Friday, June 24, 2005

When writing excludes

We write to communicate. And to communicate well, we must speak the same language as our readers.
Yet too many people who make their livings as writers insist on communicating in a way that excludes. Sports metaphors, pop-culture references and clichés all require that your reader be just like you -- interested in the same things and coming from the same place.
That's a mistake born of laziness and cultural bigotry -- two things that journalists must avoid if they are to learn to write well.
There's an interesting piece on the Poynter site about just this subject.
Take a look.
And take a look at what fellow journalism blogger Doug Shaw has to say.


  1. To borrow a catchphrase which will clearly be lost on your younger readers: Sorry, Charlie! The notion that one has to avoid certain references because some readers won't get them is preposterous. I expect my readers to be intelligent and I refuse to dumb down my writing. If I make a reference to Bertrand Russell, for example, then there is a good reason why I am citing Bertrand Russell. And if the reader is clueless about Bertrand Russell, then the reader can (to paraphrase another pop culture catchphrase of yore) look it up in their Funk & Wagnalls!

  2. Hi Phil,
    Thanks for your comments. But I think I need to clarify the point that I and the writer from Poynter are trying to make. Neither of is saying that "one has to avoid certain references because some readers won't get them." Both of us are saying that poor writers often make poor choices in an attempt to be cute. For example, I would argue that the "Sorry, Charlie" reference would be poor writing. It excludes a portion of the audience and it fails to convey an original or precise thought. The same is true of the "Funk & Wagnall" joke, or any of the dozens of other pop-culture references from the old Laugh-In show: "Sock it to me," "Here come the judge," etc.
    Sports references are ALWAYS a bad idea for the same reasons.
    As for Bertrand Russell....I should hope that, as you say, if you're citing Russell it's for a good reason. For example, it's fine to talk about a paradox of logic and to refer to Russell's Paradox. In fact, you have to mention Russell in such an article.
    But I can't imagine a pop-culture reference to Russell. He's not well known enough to be the basis of a pop-culture reference. On the other hand, you could make a pop-culture reference to Einstein and say that someone "had hair like Einstein." I'd probably find that an acceptable reference because most educated people of all ages from most of the world's cultures have an idea of what Einstein looked like.
    But if we were to return to the Laugh-In reference, I think only a very poor writer would say that Einstein had a German accent like Arte Johnson's.

  3. I cannot agree, Paul. When I find something in an article or book that I do not understand (a word, a reference, even a scientific concept), I go out of my way to look up what the writer is talking about. One can easily do a Google search to get the answer -- and, in the process, one can learn something (even if it is just about a talking tuna in a TV commercial). But then again, I never write down to an audience -- I expect the audience to be on my footing.

  4. Hi again,
    I don't think it's 'writing down" to an audience when I try to write to be understood.
    I also think it's a cop-out to say that the audience can "look it up" if what I say isn't clear. That's cheap, lazy writing.
    It's far better to either a)avoid cliches and pop-culture references that aren't widely understood, or b) explain the reference in the copy. For example, "In the 1960s, TV commercials for Chicken of the Sea brand tuna featured a talking fish that...."
    It's simply crazy to say that you expect your readers to see a phrase like "Sorry Charlie" and, while not having any clue what it means or why you would use it, go to their computers and start searching.
    Granted, if you're writing online, you can imply that meaning can be found elsewhere by use of a hyperlink. But in print, the writer is obliged to use precise language.
    Here's another example, I recently worked with a writer who described a company as "facing a three-two count in the bottom of the ninth."
    You can look that up in Google, and it still won't make sense unless you understand baseball. More importantly, like most such references, it actually doesn't say anything. Most baseball fans would say that the phrase means that time is running out in a game, that there is only one last chance left before the game is lost.
    but in this case the writer said he was using the phrase to mean the company was "under pressure," not that the company was at risk of losing anything.
    But the worst thing about using cliches and pop-culture references is that they boring, unoriginal and often painful to read. No one wants to go to a comedy club and hear the same jokes over and over again for decades on end. Nor does anyone want to read a story that uses the same cliches and cutesy references that they read last month and the month before that.

  5. Regarding your comment: "No one wants to go to a comedy club and hear the same jokes over and over again for decades on end."

    Strange, but that formula worked for Henny Youngman. And if your readers don't know who Henny Youngman was...


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