Roughly Speaking podcast: Halloween special: Best of horror movie music (episode 168)


You have been on formula long enough. It’s time to make the transition to solid food.

By formula I mean the stock phrases and predictable constructions that make journalism so easy to put together quickly, and so boring to readers.

 Take, for example, the not alone construction, which I saw in The Sun this very morning. Whenever you write about a particular person’s situation and attempt a transition to the body of the story by saying that that person is not alone, TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THE KEYBOARD and think. Would it make any difference at all to the story, to the reader, or to you if you omitted that sentence? Of course not. Strike it out, and never resort to that construction again.*

If you are the editor of that story, remember that management gave you a computer with a delete key.

A colleague laments the prevalence of police report jargon in the paper and online, giving these examples:

Failed to negotiate a curve: 78 times in our library system (thankfully, last time was Oct. 2009)

Wooded area: 1,685 times in our library system

High rate of speed: 179 times in our library system

 He also disparages the construction intersection of instead of saying simply, for example, at Calvert and Centre streets.

Wooded area brings to mind the leafy streets where the well-off live, the gritty streets where the not-well-off live, the hardscrabble areas where the rural poor live, the stately homes where the really well-off do not live so much as reside. Most ominous is inner city, a term translated in the minds of middle-class white readers** as meaning inside the city limits where only poor black people given to drugs and crime live.

No single post can hope to deal exhaustively with this reliance on prefabricated language, so you can expect regular updates as further examples come up.

In the meantime, you — you, the writer — wonder what you are supposed to do if I am denying you all these resources. I suggest that you attempt something more ambitious than merely repeating what has been written before. You, after all, are the creative one, the one with Imagination. I’m just a humble drudge of an editor, sitting off in the corner and fiddling with the punctuation. Show me what you can do when you put your mind to it.


*A remark well worth repeating: A writer once objected to my having deleted a not alone sentence from her story, saying, “When I use it, it’s not a cliche.” L’eclat, c’est moi.

**The same people the local television stations like to throw a scare into by filling up the intervals between inane chatter with easily harvested police reports.




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