Wednesday, August 29, 2007

There will be a petting zoo ...

... pony rides, and children can reduce Lucy the relative clause! It's another case of parallel structure gone awry in America's dailies, but this time it trips an editor rather than a writer.

Yesterday was a good day to sing the praises of sharp editing -- and to note, of course, that it's almost impossible to discern, given only the final product. There is, after all, always the outside chance that the writer had a clue in the first place. Today we turn to bad editing, which has the highly regrettable property of leaping out at you like two giant leaping things. This episode is not about missing errors but about introducing them:

Seung-Hui Cho wrote a paper for a Virginia Tech English class about a gunman planning a mass school shooting, one year before he killed 32 students and faculty members and himself in the deadliest shooting by an individual in U.S. history, according to sources familiar with the paper.

The paper, written for a fiction writing class and has not surfaced publicly, has "eerie" parallels to Cho's shooting inside Norris Hall on April 16, according to several sources. One source called it "kind of a blueprint" for the shootings, but others cautioned that that was an overstatement.

The second graf as it appears in the originating paper:
The paper, which was written for a class in fiction writing and has not surfaced publicly, has "eerie" parallels to Cho's shooting inside Norris Hall on April 16, according to several sources.

It's clear what the editor was trying to do, and it's something most textbooks (and most teachers and desk chiefs) teach: Reducing relative clauses is usually a good way to save space. You can reduce the clause by taking out the relative pronoun and the auxiliary or linking verb:

The poem, which was originally published in English
The poem, originally published in English

If you work for the Times, of course, the full relative clause is a way of establishing the appropriately ponderous Times style:

After a long week serving as spiritual adviser to many Mormons in his ward, Mr. Knight, who is an electrician, headed back to work at 6 a.m. for a 12-hour shift at a mine near Crandall Canyon.

But recently some of them have been arrested too. Ramin Jahanbegloo, who is an Iranian-Canadian scholar, spent four months in an Iranian prison last year.

We lesser breeds are inclined to write "an electrician" and "an Iranian-Canadian scholar." Eight lines is an inch, and an inch less foam is an inch more beer, and pretty soon we've saved enough space for some actual content.

The example at hand would have worked except for the change in verb voice:

The paper, which was written for a fiction class ...
The paper, written for a fiction class ...

The paper, which was written for a fiction class and had not previously been made public ...
The paper, written for a fiction class and not previously made public ...

The elements of the clause are parallel with all the parts in place, but when the first part is reduced, we get nonsense. This is a case of the desk making the writer look dumb.

Now, economy of words is a noble goal, and there's plenty to be done on that front. Having established Virginia Tech, gunman (is he still a standalone name nationwide, you figure?) and massacre, does the lede need to spell out the numbers and cap them off with the superlative? How many times could "according to ..." be replaced with "said"? How much of the Post's detail is important for a Virginia paper (which the Post is) but less relevant outside the state -- the governor's political affiliation, for example?

But there's other evidence that the story was whacked in a hurry and didn't get the second or third read that makes the difference between good surgery and the oh-there-it-is moment when the missing scalpel first shows up on the X-ray:

Edited:
Some of Cho's writing in the paper is similar to what he said the words he spoke on the videotape he made on the morning of the shootings, the sources said.

Original:
Some of what Cho wrote was echoed in the words he spoke on the videotape he made on the morning of the shootings, the sources said.

It's longer and it makes less sense! Great taste! Less filling!

Seriously, though. One of the things we talk about in our spare time is what scale of train wreck it might take for the glass offices to realize that a desk with enough time to think about its work is no luxury. A mangled sentence or two in a wire story isn't necessarily a train wreck, but it should be at least a jogger-on-the-cowcatcher sort of warning.

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