I saw this poster last summer at Meadowdale Beach Park, Snohomish County, Washington. It provides a great example of putting a clever twist on words.
When your own words aren’t making waves, a good editor can throw you a life preserver.
A real letter from The Washington Post:
Your Novel Treatments
She walked slowly over to the hard, cluttered breakfast table. Knowing there might be bad news, she sat down. Taking a sip of coffee, she read the first headline and started scanning the words below. One sentence, two sentences, three sentences. . .she was searching for the information. Where was it?
Getting frustrated that you can’t figure out the point of this letter? The Post should leave out its creative writing and just deliver the news.
It is agonizing to hunt for the who, what, when, where and why. I hope The Post empathizes and will stop reporting the news through someone who is writing the Great American novel. Please.
–B.M. Hess, Bethesda, Md.
My sentiments exactly. And entirely too much first-person writing, too.
When writing, always know the purpose and the audience for your words and write within the parameters of the form you’re using (press release, news article, ad, letter). Don’t get fancy, just get to the point.
If you have difficulty wading through your own clutter of words to get there, an editor might be a big help.
My Google Reader steered me to the Syracuse University basketball blog, where the post I read included a link to another post in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal.
When I clicked through to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel site (that’s sentinel with two “e”s), I came across this passage:
“The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., is one of the most prestigious prep schools in America, founded in 1891 to prepare young men for Yale University. Its acceptance rate its 16%.” (Maybe “is” should be the verb in that second sentence.)
To paraphrase Casey Stengel, manager of the 1962 New York Mets, losers of a record 120 games: Can’t anybody here spell this game?
From coast to coast, even the most careful writers can always use another pair of eyes. If you don’t have at least four of your own, hire an editor to unearth and correct your errors.
On Oct. 17, the Seattle Times started running free political ads for state gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and for a Yes vote on Referendum 74 on gay marriage. Although the newspaper had previously editorially endorsed both campaigns, in an Associated Press story, Alan Fisco, executive vice president for revenue and new products at the newspaper, said there is no connection between the ads and the news side of the business. However, more than 100 news workers at the paper protested the ads in a letter to publisher Frank Blethen, saying the free ads compromised the newspaper’s integrity and their ability to do their jobs. The ads have continued.
Perhaps proving management’s claim that editorial personnel have absolutely no connection with the advertisements, copy in each of the first two McKenna ads have grammatical errors.
The first ad states, “As Attorney General Rob McKenna demonstrated that the interests of all Washington citizens comes first.” A comma after “Attorney General” would be nice.
The second ad states, “Combined with better education and workforce training, this (McKenna’s jobs plan) will enable small business to thrive creating new jobs where they are most needed.” Again, a comma after “thrive” would provide grammatically correct entry into the subordinate clause starting with “creating,” permitting readers to catch their breath.
The last line of the body copy in this ad says, “When it comes to jobs and support for small business there’s a difference worth your vote.” Maybe we should just send the Seattle Times advertising department copywriters a box full of commas. They could use some. In the sentence above, one is would be helpful between “business” and “there’s.”
The Times claims both ad campaigns (allegedly worth $75,000 apiece in services and advertising space) are part of an effort to prove the effectiveness of newspapers for political advertising. If these heavy-handed, copy-heavy, grammatically incorrect ads show what the Times can do, good luck with that.
Running these ads is a bad idea for good journalism. But if the Seattle Times publisher insists, the least he can do is hire an editor.
The advertising starts before Labor Day: Oktoberfest is coming! Since the calendar still says September, it seems as appropriate as Christmas advertising that starts at Halloween. In this case, however, jumping the gun may actually be justified.
According to Wikipedia, the genuine Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival held annually since 1810 in the Bavarian city of Munich, Germany, from late September to the first weekend in October. It is reportedly the world’s largest fair, with more than 5 million people attending annually.
Although it began when Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, was married to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on Oct. 12,1810, the festival was eventually prolonged and moved ahead to September to allow for better weather conditions. Today, the last day of the festival is the first Sunday in October.
Other cities across the world also hold Oktoberfest celebrations, modeled after the original Munich event and often founded by German immigrants or their descendants.. It is generally an excuse for people to consume large quantities of beer and traditional German food such as bratwurst, strudel and red cabbage. The largest Oktoberfests outside of Germany are in the twin cities of Kitchener and Waterloo, Ontario, Canada; Blumenau, Brazil; Cincinnati, Ohio; and in Seattle, Washington’s Fremont neighborhood and the Bavarian-style tourist town of Leavenworth, Washington. The Leavenworth Oktoberfest, unlike most of the others, is actually held on the first three weekends in October. What a concept!
If you don’t have your own reference library to fact-check terms like this, you can always rely on a nitpicking editor to do it for you.
The Newhouse newspaper chain has already converted its New Orleans daily to three times a week and announced plans to do the same in Syracuse at the beginning of 2013. It’s only a matter of time for Portland (Ore.) and the other Newhouse dailies. As newspapers consolidate and convert to web transmission, reporters and editors lose jobs, of course. Even the remaining titans, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, have fewer eyeballs looking at each article.
Here’s one example: In its account of a Washington Nationals’ bench-clearing fracas with the Chicago Cubs, the Post wrote: “[Manager Davey Johnson] extols his players to not let the opponent dictate when to stop competing.”
Unfortunately, the verb the writer intended was exhort. Extol means to praise highly, or exalt. The Post writer meant to use exhort: to urge by strong, stirring argument. Manager Johnson was encouraging his players to act in a specified manner, not lauding them for doing it.
Using extol instead of exhort is a common error. In Chocolat, the highly praised romantic comedy with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp released in 2000, the town’s mayor – an educated man – tells the local priest, “She is extolling them to eat chocolate in Lent.” The mayor in that movie also meant exhorting. Or perhaps a simple “encouraging” would have done the trick.
Choosing the right words is hard. A skilled editor makes the process easier and improves the results. Take my word on it.
The opening line of a newsletter caught my eye: “Failure to plan is planning to fail, the old adage goes.”
Not exactly. An adage is an old saying, a few words that express something considered to be a general truth or common observation. Since an expression must be around a long time in order to be considered an adage, labeling a phrase an “old adage” is redundundant.
According to Wikipedia, an adage may be an interesting observation, practical or ethical guidelines, or a skeptical comment on life. As in the example cited above, they often involve a planning failure (as in don’t count your chickens before they hatch).
But when is a phrase such as “don’t burn your bridges” something else? When an adage born of folk wisdom attempts to summarize a basic truth, it is known as a proverb or byword. An adage that describes a general rule of conduct is a maxim. A pithy expression that has not yet gained acceptance through long use, but is considered in particular good style is an aphorism, while one distinguished by wit or irony is an epigram.
Don’t use a particular adage too often, however, because overuse can transform an adage into a cliché or truism. It’s sad to see an expression slide from “old saying” to “old saw.”
In everything you write, it’s always important to find the right words, but it’s not always easy. A skilled editor can help get your points across effectively.