Can U Read & Rite?
"As teenagers' scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading-diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books," writes Motoko Rich in The New York Times. "But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount."
I believe this so-called "new kind of reading" is the result of the old kind of writing, which has become really bad.
I'm talking about the writing in mainstream media-newspapers, magazines and books-whose managements are so financially strapped that they can't afford decent editors. The result: Authors left to themselves are sloppy, self-indulgent and frequently boring as dirt.
This is also true of writing on the Internet and BlackBerrys/other mobile devices.
Monday Morning's Newspapers
I subscribe to and read three newspapers a day: The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. This reading is in addition to the 15 Web sites I hit every morning to vacuum up stories that might be of interest in future editions of this e-zine, plus the dozen or more Web sites I visit when researching a story.
Two major subject areas in my archive: airlines and newspapers. So here were two stories from Monday morning that I marked for downloading and inclusion in my files:
Winging It: ‘Al a carte' pricing is stirring up disputes
Whew! As we wrapped up a raft of grim, pessimistic reports last month on the airlines' second-quarter losses, I thought the flow of news might slow down. But just as many of you were packing to fly off on vacation, last week produced a succession of events-some bad, some not so bad-for travelers to contemplate. So today, I'm going to round up some of the most recent developments and put a hopeful spin on them where I can.
-Tom Beldon, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 3, 2008
The lead paragraph-which is supposed to grab readers, drag us into the story and telegraph the main points-says nothing. Beldon is rolling up his sleeves, rubbing his hands together, clearing his throat and getting ready to write his story.
More to the point, the phrase in the headline doesn't exist in English or French: "Al a carte." What the writer meant to say was "à la carte"-a term found on restaurant menus where individual dishes are listed with separate prices.
I went back to the Inquirer Web site at 11:40 a.m. Monday and found that "al a carte" had been corrected. But it left 345,000 INKY readers who read the hard-copy edition scratching our heads.
Memo to Tom Beldon: With newspapers hanging on by their fingernails, the few editors that remain are stretched to the breaking point. We writers are now responsible for cleaning up our own syntactical and grammatical messes as well as getting facts right and making the prose readable.
Grim News for a Paper in Jersey
Friday morning was a glorious one in suburban New Jersey. At 6 a.m., the heat of the morning leaked in through the window, accompanied by the huge racket of cicadas thrumming in unison. It was the kind of morning where someone might be tempted to just lie there pretending to sleep, but then another sound came: the thwack of fresh, hot newspaper hitting the sidewalk.
-David Carr, The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2008
The headline promised an important story about another newspaper in trouble. I didn't need an artsy description of morning in suburban New Jersey-heat leaking in through the window, cicadas, lying there pretending to sleep. David Carr, author of a just-published, huge national best-seller, "The Night of the Gun," has clearly become so important that nobody at the Times dares edit him.
Like kids who're growing up on the Internet, I have a short attention span. I want information quickly so I can move on to find more information to scan and possibly download.
The two writers above were writing for newspapers. In news stories, readers deserve the classic "inverted pyramid" format, which is scannable. The short lead paragraph describes who, what, where, when and how, enabling the reader to grasp the basics and decide whether to continue.
Subsequent short paragraphs fill in details, starting with the most important down to the least important. When an inverted-pyramid story goes out over the wires, newspaper editors can pick up as much or as little as they want, depending on the space available. Even if all but the first two paragraphs are lopped off, readers still get the guts of the story.
For the very best illustration of the inverted pyramid style of writing, check out Ken Blake's essay at: http://mtsu32.mtsu.edu:11178/171/pyramid.htm
The Wildly Undisciplined World of Digital Writing
Last Tuesday, I came across the following blurb on the mediabistro.com Web site:
Fired Blogger Blogs About New Blogging Rules
Chez Pazienza, the CNN producer fired in February for blogging without permission, was leaked the new blogging guidelines from CNN, and wrote about them on his blog (h/t). The guidelines, called CNN's "policy regarding personal writings online," include information for employees about everything from commenting in chat rooms and Facebook to iReport and Second Life.
This story was up my alley. I have 131 entries on blogs and bloggers under the main heading of Internet. Included are several stories about bloggers being fired because they pissed off their employers.
So I went to Chez Pazienza's blog-DeusExMalcontent.com ("Making a Mockery of Mockery")-to learn CNN's rules for employee bloggers. The Web page is designed in two columns. Here are Pazienza's two lead paragraphs:
• Believe it or not, I'd really like to let the subject of my untimely dismissal from CNN go once and for all (Say What You Will/2.18.08). As I'm quickly learning now that my new baby is home from the hospital, there really is no sense crying over spilled milk (particularly not when the spill in question happened almost six months ago). Yet every time I promise myself that I'm done bringing up the whole CNN thing, somebody sends me an item like this: Behold, the official memo sent out to all network employees finally stating in no uncertain terms just what CNN's policy is on personal blogging.
