Saturday, August 30, 2008

First, do harm

We all like to Omit Needless Words. The more Needless Words you omit, the more Needful Words you can include. Eight lines is an inch of text, and when you serve an inch less foam, you can serve an inch more beer.

Trouble comes when you fire up the chainsaw before you RTFS: Omit Needless Words becomes just Omit Words, and that's a really good way to make the paper (and the writer, and more or less the whole profession) look really stupid. Here's a lede:

WASHINGTON - Anyone who thinks Sarah Palin is just a pretty face has never looked at her resumé.

"Needless word!" cries some editor. And the verbal blade goes snicker-snack:

WASHINGTON - Anyone who thinks Sarah Palin is just a pretty face never looked at her résumé.

That's the version that appears in today's 1A centerpiece. (Note the added vigilance on résumé). Trouble is, the "has" in "has never looked" hadn't finished its earthly tasks:

Or run against her -- or gone hunting with her.

If you think Sarah's just a pretty face, you never gone hunting with her, all right. Nor never run against her, neither. We done incorrected us a grammar right slam into the second graf.

The story has a Gannett byline (elsewhere; the Freep just credits "news services"), but it doesn't appear yet on the Gannett wire at Lexis, so it's hard to say conclusively what the "original" is. Several papers are running it with the auxiliary in place, and a few others join the Freep in the ain't-no-part-of-nothing version. My bet is still on "editing error." Even bad writers aren't usually that bad in that particular way. And this writer is a ... OK, let's say he's a "workmanlike" writer. Lots of the prose could really use some editorial help:

At 44, she is the youngest and first female governor of Alaska and now the first woman on a GOP presidential ticket.

Maybe it's a stretch to read that as "(youngest) and (first) (female governor)," rather than "(youngest) and (first female) (governor)." Maybe it isn't. But a choice between clumsy and silly isn't much of a choice at all. Why not just make it two sentences?

Palin has been described as colorful, outspoken and has been known to buck her party, Walsh said.

I like a candidate who has been described as has been known to buck her party. See why people have been known to appreciate those Strunk & White guidelines?

When she was three months old, the family moved to Alaska, where moose hunting and distance running filled weekends.

Kilt her a moose when she was only three, did she? After winning her a 5K on her stubby little legs?*

If your goal is to make mediocre writing sound better, there's no shortage of stuff to do in this story -- or, really, anywhere in the fields of news writing. But you need to start by actually reading the text. Otherwise, you're going to omit a needful word from the Basic Rule: First, do no harm.

* It's worse in the Freep version: "When she was 3 months old, the family moved to Alaska, where moose hunting and distance running filled her weekends." Again, you can't tell for sure whether the Freep made things worse or just blew another chance to make things less bad. But at least the Freep desk followed AP style for age!

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5 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

At 44, she is the youngest and first female governor of Alaska and now the first woman on a GOP presidential ticket.

A simple pair of commas could fix that, too.

6:37 PM, August 30, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Yeah, but I'd still prefer a solution that doesn't make the parser hold the door open so long. Have moicy! I get the paper before the coffee maker has finished its magic.

7:15 PM, August 30, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Dashes, then? :-)

...youngest governor, and the first woman to hold the post.

11:36 PM, August 30, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

It's a lot easier if you don't mind repeating "governor" -- which probably suggests why news writing is so prone to the Elongated Yellow Fruit Syndrome, and why we tend to prefer arguing the fine points of various elegant suspensive structures to being simple. Strange craft, news.

3:21 PM, August 31, 2008  
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3:18 AM, November 13, 2008  

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