a huge amount of information – much more that our readers will have access to. It can often be easier to simply throw it all into an article you’re writing rather than take the time to break it all down  and create a coherent – and simple to understand – story.

Taken in this light, complexity is a sign of a lazy journalism. It tells the reader that either you can’t make sense of it all yourself, or you can’t be bothered breaking it down for him. In my experience, the first of these is the most common.

I’ve already mentioned the 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where and Why. Pretty much all stories can be broken down to these essential elements. But when it comes to simplicity in writing, I’m a big believer in the 3 Es. – Engage, explain and eliminate.

Engaging the reader is the first – and biggest – challenge for any writer. In an era where people are being bombarded with information from a huge array of sources, we have become extremely good at editing out what is not useful. Most of the time, we do this unconsciously, scanning headlines and opening paragraphs for certain key words and phrases. Those that grab us, we continue to read; those that don’t, we ignore. You need to grab the attention of your reader from the first sentence, make it so that they HAVE to keep on reading. A never-before-revealed fact, an unforgettable image, a fascinating character – all these serve the same purpose – getting a reader engaged

Once you’ve hooked them, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. What’s the article about? What’s the story? That’s when you start to EXPLAIN.

Example:

John Smith was just fifteen when he walked through the gates of X Chemicals for the first time. Today his fifteen-year-old son waits for him at those same gates as he leaves for the last time.

John is one of 1,000 workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the closure of the Springfield plant – part of the company’s plan to cut $5m from its annual wage bill.

In these first two paragraphs, you draw your reader in by putting a human face – a name, a story, an emotion – on the story. Then you summarise what the story is about.

But as you go on to explain further, you must also ELIMINATE.

Chances are you have a huge array of facts at your fingertips – hours of research, interviews, data, statistics – all of which is swimming around in your head as you start to write the story. The art of elimination involves knowing how much of this can be left out, what’s not essential to the story – that background noise that will only serve to confuse your reader, not enlighten them. Cut out the jargon, the repetition, the meaningless data – anything that serves to confuse rather than clarify.

Remember: What you leave out is just as important as what you put in.

Jargon and how to avoid it

Jargon. It’s all around us. From the corporate world to the voluntary sector, it seems that nobody in authority is capable of saying what they mean any longer, instead couching their utterances in a meringue of meaningless buzzwords and quasi-technical gobbledygook.

Sadly, the media is also infested with this creeping canker. How many times have you read jargon-filled articles that leave scratching your head by the end, asking yourself ‘what the hell was all that about’?

It’s nothing short of an epidemic. Take a look through any ‘serious’ newspaper or magazine. Chances are it’s full of terms like ‘rationalisation’, ‘collateral damage’, ‘austerity’, ‘challenging trading conditions’…the list goes on.

It’s easy to understand why some business/political leaders use jargon. By definition, it’s a way of codifying language, obscuring it so that the true meaning of what you’re saying can be understood only by those in your own clique.

Hence the use of terms like ‘austerity measures’ rather than ‘cuts’, ‘collateral damage’ rather than ‘civilian casualties’, ‘friendly fire’ rather than ‘shot by their own side’. And we won’t even go into the linguistic diarrhea that is modern business jargon and which has introduced such terms as ‘buy in’, ‘going forward’, ‘low-hanging fruit’ or the execrable ‘core competencies’.

A good journalist will avoid jargon at all costs. If an interviewee uses it, ask him to clarify what he means. If he fails to do so, then do the job for him. It’s not your job to hide meaning behind obscure terms or to help him cover up what his corporation/department/organisation is really trying to do. It’s your job to let your audience know what’s going on – and to do so in the clearest possible terms.

People resort to jargon for two reasons: to deliberately obscure meaning or because they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

There’s no excuse for a journalist to fall into either of these two categories. If you’re unclear what a word or a term means, find out. If your interviewee is unwilling to use clear, unambiguous language, then it’s your job to explain to your readers what he’s talking about. He may be a mouthpiece for some organisation or other but you’re not. Don’t simply repeat what’s being said to you, explain it. Probe, don’t parrot. Clarify, don’t collaborate. Become a jargon-buster today and help make the world a better, clearer place!

Get to the point

Know when to stop.

Something I’ve been noticing recently is that many writers – professional journalists among them – seem to have developed an aversion to the full stop.

I’m frequently presented with text which is riddled with commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes and a variety of other squiggles, dots and doodles, with ne’er a full stop to be seen.

This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in direct quotes. So, for example, it’s no longer uncommon to read a paragraph like this…

It was a great day, the weather was fantastic and a big crowd turned out, we would like to thank everybody who helped out with the organisation of the event, without them it would not have been possible.

Another instance in which this arises is where the person being quoted uses the word ‘and’ a lot, such as the following:

We had a great day and the weather was fantastic and the people who turned up really enjoyed themselves and helped contribute to a great day and we are already looking forward to next year’s event.

In both instances, the writer is guilty of being almost too scrupulous when it comes to reproducing the direct quote – and in doing so sacrificing the nuance of the speech. Someone reading either of the sentences above might well get the impression of the speaker as someone who speaks quickly, without taking a breath or pausing for thought, her words little more than a breathless stream of verbiage.

In reality, it is more likely that the speaker would have paused for breath or to emphasize a particular word or phrase. It is the job of the writer to somehow capture this when reproducing her/her quote. Judicious use of the full stop is an excellent way of doing this.

Here’s what happens if you use it effectively:

It was a great day. The weather was fantastic and a big crowd turned out. We would like to thank everybody who helped out with the organisation of the event;  without them it would not have been possible.

