Writing well is the best revenge

truth and beautyWe had a discussion in the comments on a post last week that has stayed with me. I had written that generic refrains of bias at given newspapers bother me because they fail to take into account how individual reporters perform their jobs differently. I also said that some complaints fail to take into account other things that are important when writing a story, such as writing well.

Reader Larry Rasczak disagreed:

This goes to the fundamental purpose of a newspaper. Lets face it, there are three reasons for a newspaper to exist. The economic one (print something in between the advertisiments that will attract readers), the old style journalistic one (if what you print between the ads is accurate and dependable over the long run you will attract more readers and you can charge more for the ads), and the public service one (our republican form of government depends on a well informed electorate making well informed decisions in the voting booth).

So when I purchase a newspaper, the primary thing that I am looking for is ACCURATE news. I want to know what is going on in D.C. and Fubaristan; and I don’t need William Faulkner or Henry James to do that.

I replied that I saw no conflict between writing an accurate story and writing an interesting and well-constructed story. But mean ol’ Rasczak was having none of it:

But the news business isn’t writing . . . it is data transmission. 5W’s. News is like heavy artillery, accuracy is EVERYTHING.

I’m tempted to agree with Rasczak on this since my writing style for straight news tends to fall into the accurate camp rather than the well-written camp. One of my dear friends told me once, “Your analytical stories are never that exciting, but I always fully understand what you’re trying to convey.”

I’m curious what other readers think about this. How important is it to you that stories be well-constructed? Do you even notice different levels of quality in writing? How does writing quality rank in how you determine whether a news story is good?

Photo of Ann Patchett’s book via McBeth on Flickr.

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  • http://axegrinder.blogspot.com axegrinder

    First, I am indebted to Larry Rasczak for, if nothing else, introducing me to the term “Fubaristan.” I immediately catalogued it for future cribbage.

    I do not believe that we must choose between something that is well written and something that is accurate. If you are going to write for a living, write well. If you are going to report news for a living, report accurately. If you are going to write news reports for a living, write them with a pleasing style and accuracy.

    I do not expect the news to read like literature. I do expect it to have a more enjoyable presentation than the manual for my digital camera.

    Finally, I highly value economy of language in news reports.

    Jason Kranzusch

  • Harris

    At one level, this is a discussion between the front page and the inside page of the WSJ. Front page articles are those I want to read even if I know or care nothing about the underlying subject. The manner of writing and the content are what makes the piece. The inside pieces? They have their purpose, too, and I read them with no less alacrity.

    Going deeper, as a reader, the key aspect is whether a given article stays with me. This I think is where the artistry comes in (and what makes one newspaper more valuable than another, viz. why I pay more attention to the WSJ and the NYT say, than my local Booth newspaper). The articles that stick are those that have detail and structure. They organize the subject in question and then provide the reader with anecdotes, quotes, facts that enlighten.

    So in the end it is the craft of getting the right sources and organizing the presentation. Then write it well. The real test of any story is whether I finish it. So keep it flowing, don’t bore me.

  • http://www.domestic-church.com Peter Fournier

    I think writing well is essential especially when dealing with topics such as religion.

    We are all overwhelmed with data, almost all of it accurate in some sense. But there is simply too much of it! Accuracy brings little intellectual benefit when even a casual survey of a topic will reveal many contradictory, but accurate, facts on that topic. The facts become meaningless eventually and we end up picking and choosing whatever facts seem to fit our prejudices, preferences, our feelings, our egos.

    A well written, and accurate story on the other hand has the potential of showing us how “facts” fit together. It has the potential of sticking with us and not fading into the background radiation, as it were, of the journalistic universe.

    A well written and accurate story has the potential of helping us teach ourselves and achieving some semblance of wisdom.

    Especially in our culture where there is such strong tendency for everyone to honour “feeling” above “thinking”, just the facts will be used by the readership at large to support feeling. And that tendency, to use facts to support feeling, is a threat to the well informed citizenry required to run a republic.

    Good writing is necessary if we are to have that informed citzenry.

    Facts are not enough.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I am a writer. For my basic paycheck I write manuals for products (medical devices for the last 9 years).

    I write free-lance articles for magazines and newspapers.

    I have several books published.

    I have written marketing literature for my last employer and my church.

