Writing tip: Avoid unneeded modifiers

August 3, 2015 01:30

By Christopher Jones-Cruise, RTDNA Contributor
 
“Don’t characterize news as good or bad, amazing or astounding, shocking or disturbing; just tell the story.”
-News writing expert Merv Block

News writers and reporters get in trouble with modifiers and adjectives.

In my columns on bad news writing for RTDNA and in conversations with colleagues, I often remark that news writers and reporters risk sounding stupid when they try to be cute or creative or overly descriptive. Straying from a “just the facts” approach leads reporters into choppy waters.

Over the past few years, newspaper copy editor, editorial writer, longtime friend and occasional colleague Pete Parisi and I have been gathering examples of the use by news writers and reporters of unnecessary modifiers and adjectives. Herewith the list, annotated with some typical-for-me wiseacre comments. If you know of any unnecessarily-modified words that I have left out, please send them to me at: christophertlscruise@gmail.com
 
  • Convicted felon (you can’t be a felon if you aren’t convicted of a felony)
  • Wanted fugitive (being an unwanted fugitive might hurt a criminal’s self-esteem)
  • Unwanted pests (even worse than being a pest is being unwanted)
  • Completely defeated (can one suffer a half-defeat?)
  • Women’s bras (I know about the mansierre, but really?)
  • Penile cancer in men (Google it)
  • Armed gunman (could an unarmed gunman hold a gun)
  • Tense standoff (are standoffs ever relaxed?)
  • Creepy pedophile (are there uncreepy pedophiles?)
  • Savage beheading (truly, is there any other kind?)
  • Brutally raped (are rapists known for being gentle)
  • Brutal gang rape (see “brutally raped”)
  • Ruthless terrorists (do terrorists have a kind side?)
  • Her own autobiography (as opposed to someone else’s?)
  • Online trolls (when we are talking about trolls, generally it’s the online kind, so there’s no need to modify the term)
  • Online website (are there offline websites?)
  • Online blog/vlog (see “online website”)
  • Add an additional (does one ever subtract an additional?)
  • And also (redundant)
  • Unthaw (you mean freeze?)
  • Unconfirmed rumor (confirmed rumors would be a fact)
  • Elaborate a little more (please don’t; you’ve elaborated enough)
  • Prevent in the future (can one prevent in the past?)
  • Reply back/respond back (one replies or responds; that is sufficient)
  • Fatal injury (someone either gets killed or injured)
  • Fatally killed (really, now)
  • Think to yourself (who else would you be thinking to?)
  • Lean in close (unless you have bad breath, in which case don’t lean in at all)
  • Avoid future crises (make the most of past crises)
  • Shrugged his shoulders (what else would be shrug?)
  • Unexpected surprise (is there any other kind?)
  • Nodding in agreement (do we ever nod in disagreement?)
  • A full half-hour (are there half half-hours?)
  • Usual practice (do you have unusual practices?)
  • Whispered quietly (are there degrees of whispering quietness?)
  • Fellow colleagues/classmates/co-workers/co-host (they are already your fellows)
  • Irresponsible guttersnipes (I’ve yet to meet a responsible one; have you?)
  • Trained pediatrician (I’ll be sure to keep my kids away from the untrained ones)
  • We’re on your side (as opposed to whose?)
  • Tragic accident (most accidents are tragic, so just call it what it is)
  • Significant negative headwinds (can headwinds ever be positive?)
  • Free gift/free giveaways (a gift that isn’t free isn’t a gift)
  • Formally sentenced to death (are there informal death sentences being handed out somewhere?)
  • Exported overseas (as opposed to exporting them to the next county?)
  • Brutally hacked to death (I’m not even gonna say anything about this one)
  • Over-exaggerated (can you?)
  • Legally allowed (get me the illegally-allowed product)
  • Close proximity (proximity means close, so this is redundant)
  • Best regards (are there worst regards?)
  • Front-page cover story (could there be a back-page cover story?)
  • Eye infections in both eyes (where else?)
  • Mutually share (just share)
  • Full half-hour (you mean 30 minutes?)
  • Negative flak (just once I’d like to get positive flak)
  • Officially subpoenaed (just try to informally subpoena me)
  • Formally ordained (we’re gonna make you an informal priest and see how you work out)
  • Settled out of court (where else would it be settled?)
  • Reclaimed (in almost every case “claimed” works just fine)