In the second example, it is acceptable to replace a couple of those Ands with full stops. Here goes:

We had a great day. The weather was fantastic and the people who turned up really enjoyed themselves and helped contribute to a great day. We are already looking forward to next year’s event.

The full stops give a shape to the quotes and make life much easier for the reader, who now doesn’t have to re-read the sentence to identify the emphasis and the essence of what is being said.

The same applies throughout your writing, whether you’re quoting directly or not. Don’t be afraid of the full stop. It makes your writing clearer and ‘punchier’. It removes ambiguity. And, crucially, it makes life easier for your reader.

Of course, there’s a place for long, run-on sentences marshalled by the appropriate punctuation, but that’s a post for another day. For now, just learn when to stop.

Just write!

Writer’s block is an affliction we hacks don’t suffer from. We simply can’t afford to. When you have a deadline breathing down your neck and a stressed editor screaming across the room for your copy, waiting for the muse to lavish her blessing upon you simply isn’t an option.

So, how do you get over it?

The first step is to stop giving yourself excuses not to write. Just sit down and start. That’s the biggest step taken there and then. Stop procrastinating, dawdling, dithering or otherwise farting around.

Give yourself a word count and a deadline and then make sure you meet it.

Example: I’m going to write 400 words in the next 20 minutes.

Don’t worry if the first few sentences are rubbish. Just keep going. Let the story tell itself. You’ll be surprised what happens when you just get yourself out of the way. Don’t think too much about style or panache or trying to impress your reader with your stunning command of language. Go back to basics. Get the facts down in more or less the right order.

Don’t worry too much about getting it perfect first time.

I’ll let you in on a secret: you write when you re-write.

In other words, It’s only on the second or third draft that a piece of writing really begins to come together.

That first draft is just about getting everything down on paper – facts, ideas, themes, etc. They may not make just sense yet but don’t panic, they will.

Don’t be afraid to write fast.

This way you have a much better chance of capturing the immediacy and energy of the story you’re trying to tell. Too much self-editing at first draft stage can have a paralysing effect – think too much about what you’re writing and you might not write anything at all

It’s only when you’re finished your first draft that the real job of writing begins.

At this point, it is useful to put yourself in the place of your reader. Most journalists have an archetypical reader in mind whenever they write. That could be an 87-year-old farmer’s wife who left school at 16, or a 45-year-old college professor with degrees coming out of his ears – it all depends on your audience.

When reading back over your first draft, become that reader. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will this make sense?
  • Have I captured the essence of the story?
  • Have I included the most important facts?
  • Have I left anything out?

Remember the 5 W’s – Who, What, Where, Why When.  Have you included all these details in the appropriate order?

Don’t be too precious about what you have written. Feel free to chop sentences up, move them around, re-write them completely if necessary. You can always undo your changes if they don’t work

KEEP IT SIMPLE!

Cut out all the unnecessary crap, imprecise words and clunky phrases. Scrap the jargon. (See my post on mistakes to avoid https://writelikeahack.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/5-common-mistakes-to-avoid-when-writing/)

You’ll be surprised at how the essence of the story begins to emerge once you have written everything down.

Finally, ask yourself: Does my story have life in it?

Include direct quotes, description, characterisation. Used sparingly, these are the elements that give your story its energy – or ‘flow’.

Don’t worry about getting it all right. Like most things in life, you get better with practice.

For now, just write and keep writing. And, while you’re at it, go out and buy a couple of newspapers and read them from cover to cover. If you want to learn how to write, study how the professionals do it.

Why proofreading matters

Did you ever read a piece of text that makes absolutely no sense and wonder what the hell the writer was thinking?

Well, chances are that he/she didn’t read back over what they had written before publishing/submitting it.

It couldn’t be simpler – read what you have written. Then read it again – just to be sure!

If it doesn’t make sense to you, how can you expect your reader to understand what you’re trying to say.

To illustrate this point, here are a few examples from local/community notes where minor errors of spelling and punctuation completely change the meaning of the text – sometimes to hilarious effect. In all these cases, if the writers had just read over what they had written, they would have spotted and been able to correct the mistake.

On completion, there will be a real party atmosphere with barbecue foot and entertainment with a raffle for loads of prizes

The death of XX occurred at XXX. After a short illness at the advanced aged of 96 years, she was a quiet, gentle and unassuming lady and had a welcome reception for all who crossed her threshold. 

And finally, an example of someone who didn’t obey the ‘Keep It Simple’ rule or, for that matter, the rule about avoiding clichés:

With time running out XX  leapt like a salmon smashing a header off the crossbar from a corner in the 93rd minute and from the resulting break XX bundled the ball over the line, winning the match with the last kick of the game.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing for a newspaper, magazine, online publication or just sending an email, learn to become your own proofreader. Remember, your words are precious – be proud of them.

Who’s your daddy?

Quick one this morning…  who’s v whose

As if we weren’t confused enough about the difference between who’s and whose, Dr Seuss goes and writes this book!

This can be a bit confusing, because normally the apostrophe (‘) indicated possession – for example Ken’s violin, Mary’s trombone etc. However the rule doesn’t apply when it comes to the word whose which is the possessive form of who.

Example: Kevin is a musician whose violin is very beautiful.

Whose music do you prefer – Ken’s or Mary’s?

Who’s, on the other hand, is a contraction (or shortening) of ‘who is’

Example: Ken is a musician who’s very good at his craft

Who’s that playing trumpet beside Mary?

Like most contractions (don’t, won’t, can’t, etc.), who’s should only be used in an informal context or as part of a direct quote. For more formal writing, such as business correspondence or job applications, you should always use the correct form – who is.