Thursday, May 15, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (1)

Today the newswire Reuters carried an item headlined "Chicago lifts two-year ban on foie gras." It's a good example of a failure to achieve clear writing -- involving as it does a venerable news service.

The first three paragraphs are:

"CHICAGO (Reuters) - Gourmets in Chicago can order foie gras again after the city council on Wednesday repealed a two-year restaurant ban on a delicacy that critics say is produced at cruel expense to geese and ducks.

"The aldermen voted 37-6 to drop the ban on restaurants serving foie gras, an ordinance that had passed with a single dissenting vote in April 2006.

"The city had issued a few warnings to restaurants for flouting the ban and one defiant eatery was fined."

These paragraphs answer "Who?" and "What?" and "When?" and "Where?" and "How?" -- but do not directly answer "Why?"

There's a clue in the third paragraph (quoted above). There are four more clues in later paragraphs (not quoted in this post -- click through if you want to read the whole story).

I'm not a psychologist, and this is just a guess. I believe the editor was trying not to say something like this: "One alderman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, 'Not one restaurant has complied with the ban. It's unenforceable.' "

As you may know, most journalists bend over backwards to avoid irritating government employees by suggesting that they are impotent in any way. That's because, collectively, government employees are the largest single source of predigested news.

I could be wrong on this example. But, in general, a great amount of unclear writing results from writers' reluctance to directly state inconvenient facts.

The Takeaway: If you notice that you're having difficulty writing a sentence and you're feeling stressful, stop writing for a moment. Ask yourself: "What am I trying not to say?" You will know the answer. I won't presume to tell you what to do next, but I will say this: I have faced this same difficulty thousands of times. Whenever I chickened out, I noticed that intelligent readers usually saw through my euphemisms, evasions and circumlocutions anyway.

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