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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sex! Sensation! Pets! Heroism!

I'm indebted to the British Journalism Review for an interview with the legendary Donald Zec (left). One of the trailblazers of popular journalism he was a Daily Mirror writer for forty years.
Zec talked of the first story he wrote for the Mirror after moving south from the regional press in Manchester. It's an anecdote that has served me well. I've used it often to explain to both journalists and non-journalists the importance of using specific words rather than vague generalised vocabulary.
When asked to cystalise the elements of a perfect tabloid story Zec replied: "Sex, sensation, pets and heroism."
He went on to explain that he was sent out to cover a fire and returned to write a fairly standard intro:
Firemen were called to extinguish a blaze in Old Compton Street last night...
The news editor called him over and explained that this was the Mirror where things are done slightly differently.
He was told to unload the contents of his notebook into the ear of one of the wise old subs who would re-write it in Mirror -style. The new intro came back:
Clad only in her scanties, a blonde, 22-years-old night-club hostess climbed along a 30ft parapet in a Soho fire last night to rescue her pet cat Timothy.
And there you have it: Sex, sensation, pets and heroism.
There is a valuable lesson to be learnt here though. The second version is clearly more readable and engaging than the first - not only because it involves a scantily-clad blonde. The real skill is in using very specific words to build images. Firemen extinguishing a blaze is boring, because it doesn't paint a picture or conjure an image. A blonde, 22-year-old night-club hostess risking life and limb on a parapet to rescue her cat is full of specific detail which brings the story to life. Even the use of Soho rather than Old Compton Street adds colour to the piece.
The very best writers understand the value of small detail and know when to use it. Those who are new to the craft tend to use 'big and clever' words because they believe that's what's required. I once asked an American delegate on one of our writing courses why she insisted on using words like 'commenced' instead of 'started' and 'dispatched' rather than 'sent'. And she replied that she didn't want people to think she was stupid. Her words were clearly a reflection of her own self-image. And that's why it's harder than people think to write well.
Writing is a highly personal experience which is why we find it so difficult to edit our own work. As I often say on writing courses - the principle of simple English is easy to understand but very diffcult to execute.

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