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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Journalist's Handbook: A Primer on Good Writing

When I was teaching journalism and feature writing at the University of Illinois I wrote a Journalist's Handbook that I gave to all of my students. In it was information and tips on writing that I collected and revised for almost three decades. Some of it dated back to my time as a journalism student. Some of it was information that I accumulated and consigned to a three-ring binder during a 25-year career as a reporter and editor.

The binder accompanied me during my years as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America and as a national correspondent covering the West Coast of the United States. I kept it close at hand when I was an editor. As the years passed, the binder got older and frayed (sort of like me). My old binder was rife with coffee stains, grubby hand prints, lots of barely readable hand-scribbled notes, and to top it off the pages kept falling out.

But that never kept me from consulting it--a humbling reminder that you will never know all there is to know about writing, nor should you ever stop learning.

As a writer you must find your own voice; your own style; your own place in the writer's dominion. It is a journey of discovery that never ends. The objective of my class and the Handbook I created was to assist students in beginning that journey; to make sure they were  equipped with the tools they would need to chart a successful course.

It has been said that writing is both an "art" and a "craft." Others have said that you can't teach people to write, that it must be learned. That is only partially correct.

While no one can teach "talent," as in any art, we can teach technique. That's what I wanted students to find in the Handbook--the techniques of reporting and writing.  Talent is an intrinsic quality and each of us must develop it in our own way.

The "art" of writing refers to the writer's innate ability to use the language with respect and affection.

For journalists it is the capacity to be sensitive to what is going on around him or her; a facility to recognize what is important or interesting and to present it in a compelling way; the commitment to adhere to the journalistic principles of fairness and honesty.

The class I taught and the Handbook I used were designed to introduce students to the tools and the techniques of the "art." How they chose to use those tools and techniques was determined by how dedicated and talented they were.

The "craft" of journalism and writing, however, as with any other craft, can be transferred from the professional to the novice. I told students that I would teach them to recognize the tools of the craft, to understand how to use those tools and to respect them.

I cannot teach you to be a brilliant writer, I told the students, but I hope to introduce you to the enchantment and wonder of words and to the profound responsibility that comes with using their awesome power. Once you understand and respect those tools your brilliance as a writer and reporter will be limited only by your inherent talent.


One of the first things I attempted to teach my students was a glossary of rhetorical terms. An understanding of rhetorical terms and their use should be part of every writer's tool kit. I warned them that some of the examples were a bit dated (and they still are).

But their age doesn't make the examples any less relevant--sort of like people.

A Writer's Glossary of Rhetorical Terms:

Alliteration: The occurrence of words more or less in sequence having the same beginning sound. (“words that had warmed women, wooed and won them…”—Gay Telese).

Allusion: Reference to a well-known book, person, place, or event. An allusion is an economical way to enrich the impact of your writing with emotional and intellectual echoes from another work. (“If a [McDonald’s] manager tries to sell his customers hamburgers that have been off the grill more than 10 minutes. . .Big Brother in Oak Brook will find out.”Time. Big Brother is a reference to the supreme authority in George Orwell’s 1984. “(The photograph) shocked the nation into realizing that something was rotten in Vietnam.”—John G. Morris. An allusion to Hamlet.

Anticlimax: A descent from a comparatively lofty vocabulary or tone to one noticeably less exalted. If the descent is sudden, the effect is often comic. (“Fun is for the frivolous, and Jimmy (Carter) sees the world as a hard and serious place. Man was put here to suffer, to atone, to repent, to confess, to surrender, to witness, or else to bake until well-did.” Larry L. King)

Connotation: The implications or suggestions evoked by a word. Connotations may be highly individual, based on associations because of pleasant or unpleasant experiences in a person’s life; or universal—that is, culturally conditioned.

Denotation: The literal meaning of a word, exclusive of attitudes or feelings the writer or speaker may have.

Hyperbole: Exaggeration as a means of achieving emphasis, humor, and sometimes irony. (“Here she [Ann Miller] stands for a moment, examining legs that start at the waist and end nine miles below in a pair of shoes she’s nicknamed Mac and Joe.”—Arthur Bell.

Imagery: In its most common use imagery suggests visual detail or pictures, though it may also refer to words denoting other sensory experiences.

Irony: A discrepancy between what is said and what is meant; incongruity. Often used with a kind of grim humor, irony gives the effect of cool detachment and restraint. (“Carter. . ignored the Democratic crown prince, Ted Kennedy, the well-known midnight aquanaut.”—Larry L. King)

Metaphor: A comparison of two unlike objects without using the word “like.” (“Sentimentality and repression have a natural affinity; they’re the two sides of one counterfeit coin.”—Pauline Kael. “A very old woman with gray hair is hauled along by her life-support system, a curly-haired blue-jacketed black dog on a leash.”—Talk of the Town, The New Yorker. Another example is Kenneth Tynan describing the stage relationship between TV’s Johnny Carson and comedian Don Rickles: “More deftly than anyone else, Carson knows how to play matador to Rickles’ bull, inciting him to charge, and sometimes getting gored himself.”)

Onomatopoeia: The use of words whose sounds seem to express or reinforce their meanings: hiss, bank, bow-wow, for example. (“The room clacked with the crack of billiard balls.”—Gay Telese.

Oxymoron: Two apparently contradictory terms that express a startling paradox. (“a smiling man-child of 51”—Shana Alexander; “flawless faux pas”—Arthur Bell)

Parallelism: Writing in which similar or related ideas are expressed in similar grammatical structure, thus achieving balance, rhythm, and emphasis. (Look for the series of parallel verb phrases at the end of this sentence: “It is strangely comforting to surrender an unadorned, eminently imperfect body to the ministration of another human being: someone who will rotate the stiffened joints, knead the balky muscles, unknot the drum-tight nerves and coax the sluggish skin into alertness.” Michelle Green.

Periodic Sentence: A suspenseful sentence, usually long, in which the main idea is not completed until the very end. (“Every four or eight years a large band of men, mostly without previous experience of government, mostly young, all dangerously euphoric because of recent and often accidental political success, all billed as geniuses by the Washington press corps and believing their own notices, all persuaded that they were meant by the stars to reinvent the wheel, are given great ostensible, and even actual, power on the White House staff.”—John Kenneth Galbraith.

Personification: A figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstract ideas are endowed with human qualities. (“the shape and shade and size and noise of the words as they hummed, strummed, jigged and galloped along”—Dylan Thomas.

Pun: Word play involving the use of a word with two different meanings or the use of a word that is pronounced similarly to another with a different meaning. (“a science writer who can make the language of numbers sound as easy as pi”Time. “McDonald’s is a super clean production machine efficient enough to give even the chiefs of General Motors food for thought.” Time)

Simile: An expressed comparison between two unlike objects. (Kenneth Tynan describing host Johnny Carson: “In repose, he resembles a king-sized ventriloquist’s dummy.”  “The white flesh of her thighs rose like soft bread dough over the tops of her stockings.”—Stephanie Mills.)

Symbol: Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.

Zeugma: A construction in which one word is placed in the same grammatical relationship to two other words but it relates to the two in different senses. Zeugma usually involves a verb and two objects, and the verb has two different meanings. (“He was a serious young man wearing glasses and the mien of a Harvard divinity student.”—Terry Southern)
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