On writing well

This month, ACME is publishing a series of articles based on its book, Write Right Tight – Navigating Common Mistakes in News Reporting & Writing. The book, authored by award-winning journalist Richard M. Kavuma, goes to great lengths to point out common mistakes in our journalism (especially in reporting and writing) and, above all, provides practical tips on how to navigate these enduring challenges. Write Right, Tight also offers insights into attributes and practices that define great journalists. This first article is based on the second chapter of the book, titled ‘On Writing Well’.

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One morning in July 2011, on a flight from London Heathrow airport to Entebbe, I sat next to a Ugandan who had lived in the United States of America for nearly 30 years. On hearing that I was a journalist, she volunteered her views on our media:

“Yeah, I try to read through your newspapers from time to time to get a sense of what is happening at home. It helps, you know, to know. But one thing that often disturbs me is the quality. Sometimes you find that the writers cannot get simple things right – even those taught in primary schools. And, you know, that leaves me wondering if I should trust the rest of the stuff someone is writing.”

This horrified me. Perhaps, like many people, I had started believing that specks of bad grammar and language did not matter much as long as the meaning came through. To hear this woman sting us left me feeling naked.

Certainly every newspaper makes mistakes but many serious editors dread goofs and slip-ups. The above conversation suggested that what we think of as ‘just a mistake’ irritates more readers than we imagine, and damages the already waning credibility of our newspapers.

This brings me to a recurring question for editors and senior writers: do things like spelling, punctuation, grammar, diction, brevity, etc., really matter to readers? Well, the Ugandan on the British Airways flight suggested that they do.

So did Sir Harold Evans, who edited Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper for 14 years. Evans, now a British journalism legend, titled his book: Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. The catch is in the subtitle and the book demonstrates the confusion sloppy writing can cause, and how editors intervene.

When I did my master’s at Goldsmiths, University of London, I was embarrassed that my supervisor, Dr Natalie Fenton, corrected my commas and colons.

“Oh yes,” she looked straight at me when I murmured my surprise.“At this level we want people to write well.” Joseph M. Williams makes the same point in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace: “Whatever else a well-educated person can do, that person should be able to write clearly and to understand what it means to do that.”

Clarity
Clarity is important because we do not write just to indulge our passion. Although some writers may not be very conscious of their target audience, most of us try to give a specific message to readers squeezed for time. If we can make our point clearly and concisely, we can hopefully hold onto those readers for the next edition.

Confusion
Without clarity, we risk confusing readers – and losing them to other publications or platforms. A comma in a wrong place, or locked out altogether, can totally change the message the reader gets. And soon we could have no reader left to confuse – except maybe ourselves.

Community
English is the medium of instruction in Uganda and many parents badly want their children to master it. Youngsters are often told in primary school that to learn English quickly, one must read it and speak it, and thereby learn to write it. Many children take this message seriously. At The Observer, pupils from the nearby Kitante primary school often ask the security officer if he has an “old newspaper”. Now, these pupils should not pick up wrong punctuation or poorly used prepositions and end up losing marks in the final exams. One lost mark may turn a would-be distinction in the English-language exam into a credit; a child who would have been admitted to a premier secondary school may end up in a second-rate one.
As members of the community, we owe it to our young readers to further their aspirations, not to fail them.

Costly Errors
Writing well also means tackling such errors systematically. These errors can be expensive.

One time a newspaper published a picture of a woman in a story about divorce proceedings; it turned out to be the wrong picture, and the woman in the photo went to court, pleading that she had suffered reputation damage and marriage stress. Court awarded her millions of shillings in damages. It was a genuine mistake, but costly! Most people only demand a correction, but it can get worse. If writers and editors consciously valued proper writing, our stories would be much better. If we strived for excellence, we could salvage the quality of journalism.