    That being said, a writer is not necessarily a writer. Each sentence above employs different skill sets of a writer. Knowing one’s audience is key. So is know how that audience uses that knowledge and what that audience needs is key. As a technical writer I know that a nurse only needs to know how a monitor monitors a patient and what the nurse needs to do to accurately monitor that patient. The nurse does NOT need to know the theory of operation of that monitor. But a service technician needs that theory in order to know how the system works in order to troubleshoot. I do need to keep my manuals small and economize my words so the company can save money on translations (think roughly $0.50/word).

    As a free-lance writer I need to know a magazine’s audience. One magazine may feature pieces with a broad overview of a subject while another magazine likes to bore deeper into subjects.

    A newspaper is not “fine literature.” Rare is the newspaper offering that becomes a part of our culture. “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” is one of the very few I can think of. And that was found in the Op-Ed page, not the front page, and is devoid of actual facts (I do comment on that piece in my book, Santa Claus: Is He For Your Child?).

    As for quality of writing, I have noticed that at the end of the summer the local paper seems to have more stories written, presumably, by interns. The avalanche of cliches buries many articles–especially in the Sports section. Evidently the young, aspiring writers feel a need to “jazz up” the message rather than simply state facts.

    Yet, the writer should have a good command of spelling and grammar. I see those skills eroding in the newspaper (and in the instructions I get with my digital camera and the like). Many writers are unaware of the difference between an active and passive verb! Many find maintaining a consistent verb tense a challenge!

    A writer of any stripe must have a solid foundation of writing basics. Know the rules of grammar. Find out what an active verb is and what makes it different from a passive verb. Delineate verb tenses and keep your pieces of a consistent tense. And don’t be lazy in writing. Text messaging and e-mails are one thing, usually written by those not paid as writers. But if you get paid for writing, then show your professionalism by paying attention to details–both writing mecahnics and accuracy in what is written.

    And on your own time write those creative short stories and novels.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    Leaving aside Faulkner for a moment, a poorly-written story can be full of clumsy constructions, confusing language and poorly organized. When I see that, my tendency is to assume that the writer doesn’t know the subject very well. If he is struggling to be understood, he probably hasn’t spent much time with the issues, so why should I give what he says much weight? To me, poor writing suggests a poor grasp of the subject matter.

    Certain lengthy pieces benefit from art, but even for a short news item of only 2 paragraphs, clarity and economy of language can be beautiful, too.

  • Maureen

    If somebody writing a pure news article is a good writer, his good writing should be transparent — unnoticeable, except to the professional who sits back in wonder at how he got it all done so artfully. The rest of us shouldn’t notice.

    If someone is writing a background piece, or something local and folksy, then a more noticeable style can be useful. Columnists can do this, too.

    But here’s the thing: no reporter or journalist can possibly be called a _good_ writer unless she is also an _accurate_ writer who checks her facts. That’s a reporter’s grammar and punctuation. It should be automatic, but constantly checked for error — because nobody will be able to understand if she doesn’t get it right.

  • Jim Toye

    Accuracy and good writing are both extremely important to me. As a regular Washington Post reader, there are certain writers who make me cringe with their (lack of) style.

    That said, my biggest irritant are stories written to support predetermined viewpoints, without being presented as opinion.

    I want the facts, so that I can make up my own mind.

  • http://hornswoggled.blogspot.com David

    Amen to Maureen, with one addition: sloppy writing obscures accurate facts. Effortful writing allows effortless reading.

  • http://www.spaulspots.blogspot.com Don Neuendorf

    Is this a trick? One of those baby-in-the-bathwater things? I don’t see why we have to make a choice between good writing and getting the facts straight.

    Obviously (at least I hope it’s obvious), the truth comes first. Expressing it effectively comes next – both logically and chronologically.

    Having said that, there are two ways in which good writing can be used – one of them essential and the other one problematic. 1) We want the facts to be written up well so that they can be understood. Garbled writing can start with the truth, but convey a false impression or bury the truth through lousy construction. On the other hand, 2) when we want our writing to be “effective” we soon think of its ability to advocate something. Good writing is more persuasive than bad writing. I tend to be skeptical of people who can’t spel. I give greater credibility to a well constructed argument. But good writing, like a powerful sermon, is a tool used against the reader if it’s based on falsehood.

  • Martha

    I’m with the ‘just the facts’ people on this. I detest the attempts to wring my withers with emotional sobstuff about the ‘tragic tot in tug-of-love mercy dash’ which the tabloids are most notorious for, but which the so-called ‘quality’ papers are increasingly indulging in themselves.

