Whether or not they like to admit it, most reporters have their share of bad habits. And I’m not referring to smoking, cussing or drinking copious quantities of coffee.
No, I’m talking about the gremlins that creep into our writing: words we’ve apparently forgotten how to spell, mistakes we repeat constantly, clichés we can’t seem to shake. After two years in the business, I’ve picked up habits of my own, and spotting them in my published work is infuriating.
For instance, “practice” and “practise” tripped me up for the longest time because I frequently forgot which spelling to use for the context in which I was using it. Tired of having my stories returned to me marked with corrections pencilled in by my former editor in Davidson, I eventually stuck a Post-it note with the appropriate usage to my computer monitor.
I think I have it figured out now. It’s good practice to use the correct spelling of words, but sometimes I need to keep practising to get it straight.
Complicating matters is a volume called the Canadian Press Stylebook, followed more or less religiously by most print publications in the Great White North. I say “more or less” because nearly all of them deviate slightly from the rules.
According to CP style, honorifics such as “Mr.” and “Ms.” are passé, but some publications, including The Globe and Mail, still swear by them. Another newspaper chain insists its writers use the % sign, whereas CP calls for the use of “per cent” instead.
So it’s not surprising that some reporters, particularly those bound in multiple chains during their careers, have trouble following the rules to a T.
At the Times-Herald, our managing editor will occasionally send us gentle reminders on such topics as apostrophe usage (it’s “the ‘70s,” not “the 70’s”) and abbreviations for months.
In addition to the Stylebook, CP publishes a sister volume, CP Caps and Spelling, in case I can’t recall how to spell Dan Aykroyd, or whether “cellphone” is an open or closed compound.
I’ve got both books on my desk, along with a dictionary, thesaurus and two other crucial titles: On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, and The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White.
These two books were required reading for my journalism courses, and I find it helpful to glance through them periodically as a reminder. As reporters, we should strive to deliver crisp, clear copy, free of clutter and jargon, and both volumes offer useful suggestions for achieving this goal.
I find Strunk and White’s book especially amusing for its colourful clarifications on certain words, such as the difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated”: “The first means ‘sickening to comtemplate’; the second means ‘sick at the stomach.’ Do not, therefore, say ‘I feel nauseous,’ unless you are sure you have that effect on others.”
Some of its recommendations will seem antiquated to modern readers, such as the insistence that “persons” should be used in place of “people” wherever a specific number of persons is provided.
But much of the advice remains prudent, including this reminder to avoid qualifiers: “Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”
And there’s a certain thrill in reading the work of a masterful writer, one with clear command of the English language, one who can convey impressive thoughts in simple, powerful terms.
I know I’m not there yet, but working on stories each day gives me ample opportunity to refine my craft. And, if you’ll excuse the deluge of clichés, you know what they say — practice makes perfect.
Joel van der Veen can be reached at 691-1256.