Wednesday, January 06, 2010

weekly writing coach: short stack

The past 20 years have seen writers learn new formats from tweets to blog posts, but a tried-and-true format remains the news story or news release that's patterned after a classic journalism inverted pyramid style, where the broadest statements come first and the specifics follow in descending order. With the new year, however, comes a manifesto suggesting that you cut that large portion down to a short stack: Michael Kinsley's penned a lengthy Atlantic article titled "Cut That Story!" that takes a fresh look at news stories now that we're well into the Internet age--and he finds them fat, over-written and out-of-touch with what audiences want from their news today. Here are just a few of his observations on what could be cut from a news story:
But the old wordy conventions survive. Quotes from strangers restating the reporter’s opinion are one. Another is adding protective qualifiers to statements about which there is no real doubt (as when I wrote above that the bonus restrictions “may have” backfired). A third—illustrated by the headline on that story, “Windfall Seen as Bonuses Are Paid in Stock”—is to attribute the article’s conclusion to unnamed others. Somebody sees a windfall. We’re just telling you about it.
If you take the time to read Kinsley's article--which proves that writing analysis takes up more space than describing the thing being analzyed--you'll find many more things you might consider cutting from your own news writing, with sweeping historic frames for small actions and passive verb constructions among them.

Kinsley also shares this recollection from his own early days in journalism:
On the first day of my first real job in journalism—on the copy desk at the Royal Oak Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, Michigan—the chief copy editor said, “Remember, every word you cut saves the publisher money.” At the time, saving the publisher money didn’t strike me as the world’s noblest ideal. These days, for anyone in journalism, it’s more compelling.
This week, take a look at your news story or news release style. How should--how will--you start to reform this format? Which conventions of style will you put on a word diet? It's an even more important question now that news releases are used less and less for their original purpose--gaining media coverage--and more as general information packages. If the target audience is no longer a journalist or her editor, but your direct audience, be it internal or external, how should the writing change?

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