    I also resent the implication that I am too thick or too shallow or too gossip-hungry to swallow a story giving me the factual information without the sugarcoating of an appeal to my feelings. ‘Make it human, make it alive; tell us all about Katie Smith and her life’.

    Don’t, please. I have absolutely no interest in Katie’s cute doggie, her adorable blond toddler, her part-time teaching job giving art classes at the local daycare centre – I just want to know what happened, and unless there is a direct bearing on the story, leave all the descriptive scene setting out. As Mr Hoh says, “And on your own time write those creative short stories and novels.”

    That doesn’t mean you can’t write stylish English or that you have to present your story in a dry-as-dust, geography lesson kind of way. Good, clear, fluent, grammatical English should be the minimum required of a reporter, not how thickly they can ladle on the treacle.

  • Micah Weedman

    I’m curious about something:

    Those of you who are “facts only” folks, who believe (or are tempted to believe) along with Mollie and Rasczak that newspapers are for “data transmission” only (whatever that means), let’s try a little test case. Here’s the lead from a story in USAT about a soldier who has come forward with testimony against the soldiers who allegedly raped and killed a young girl and her family in Iraq.

    “On a night in June, Pfc. Justin Watt lay in his cot in Iraq, anguishing over whether to tell Army investigators that he suspected soldiers from his own platoon had raped a 14-year-old girl and then killed her and her family.”

    Is this too much “story-telling?” Martha says “leave all the descriptive scene setting out.”

    So then, is this paragraph, way on down in the story, too descriptive, to irrelevent to the story?:

    “Watt says he’s not religious. But months before, when so many friends were killed, he had prayed for God to give him strength. As he wrestled with a decision, he says he sensed God was watching. “I felt like if I didn’t do the right thing, I wasn’t holding up my end of the deal,” Watt says. “If I didn’t do anything, I was dead. Lost my grace with God.”

    Newspapers clearly don’t exist for mere data transmission, have never existed for such and should not exist for such. In fact, I’d argue that what happens under this paradigm (if it even really exists) is what you get with my own local paper–”data transmission” in the form of briefs and police blotters, and nothing left to write about but irrelevent fluff. Recently, in the police blotter of my local rag, I’ve noticed several violent crimes happen at the local high school, including an alleged rape of a young girl in a bathroom by an unidentified male. No story, mind you, just pure data transmission in the form of abbreviated police reports. Are the residents of my town getting nothing but “just the facts,” the 5 w’s? Sure. Do those of us concerned about the high school have any idea what the school is doing about it, whether or not this is an increase in school violence, or any other pertinent issues? No.

    Assuming that journalism is just about facts robs it of its use as a public service. The obsession with naked facts steers us the wrong way–then all discussions are about the bias of individual journalists (or papers, or TV stations) rather than what we should be talking about, but don’t know how: the character of journalists.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Nicely done. I’m not sure it addresses what Mollie is getting at, but you’ve stated your points well.

    But note:

    “On a night in June, Pfc. Justin Watt lay in his cot in Iraq, anguishing over whether to tell Army investigators that he suspected soldiers from his own platoon had raped a 14-year-old girl and then killed her and her family.”

    This is clearly material that is paraphrased from quotes in an interview with Watt. As such, it is a concise description of what he said. That’s good writing.

    Now, if this is NOT a paraphrase — then you are dealing with some kind of reading-someone’s-mind fraud. You’ve veered into “new journalism” and you’re ready for Rolling Stone.

  • Tom Breen

    I agree with the folks who don’t see this as an “either/or” question. If you’re writing a four-inch cop brief about a break-in at the local Dairy Queen, you’re not going to be Edgar Allen Poe. But for a longer story – even a story that takes up routine matters like budget hearings and so forth – you’re going to want to get your reader interested, and the best way to do that is by writing an interesting story.

    Maybe it’s just because I started in afternoon papers, where we had to find a new hook on news that our readers would already know, but good writing and good reporting have always gone hand in hand, as far as I’m concerned.

    As far as newspapers’ effect on our culture, some of my favorite writers were journalists at one point or another: Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Westbrook Pegler, Paul Sann, George Orwell, Ambrose Bierce, and even Poe himself. For my money, Murray Kempton’s newspaper columns are worth shelves full of 20th century short stories and novels.