Journalism conventions

I’m not talking about a week in Las Vegas palling around with the news editor from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I’m talking about conventions as in ways of doing things. Some journalists are funny about how they write. Mark Twain never followed AP style, or wouldn’t have had such thing been around in the 19th century. Sometimes people accustomed to reading or writing literature accuse journalists of being too fact-driven, dry or robotic—or just plain wrong when it comes to how they put fingers to keyboard. Here are some examples.

1. The comma. All of us were taught in school to use commas to separate items in a list: milk, bread, and eggs. But some journalists had to go and wreck things and get rid of that last comma, known as the serial comma. Why? Who knows? There are various arguments about clarity and redundancy and even bulky sentences. It definitely makes sentences like “The selection of sandwiches includes turkey, watercress, tuna and peanut butter and jelly” a little confusing…and not always appetizing.

2. The single space. Once upon a time, every sentence had two spaces at the end of the next sentence. Now most journalists use just one. Again, the logic is fuzzy. Some say it’s because computers can adjust the space after a sentence’s ending punctuation so one need not worry about sentences bumping together illegibly. All I know is that nothing is more annoying than editing someone’s work and removing all their extra spaces…only to have them edit them right back in on the next draft. Oy…

3. The paragraph. A paragraph is supposed to be composed of a topic sentence and some supporting statements—maybe four or five sentences, right? Wrong. Paragraphs exist because it’s too hard for the human eye to read long blocks of text. So, journalists break things up early and often. People don’t read newspapers like they do books or even magazines—their eyes roam and wander. Newspapers are scanned and perused; books and magazines are read. So journalists write in choppy paragraphs of sometimes just one sentence so the eye doesn’t get bogged down in the column.

4. The essay. Speaking of paragraphs, remember writing the classic five-paragraph essay on, say, George Washington in elementary school? You had your introductory paragraph, three paragraphs in the body, and then the conclusion, which often restated much of the introduction. You put your good stuff in the second paragraph—like how Washington defeated the British at Yorktown. Well, forget everything you learned. Journalists stick the good stuff right at the beginning. Putting the good stuff in paragraph two is called “burying the lede” (and “lede” is another story in and of itself). And a conclusion? Never. The story just ends. Why repeat yourself? You may as well start using extra commas and spaces, as if ink grew on trees.

Why is this? Again, newspapers are scanned and perused. If a reader only makes it halfway through the story and gets bored (or, more likely, an editor chops the story in half to make room for a mattress ad), at least they’ve gotten the most important facts.

5. Quotations. Many journalism students are shocked to learn that you can quote people in an article and not write down what they actually said. That’s right. As long as you’re close and the meaning is the same, it’s considered an accurate quote. This is probably because journalists, like cavemen, once took notes with pencil and paper. Today, in the era of the HD cell phone videos, we know what everyone says, so this rule is a little antiquated.

I could go on…but you get the point. The do’s and don’ts of writing, like other disciplines, continually change. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is…

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