My Top Pro Tip for More Powerful Writing

Magic 8 ball answers Don't Count on It.

Something I’ve learned about writing is, it’s better to use specifics than generalities. And that being vague is the worst of all writing sins.

But when it comes to writing for news, sometimes there isn’t a choice. Take this headline from last week:

Air Canada Pilot Becomes Incapacitated During Flight From Toronto.

Some news sources put quotation marks around the word “incapacitated” to show they were quoting the lame description they received from the airline. In other words, ‘don’t blame us for not explaining it better’.

Somebody in Air Canada PR chose that vague word instead of saying what really happened. Did the pilot experience a medical emergency? Were they drunk? Did a bunch of little kids tie them down with skipping ropes, like Gulliver was tied down by the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels?

We may never know.

This is the kind of incomplete information that journalists deal with every day. Sometimes, there’s good reason for it, when accurate, specific words could cause trauma or harm to family members of victims, for example. Other times, it’s just lack of judgment or experience. And there are many reasons in between.

Start With Kids

I thought about this as I narrated a voiceover project last week. It’s a mental health program, teaching grade-school kids all sorts of things about behavior, mental health, and mental illness. One of the chapters concerns language that stigmatizes mental health issues. The approach taken by the program is, “say what you really mean”.

For example, students are advised to not say something is “driving me CRAZY” when what they really mean is, “I’m afraid I won’t have time to get it done.” We have taken all sorts of words that pertain to mental health and the brain and used them to vaguely and pejoratively describe discomfort.

“She’s off her meds.”

“I’m going insane over this project.”

“I put the milk in the cupboard. I must be losing my mind!”

This type of language reinforces stigmas and keeps people who hear it from seeking help or revealing a mental illness.

One of a million experiences in my radio career

Vague language in journalism isn’t necessarily stigmatizing, but it is just as inaccurate. (Again, it’s usually not the journo’s fault.)

I remember this issue arising years ago when Environment Canada, our government’s weather body, decided to start using the phrase, Special Weather Statement. I thought – and still think – it’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. The Special Weather Statement can pertain to any type of weather. It’s a generic headline for an advisory that goes above and beyond the regular forecast.

Examples are the possibility of high rainfall, heavy snow, very hot or very cold temperatures, etc.

I think Special Weather Statement is an internal phrase that should have stayed internal. It’s vague and all encompassing and wastes time getting to the point. (From the government! IMAGINE!!) Just tell me that we could get flash flooding from a heavy rainfall and be done with it. Besides, it’s forecasting – what are the chances it will even be right?!

(Actually, forecasting within a day or two is 80-90% accurate. It’s the long-range forecasts that are hit or miss. Meteorologists may as well use a Magic 8 Ball.)

blue Le Mans convertible with a white ragtop. A huge car compared to today's models

So, that’s is my writing tip of the day. Be specific. Say that the car above is Derek’s baby, a 1967 Pontiac Le Mans Convertible, instead of a classic car. Write spaghetti and meatballs instead of a pasta dinner. Say someone was stung by a bee, not bitten by an insect. Specifics put a picture in the reader or listener’s head and make the story come to life.

And for goodness sake, Air Canada, tell us that a pilot passed out from low blood sugar or suffered gastro distress from eating bad clams (if that’s what it was) instead of becoming “incapacitated”.

7 thoughts on “My Top Pro Tip for More Powerful Writing”

  1. Lisa: In the case of the pilot, perhaps it is the Privacy Law, which is a real headshaker sometimes for me. I live in a small town and there might be a terrible car accident, injuries or fatality, and because of the Privacy Law, the media either doesn’t publish the names for days or doesn’t at all. There are just so many reasons to do so in those cases — friends or neighbours want to help. This is a subject for another blog.

    1. Maureen, I think you’ve been misled. Having worked for a small paper, the thinking was that it wouldn’t be fair to publish the name of someone facing charges but not have the resources to follow through to see whether they were convicted. When it comes to victims, they’re making a decision. It’s not about a privacy law. They absolutely can publish names. There’s no law that says they can’t.

      1. Lisa, I would echo what you’ve said. Maureen may be thinking of libel law, which is something else and not a “privacy law.” There’s no legislation that says police have to be vague when they deal with the public.

  2. Police press releases are the worst for this. A fight is “an altercation,” a security guard is a “loss-prevention officer,” someone who is killed is “a fatality.” But as a copy editor once said to me, vague and misleading language just guarantees job security for journalists, whose job is to translate bureaucratic-speak into words real people can understand.

    1. Problem is when less experienced reporters just echo whatever police said so articles and broadcast copy get filled with meaningless jargon. It’s happening more and more. My fave is “executed a search warrant”. Sigh.

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