Remove the Chaff From Your Writing

Education Resources,

computer and woman typing

By Christopher Jones-Cruise

Here are some examples of bad newswriting I have read or heard in the past few months. Some of these “quick hits” are singles; others are home runs.

Amid Never. Always a sign of laziness. The worst: “The news comes amid reports that…” Who uses that construction in real life? Terrible writing.

And the rest, as they say, is history Yes, they do say that. A lot -- enough that you shouldn’t say it.

Are you? This is actually something I want to hear more of. So many stories begin with “Planning to…?” or “Thinking of…?” This isn’t nearly as colloquial or cool as you think it is. There’s nothing wrong with writing “Are you thinking of…?”

Attention So you’re telling me your writing is so bad that you need to start a sentence with “attention”? And you think listeners appreciate being spoken to this way?

As you know; as you will remember No, I don’t know. I don’t remember. Don’t assume I remember what happened two weeks ago, and don’t imply that I’m stupid or forgetful, which is what you are doing when you use these terms.

Auction estimates Every time I see or hear a report about an auction, the anchor is talking about how the amount by which the final price exceeded the initial estimate. Come on! The auction house is almost always low-balling, so it can be the subject of a story that tells how much above the initial estimate it sold a piece for. Don’t get fooled. Report, don’t promote, and don’t shill.

Award-winning EVERY newsroom has won some kind of an award. This phrase is meaningless. Who hasn’t won an award? Every hotel, every insurance agent, every everyone in every business gets some kind of an award -- for participating if nothing else. If you must brag, be specific: what award did you win and for what story?

Big Apple No. New York City.

Break as in “we’re coming up on a hard break,” or “on the other side of a break.” These are insider terms not suitable for air. They are mostly heard on the smallest of stations by new broadcast journalism school graduates who want to sound cool. Do you want to sound network or small market? (I could also do without “we’ll be right back” and “and, we’re back.” Do I really need to be told this?)

California judge, Oakland resident, Peoria police officer Pure journalese. Better: A judge in California. English speakers rarely put the adjective before the subject.

Caught up with Why are we always “catching up” with our interview subjects? Are they running away from us? Just say “interviewed” or “talked with.”

Century Never “18th century.” Say 1700s.

Chile The South American country is pronounced “CHIH-lay,” not “Chilly.”

City of Brotherly Love No. Philadelphia. Or even Philly. Same for state nicknames.

Colombia The South American nation is pronounced “Koe-LOHM-bee-yah,” not “Koe-LUM-bee-yah.” If your sentence reads “The mayor of the District of Columbia met with the Colombian ambassador to the U.S. this morning,” there should be two different pronunciations heard.

Could face No. A person faces a possible sentence. In most cases, you mean the suspect “could be sentenced to.” And ease up, will you, on the “maximum sentence” stuff. In almost every case, a person found guilty is sentenced to less than the maximum. Stop with the hype. Perhaps say the defendant “could be sentenced to life in prison if she’s convicted, but in most cases people convicted of a crime like this get 12 to 25 years.”

Countdown Is it a countdown or is something being counted down? Same for rollover. Is it a rollover or is something being rolled over?

Dubbed Never. Just say “called.”

8 a.m. in the morning You already said it was “a.m.,” so there’s no need for “in the morning.”

Ensure/insure On websites, many uses of “insure” are incorrect.

Envoy Never. Diplomat or representative.

Eponymous Just say “self-titled.” The more pompous a person is, the more likely she or he is to use “eponymous.”

Erstwhile It means “former.” So say “former.” The more pompous a person is, the more likely she or he is to use “erstwhile.” Are you trying to impress or are you trying to communicate facts?

Extraordinary/remarkable Few newscasts today, especially on the networks, don’t contain one or both of these two words. Almost everything we report is remarkable and a lot is extraordinary -- if it weren’t, we probably wouldn’t be reporting it. We shouldn’t be characterizing the news. The problem with the overuse of these words (I’m talking to you Anderson Cooper!) is that when something truly remarkable or extraordinary occurs, we’ve already used up our adjectives.

Forego In almost every case, what you really mean is “forgo.” (See the website Daily Writing Tips)

Friendly skies This may be a losing battle. A recent search of Google News found almost 6,000 uses of this term in news stories worldwide. It’s as clichéd as can be, but seems to be un-killable. Still, that doesn’t mean you should use it in your scripts and news stories. Your editor will not be impressed. And your viewers and listeners will likely groan.

Guys Don’t use this construction, especially when you are talking to a mixed-gender group. Plus, it’s so, ummm, bro-ish.

Harbinger A harbinger is “anything that foreshadows a future event; an omen; a sign.” So, to say or write “a harbinger of things to come” is to be redundant.

Living vicariously To live vicariously means “to feel or enjoy through imagined participation the experience of others.” So, to say or write “live vicariously through others” is redundant (as is “convicted felon”).

Lagging behind Just say “lagging.” Have you ever heard of someone or something lagging ahead? (Or “joined together” for that matter?)

Lottery ticket Your audience is not interested in what you would do if you won the lottery. And when you say you would quit your job and lie on the beach all day, you are dissing your employer and your craft. Why would you do that?

Marital Often misspelled “martial” on many news sites.

Nationally-known Many experts have been told to tell reporters that they are “nationally-known.” Few are. Don’t be involved in someone’s marketing plan. Just report the news.

Packing As in “packing winds.” This is journalese. Just say a hurricane “has winds up to/as strong as…”

Pain at the pump The gas-price equivalent of “friendly skies.”

Pontiff Never. Pope.

Preps (as an abbreviation for “preparations”). “Preps” or “prepping” doesn’t work. Just say “preparations.” And you don’t need to say “preparations are under way” every single time; just say, “People are preparing for the arrival of Hurricane [name].” (Likewise with “congrats.”)

Probe Never. Investigation. (Same for GOP.)

Residents This is classic journalese. Just say “people who live here.” Even worse: “area residents.” Who says that other than journalists?

Soldier Often misspelled “solider” on news sites.

Some As in “some three thousand residents…” You mean approximately, or you mean to say that the number is larger than expected, so say that.

Sustained More journalese; often, cop-speak. Use “suffered.” (Mrs. B. [aka Mona Scott], who writes a column about broadcast news writing [Grammar Yammer] for the NewsBlues newsletter, notes that “when we can avoid using coptalk or hospital jargon, we connect better with viewers and readers.”

Take a listen Never. “Take a look” is acceptable, as is “take a drink,” but “take a listen” is something only news anchors say.

10,000 of his closest friends This was a cliché 20 years ago. It isn’t cute or funny or original or clever. It just makes you sound like you heard someone else say it and you thought you would sound cool if you said it.

Tough job As in, “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.” Invariably said by a reporter in a warm climate as she or he is talking to an anchor in a snowy climate. Not original. Not clever. Does not make you sound conversational. Does make you sound trite. Do not use.

Upping Never. Increasing.

U.S. officials Never. American officials.

Vies No. Tries; Attempts; Campaigns for.

Vows No. Promises.

Weatherwise Speakingwise, this makes you sound uneducated.

Windy City No. Chicago.

For more, see Merv Block’s invaluable January 2007 column about Chicago TV producer Lisa McGonigle’s list of clichés.

Are there more examples of "journalese" that you hear all the time? Let us know in the comments below.

Christopher Jones-Cruise is a broadcaster at the Voice of America in Washington and an anchor on the Westwood One Radio Network. His views are his own.