A modicum of praise for hacks

The Baltimore Sun

When I tell my students that most of the work of a copy editor is to take texts that are flawed and leave them merely mediocre, they look faintly stunned. (I get that a lot.) 

Most journalism is routine, therefore average, therefore mediocre. There should be no shame in the simple conveying of such information, accurately, clearly, succinctly. 

Journalists go wrong when they display a misplaced ambition to make routine news stories literary, typically with mixed or strained metaphors, pretentious allusions, and overwrought diction. (My colleagues over the years have provided an ample supply for classroom illustration.) When the subject displays actual drama,* pathos, or humor, the writer should go for it. But most stories do not. 

Some hackery, of course, is to be deplored. Journalese, a language not native to English speakers, is an obstacle. So is the tendency of reporters to go native. To write crime stories in copspeak,** to write about governmental or educational bureaucracies in the language of a bureaucrat, to write about business with the flabby self-congratulatory jargon of business people does the reader no favors.

A proper, workmanlike mediocre story, with the names spelled right, the facts in appropriate order, the focus established up front, and the language that of common, conversational English, is harder to achieve than the laity can imagine. 

When I find it, I salute it, with relief. 



*I routinely excise the word dramatic in copy. If there is genuine drama in the subject, the details will display it to the reader. If there is not, the adjective will not supply it. 

**You've seen me carry on about this before: "ejected from the vehicle" for "thrown from the car," "fled on foot," for "ran away," and all that. 

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