Rewriting the news
Recent stories in The Cavalier Daily would have benefitted from better writing and more extensive research
“All good writing,” Hemingway is supposed to have said, “is rewriting.” Flaubert is supposed to have said that, too. And E.B. White. Whoever said it first, the aphorism has been repeated by writing teachers and how-to-write books more times than a sane person would attempt to count. It is true, of course. No one turns out golden prose on the first go-round. According to legend – and to Jack Kerouac – Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks of typing on a 120-foot long scroll of teletype paper. Kerouac produced that scroll in three weeks, but he had been working on the book for years before and revised it for years after, so even the three-week burst was a rewriting of sorts. Reporters on deadline do not have much time to re-write, so it is understandable that newspaper prose is not all it could be. Still, some recent stories could have used another pass or two.
In a story about Student Council’s budget (“Council approves $90,000 operating budget,” Sept. 19), we learn “Council had to make cuts this year because of decreased non-SAF funding.” We do not learn how big the cuts were or how they were divided among the groups that come to Council for money. We learn that non-SAF funding means money that didn’t come from Student Activities Fees. We learn that non-SAF funding is “obtained through agreements with companies.” We do not learn what sorts of agreements with what companies. Several paragraphs after it’s established the cuts were made because of “decreased non-SAF funding,” a quote says “we’re dealing with less SAF funding than previous years.” Which is it?
The Managing Board wrote an editorial (“Penalty kick,” Sept. 20) arguing that Ari Dimas, a walk-on soccer player, was treated unfairly by the NCAA. The argument seemed sound, but the writing was not. “To Dimas, this is not too fair of an ending, especially because the NCAA bylaw he infringed was not even codified at the time of his breaking it … The varsity team followed the books in doing things right … ineligible the very next day … At that time, the bylaws said nothing about club sports with regard to eligibility.”
Those sentences have many problems, including wordiness, clichés and an apparent preference for vocabulary over clarity. Here are some modest improvements: “It’s unfair to punish Dimas for breaking a rule that didn’t exist … The coaches followed the rules … ineligible the next day … The bylaws said nothing about club sports affecting varsity eligibility.”
Nearly 70 years ago, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell offered a short list of rules writers should follow and questions writers should ask themselves about their work: “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” Orwell wrote. “And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
His rules are:
“(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are
used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you
can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”
The editorial writer asked too few of those questions and violated too many of those rules.
A report about political polls (“Virginia polls give Democrats clear lead,” Sept. 21) did not tell us the polls’ margin of error. The poll that showed Tim Kaine leading George Allen by seven points and Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney by four points had a margin of error of three points. The poll that showed Obama and Kaine ahead by eight points had a margin of error of four points. So those leads are not necessarily as clear as the headline suggests. Worse than that was the story’s lack of Republican voices. Kaine’s campaign manager and an Obama spokesman are quoted, but there is no one from the other side. If the reporter tried to reach a Republican and failed, the story should say so. If the reporter did not try to reach a Republican, that was just wrong.
In a story about Coursera (“Coursera adds 17 online partners,” Sept. 20), Philosophy Prof. Mitchell Green said, “I did not get the sense that ‘Stanford is doing it, Princeton is doing it, we better do it.’”
The next paragraph says the University’s decision to partner with Coursera was a surprise to many and University Rector Helen Dragas supported it. According to emails the Cavalier Daily shared with readers this summer, “Stanford is doing it, Princeton is doing it, we better do it,” is a fair representation of Dragas’ position. Quoting one of those emails in this story would have added context.
Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.