• The basics: Fell into TV news 16 years ago and remained there until CNN fired me earlier this year for what you're reading right now. During my somewhat illustrious and certainly notorious career, I've been a producer and manager at the local and network levels in Miami, Los Angeles and New York. I have a couple of Emmys to my name as well as a Golden Mic Award, none of which mitigates the fact that I'm kind of an unrepentant wise-ass. I live in New York City with my wife-a beautiful, brilliant and extraordinarily patient woman named Jayne. I'd love for somebody to properly explain to me why America hasn't deported George Bush and Dick Cheney, Hollywood hasn't stopped trying to convince me that Sarah Jessica Parker is attractive, gullible soccer moms haven't realized that they share absolutely no kinship with Oprah, and Fox canceled Firefly.
I don't have time for this kind of stream-of-consciousness, self-indulgent drivel. If Chez Pazienza had to produce a newsletter on paper and send it via U.S. mail-as my wife, Peggy, and I did with WHO'S MAILING WHAT!-the writing would be concise, to the point and provide value. But in the digital world, no financial constraints exist.
Hence my private definition of the word "blog"-a cross between a blob and a bog.
Instant Messaging and Texting
My late aunt Gertie could operate the QWERTY keyboard of an old manual typewriter with absolute accuracy as fast as a person could talk. Had she lived into the Internet age, her instant messages and e-mails would have read like fine prose.
Few touch typists or hunt-n-peckers can approach Gertie's speed, so a vast new lexicon of shorthand acronyms has come into being where sequences of letters represent phrases (e.g., AAA-any advice appreciated; WYMM-will you marry me?).
These word substitutes are great time-savers for conversing via thumb-writing on a cell phone or BlackBerry keypad. But, when you add emoticons to the mix-a combination of keyboard characters that represent facial expressions, such as 🙂 for smiley face or 😉 for wink-to the uninitiated it's all outrageous gibberish.
What triggered this column was Sarah E. Needleman's hugely important story in The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2008. The lead:
Thx for the IView! I Wud Luv to Work 4 U!! 😉
After interviewing a college student in June, Tory Johnson thought she had found the qualified and enthusiastic intern she craved for her small recruiting firm. Then she received the candidate's thank-you note, laced with words like "hiya" and "thanx," along with three exclamation points and a smiley-face emoticon. "That e-mail just ruined it for me," says Ms. Johnson, president of New York-based Women For Hire Inc. "This looks like a text message."
(Actually, I substituted "Luv" for a heart picture in the headline; I don't know how to make a heart, Luddite that I am.)
My point is this: The Internet is essentially a reading-based medium, with the added benefits of video clips and interactive features. For example, the basic landing screen is called a "splash page" or a "homepage." Pages are in books; books are for reading.
This means that bopping around the Internet requires the ability to read. Kids are far more intellectually challenged by the Internet than vegging out in front of a TV set with a remote channel changer and a bag of Twizzlers. Kids read fine. It's just that so much on the Internet-and elsewhere-is literary crap that they've devised a kind of new-wave Gregg shorthand.
For example, I ordered the Kindle edition of Mark Twain's complete works for a paltry $4.79. But having gotten used to the splendidly facile prose of Ian Fleming and Bob Woodward, Twain is heavy slogging. I skip a lot.
I think today's kids, who grew up with the Internet, are brilliant. They can absorb vast amounts of information and communicate quickly and with precision using text-write (or whatever it's called). It's just that the use of acronyms and emoticons irritates the hell out of the old-timers and purists, who are too old to learn another language and assume communication skills are dying.
What must be taught is when NOT to use texting shorthand. Among the no-no places: on résumés, on cover letters that accompany résumés, thank-you letters to relatives who sent birthday checks, interoffice memos and proposals that will be seen by people other than texting buddies, etc.
No old-time stenographer would have dreamed of sending a letter or a memo in Gregg shorthand.
A Special Treat: The Worst Lead in the World!
In May 2006, I bought a copy of Harper's Magazine at the railroad station. After starting Ben Metcalf's article, "On Simple Human Decency," I decided that I would never read another issue of Harper's, or anything else that Lewis H. Lapham edits or writes. Here is Ben Metcalf's lead paragraph:
I. Before I attempt to fill these pages with my disgust, which the odd reader who knows me will surely expect, I am obliged to address a preliminary concern, which that same odd reader may safely ignore. Some time has passed since I last raised my voice to the multitude, and whereas literary taste does not seem to have advanced much in the interim, and I assume is still arrayed so as to engage only the weak-minded and dull, I find that I am no longer able to discern with any accuracy where the bounds of simple human decency lie. This would bother me even less than does the taste issue were it not for the fact that ground gained or lost in the theater of decency tends now and then to affect the law, and it has long been a personal goal of mine to avoid capture and imprisonment.