Mike Creger: Wanted: News tips, always used
It makes some sense that I'm a journalist and a big fan of Ernest Hemingway's writing. Using sparse language to tell a tale, making, as William Strunk Jr. said, "every word tell," is how I try to go about editing and writing stories for the paper.
As I've told volunteer writers for this page, readers enjoy brevity. Make your point and try to keep it within 600 words. Readership studies have shown that general readers of newspapers stop dead in their tracks after word 600. I'm being dramatic, but that maxim keeps me in line. Nobody wants to read a wandering tale, especially when it comes to a news story, when all you want are the facts of the matter.
The quote from Strunk is from his famous "Elements of Style" guidebook to writing, written with E.B. White. It's a slim book full of expert advice. My favorite comes at the beginning, the full Strunk advice:
"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."
Legend has it that someone once challenged Hemingway to write a short story using the fewest words possible. He is said to have called it one of his best works: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."
Simple, yes. But novel writers have a luxury we don't have in journalism. While they are busy setting moods and tilting readers to and fro, we are obligated to hammer down those in-betweens, those darned facts. It's a challenge I have a love-hate relationship with because getting stories and sources in a small community can be rewards and root canal all within the same day.
We at small papers are always searching for news but with limited time and resources. We rely heavily on readers for inside dope, to be the ears and eyes for us.
It's hard to write a news story without the facts. It's harder yet to not even have the tip that led us to the story.
All of this is a way to promise you, the reader, that we will report all the facts we can in our stories and do it concisely, fairly, and within the context of your every day lives.
With your help, we'll do the stories that you care about. Even rumors are potential news stories. We don't print anything without checking and rechecking our facts. We don't take on an issue without trying to get all sides of it.
So please, don't be afraid to let us know what's going on. And, please, don't sit on a news story and complain when we don't catch wind of it. Blow it our way. We're here to get it down.
I close with words from Hemingway himself, more good advice:
"In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well oiled in the closet, but unused."
Mike is the editor of the News-Chronicle. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 834-2141.