  • Redo again (not againagain!)
  • Revert back (redundant; one doesn’t ever revert forward)
  • Badly decomposed body (just once I’d like to see a decomposed body in good shape)
  • Multicar pileup (takes more than one to pile up, right?)
  • Tragic accident (aren’t they all?)
  • Significant negative headwinds (are headwinds ever positive?)
  • Key highlights (highlights are already key)
  • Pre-recorded (recorded is fine)
  • Pre-moistened (moistened is fine)
  • Pre-taped (taped is fine)
  • Past history/past experience/past mistakes (history, experience and mistakes are all in the past)
  • Future plans (do you have plans for your childhood?)
  • Perfect storm (are there imperfect storms?)
  • Trailing behind (you had better be)
  • Negative attacks (hit me with your best positive shot)
  • Mean-spirited attack (are there kind-hearted attackers?)
  • Nasty invective (my mother never gave me any positive invective! Waaaaa!!!)
  • Another financial crisis can be avoided if people learn from past mistakes (ya think?)
  • Proven breakthrough (are there unproven breakthroughs?)
  • Add an additional (as opposed to subtract an additional?)
  • Wanted: Reporter Who Knows How to Drill for Meaty Stories That Go Beyond  Superficial Coverage (because we’ve already got a reporter who gives us enough superficial coverage)
  • Formally charged (are there judges and police officers out there casually charging people with crimes?)
  • Officially indicted (do grand juries unofficially indict, just for fun?)
  • Proposed new (I propose an old plan!)
  • New study (if it were not new, we likely would not be writing about it)
  • First introduced (you never get a second chance to make a first impression)
  • Existing status quo (redundant)
  • Anti-government dissidents (where are the pro-government dissidents when you need em?)
  • Derogatory name-calling (can you engage in name-calling that is not derogatory?)
  • Uphill climb (can’t this hill ever go down in both directions?)
  • Chaotic fighting (Order! Order! We have rules in this riot!)
  • Illegal contraband (if it were legal it wouldn’t be contraband)
  • Partnered together/joined together/coordinated together (redundant)
  • Totally destroyed (if it’s a partial destruction use another word)
  • Slavishly devoted (because un-slavish devotion is different from the slavish kind)
  • Incorrect fact (this would, then, not be a fact, right?)
  • Unwanted fat (unless you’re a sumo wrestler, is there any other kind?)
  • Crucial battleground state (if it’s a battleground state, it’s crucial)
  • Potentially key swing state (if it’s a swing state, it’s key)
  • Planned assassination (what, does one assassinate on the spur of the moment?)
  • Preplanned (as opposed to post-planned?)
  • Preplanned escape (most are, aren’t they?)
  • The high pregnancy rate of female students (thanks for the clarification)
  • Past mistakes (aren’t they all?)
  • Mesh together/join together (is there a whole lot of meshing apart going on?)
  • Free gift/free giveaways (a gift that isn’t free isn’t a gift)
  • Formally sentenced to death (is some judge handing out informal death sentences?)
  • He speaks several foreign languages (as opposed to several forms of English?)
  • Court litigation (is there a kind of litigation that doesn’t involve a court?)
  • Back and forth negotiations (aren’t they all?)
  • Unscrupulous predators (oh, if only they had scruples!)
  • Negative stigma (let me know when you have positive ones, willya?)
  • Phony straw men (straw men gotta be authentic, doncha know!)
  • Permeates throughout (that is what permeation does)
  • Still ongoing (oh still!)
  • Anti-rape activists (are there pro-rape activitists?)
  • Still keeps reoccurring (yes, it still still does does)
  • Urban cities (are there suburban cities?)
  • Uncontrolled looting (have you ever seen controlled looting?)
  • Willingly on her own/willing consent (most consent is willing)
  • Urban cities (are there cities in suburbia?)
  • Vague generalizations (aren’t all generalizations vague?)
  • Brutal torture
  • Advance warning
  • Planned in advance                                                                                                             
  • Prison cellmate
  • Visibly see
  • Empty void
  • Wanted fugitive
  • Unwanted pests
  • Free giveaways
  • Mutual agreement 

Are there other phrases you counsel your colleagues to avoid? Let us know in the comments below.

 



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