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Good writing requires variety, seasoning.

Hold the average newspaper editorial beside the average thinktank-written op-ed piece, and it's often hard to tell the two apart. Both display a stubborn indifference to style - to crafting arguments with a sense of verbal adventure. Both are content to be bland.

Yes, mounting strong arguments - marshaling the facts - must always be the priority. But when it comes to crafting those arguments, it's remarkable to see how so many editorialists have abandoned the language of H.L. Mencken and adopted the jargon-speak of zoning code enforcement officers and public school superintendents.

Readers will continue to drift away from newspapers as long as editorialists persist in their eat-your-vegetables mentality, which goes like this: As long as an editorial offers serious nutrition (in the form of heavily researched arguments), readers should gratefully swallow what they're served and forget about its utter lack of taste.

Compare the approach to that of a quality restaurant. There, vegetables are served at every meal, but they're prepared by a chef who deftly selects spices with which to complement them. Customers still get the nutrition from the meal, but they also appreciate the artistry of the chef-and his regard for his diners.

So why not prepare an editorial with the same flair a chef uses in preparing a fine meal? Abandon the habit of doling out bland, unmemorable fare. Start thinking about how spices can be used to enhance the flavor - and there are many spices from which to choose. Season the editorial appropriately, to suit the taste of your particular newspaper and community.

Selections from my spice cabinet

What are some elements of fine editorial writing? Here are a few suggestions I'd make after rummaging through my own verbal spice cabinet:

* Absolute rule: The only universal recommendation is this: Loosen up! To raise one's prose to a higher level, a writer has to open his or her mind to new possibilities. Fine writing, in all its variations, must involve a large measure of mental playfulness - a willingness to search in all directions for verbal possibilities. This notion applies regardless of whether one is writing on a lighthearted topic or a thoroughly somber one.

* Visual imagery and metaphors: The more policy-wonkish the subject matter of an editorial, the greater the need to enliven the prose. One tool for doing so is the use of visual imagery. I once chose to write about an excruciatingly technical topic: criticizing a state Supreme Court's ruling on an "intangibles tax" the state of North Carolina was levying on business investments. I tried to draw readers in by opening the editorial this way: "It's hard to punt while wearing judicial robes, but the majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court somehow succeeded in doing exactly that this week by issuing a remarkable non-decision on the intangibles tax." Too wordy, perhaps, but at least it tried a vivid way to pique reader interest. The rule with imagery, though, is that it must serve a constructive purpose and not be used merely for ornamentation.

* Use the end of a sentence, and the end of an editorial, for strong effect: A political commentator for a national syndicate recently wrote: "Four decades ago, the catalyst for youth violence was thought to be the nation's previously benign comic books, which had turned nasty, going from good against evil to just evil, in the minds of many." That particular construction drains the sentence of its full power.

The writer could have strengthened the sentence by rewriting it to put his most vivid phrase at the very end: ". . . the catalyst for youth violence was thought to be the nation's comic books, which in the minds of many had turned nasty, going from good against evil to just evil" (emphasis added). It's far more vivid to end a sentence with the word "evil" than with the pedestrian phrase "in the minds of many."

Placing an especially well-chosen word or phrase in the right location lets a sentence end with quite an effective whip crack. Surrounding that word or phrase with superfluous verbiage needlessly muffles the effect.

* Dealing with cliches: Two suggestions: First, if a cliche springs to mind while writing a sentence, go ahead and type in the cliche - but then take the time to come up with a substitute phrase for the cliche. After all, who should be more appropriate to perform such a task than editorial writers? Second, give a cliche a twist. One sharp-minded letter writer to my paper once wrote after a particular City Council decision that the city had taken "the moral low ground." Another example comes from a recent National Public Radio program: The host noted how a current warm-weather fashion accessory thought to be new and trendy is actually four decades old. She then observed that "there's nothing new under the hot summer sun."

* Verbs: Not every verb need lunge ferociously at the reader, but it is a good rule for writers to hunt routinely for strong verbs. Instead of writing that a congressman's legislation "was full of sound ideas," say that his proposal "was popping with sound ideas" or that "good ideas pop up at every turn in his proposal." Instead of writing that "the school board's long-awaited plan was a bust," say that the plan "left parents snoozing with indifference" or that it "clumsily awakened anxieties among many parents." The point is to wake up readers a bit by searching for new ways to express familiar ideas. Little doses of vividness tend to add up over the course of an editorial.

Chefs are never satisfied with blandness, and the same should apply to editorial writers. Get creative. Give readers some prose they can savor.

The first steps to accomplishing those goals are always the same: Open your mind; then open the spice cabinet.

NCEW member Geitner Simmons is an editorial writer for the Worl-Herald in Omaha, Neb.
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Simmons, Geitner
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Words:976
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