Convention in Fluid Times
Language is dynamic and so is style. New words creep into vogue and others slip out of favour. And because speech often precedes writing, some of the things that were wrong yesterday are considered conventional today. This is compounded by the fluidity and free-flow brought about by the internet and social media. Matooke used to be vernacular; now it is in the Oxford dictionary. We learnt in primary school that we should write “Prince Charles’s book”; now it is okay to write “Prince Charles’ book”. Thus it is difficult to have anything close to a definitive guide on right and wrong. The specifics are far from static, and a good user of language must keep an eye on the trends.

In that regard, many authors and house styles are going with the drift on aspects such as the limited use of capital letters and periods in abbreviations. For example, the Financial Times’ style guide argues that the “fewer capital letters we use, the better”, and the Macmillan dictionary lists e.g. alongside eg.

Break The Rules You Have Learnt
It’s said that writing has no real rules, only guidelines. And that we learn the ‘rules’ so that we can break them not out of ignorance, but out of choice.
This is important especially for maturing writers. Many of the principles of good writing can be broken with a good reason. But first, we should try to learn them and appreciate how they aid good, clear writing.

For example, we are told to prefer shorter sentences. But a passage with 20 sentences all between five and 10 words short will fail. Instead, a good writer will know when to use a sentence of 35 words, followed by one of three.

Or think about the ageless advice of using active rather than passive sentences. Sometimes the writer prefers the passive sentence, for instance when the recipient of the action is far more important that the subject or ‘doer’ of the action. Or when cohesion demands that you start with the object rather than the subject.

Perfectionism or Journalism?
You have probably heard that when doctors make mistakes, their mistakes are buried six feet deep (or cremated, for that matter); but when journalists err, their mistakes are hung up for everyone to see.

Not surprisingly, journalism always seemed to set the bar extremely high. Speaking about the role of a copy or revise editor, New Vision’s Robert Mudhasi captures the attendant stress in all newsrooms:

“It is a very stressful job; and it’s a thankless job. When the paper is okay, the following morning you have passed the exam but no one comes to congratulate you. But if there is one error, then it’s like you have not even worked for a single day in the whole year. What is more, while the boss may be mad about these mistakes, it is worse for the editor who oversaw the problematic article or page.”

The personal anguish, or the sleeplessness Bernard Tabaire talks about later in the book, often makes the editor’s world one of lonesome torment.

But today, across the world, in an era of more rationalism, when form is in ascendance over substance, this relentless pursuit of excellence seems to be in decline. The general talk is that seeking ‘perfectionism’ is madness. So what if there is a wrong word or a misplaced comma, as long as people got the message?

Does this not worry editors like Monitor Publications’ Charles Odoobo Bichachi, who still push for a super-clean newspaper?

Bichachi locates this laxity in a kind of ‘fatalism’ in all walks of life – that “what can you do? This is the way things are. You will not change anything. Just make good of what you can and sail along”.

But on second thoughts, he argues that there were always people in society who believed that they couldn’t do anything. Trouble is that now they seem to be very many – or at least they have used the pervasive media to propagate their creed.

“Previously people used to be ashamed for not doing it well, but now people actually take pride. They think it is okay and ‘after all, have you not got the message?’ They think that the bigger picture counts more than the small things. Our view then was [and still is] that these small things actually matter and add up to the bigger picture.

“Unfortunately, it is ingrained in a lot of our journalists and sub-editors today. They think if you have this mistake in the paper, it’s okay. It’s just a mistake. You laugh it off; you shrug it off – which cumulatively leads to a much bigger problem.”

This brings to mind Peter Day, who spent 42 years working with BBC World Service, the last 16 as presenter of the Global Business programme. In an interview in September 2016, after he formally retired, Mr Day was asked what form he thought the World Service should take. The BBC, Mr Day said, should never stop setting its standards very high, and should never stop aspiring to the truth – “because not many other people are doing this”.

Maybe one could say the same of our newspapers. At a time when social media and blogging are taking centre stage, with their own standards, will quality newspapers be a place where one still finds good, clean, clear writing?

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Image by rawpixel from Pixabay 

 

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