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Bill Bennett

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Cold comfort for journalists

The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style.

Stella Gibbons,
Cold Comfort Farm

And then there is Blaise Pascal. In 1657 he wrote:

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

One way this translates into modern English is:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter

And that’s the key point. Writing prose that is nasty, brutish and short requires more time and skill than most people imagine. The old school news style of writing seems to be dying, but I’m not ready to let go of it yet.

Murder your darlings

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press: Murder your darlings.”

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

This quote, or a version of it, has been attributed to many writers Quiller-Couch was the original source. It’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of him, so this Wikipedia page will help.

The key point here is that often when you think you’ve written something brilliant, you probably haven’t. It’s something older journalists would knock out of juniors during training. These days the young ones don’t have time for fancy writing.

Using a word like Murder is a great way of making the message memorable.

Another way of putting the same idea is: Don’t try to be clever. Keep your writing as simple as possible.

Plain English is radical

typewriterThis echoes what I tell people: Use plain English. Avoid jargon as much as possible because it excludes people.

Sometimes I rant about it, see Jargon doesn’t make you look smarter.

In technology it is all about the commercial case: companies who overdo the jargon lose sales to companies who can articulate ideas in plain English.

And often, the numbskulls who insist on jargon are the ones who are talking with forked tongues. It’s just the same with politics. Plain English is radical.

How to blog like an old school journalist: Wordcamp

On Saturday I gave a presentation to WordCamp Auckland 2014: How to blog like an old school journalist. Here’s a link to my slides. You can open it full-screen:

How-to-write-bill-bennett

Blogging isn’t the same as old-school journalism. It’s less about recording facts and more about ideas or experiences. Blgging has influenced modern journalism — the lines between the two forms of writing are blurring. Yet there are still lessons worth learning from the old way of doing things.

Much of the material is a shortened form of posts elsewhere on this site. You might like to explore the following:

BBC contribution to online journalism

Paul Bradshaw at the Online Journalism Blog says the BBC gave online journalist three things.

He mentions the editors’ blogging and the way the BBC opened up its back-end to developers. Both matter.

His first item, the BBC’s web writing style, may prove more important in the long-term.

The organisation’s online news writers write crisp, tight news copy. They get right to the point, line up the important facts, then get out-of-the-way.

Bradshaw says the BBC learnt to write tight news stories when it ran Ceefax – a teletext information service which predates the internet. Ceefax allows little in the way of graphics and only 24 lines of 40 characters. Journalists had less than 200 words to tell their story.

Sharpening skills on Ceefax before the internet, gave the BBC a head start over other written news outlets which had become wordy thanks to larger newspapers.

Bradshaw says: “Even now it is difficult to find an online publisher who writes better for the web.”

The online team is even better at writing news headlines. Its editors compress the gist of an entire story into just five or six words. Most headlines fit inside that Ceefax page width of 40 characters.