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Words to Write By

Posted on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 at 4:50 PM

Thirteen "C" words every writer should know: the final installment.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Four words beginning with the letter C were our shared topic last month: considerate, concise, correct, and complete.

I said a writer should be all these.

And I promised nine more such words this month. Here's delivery on that promise:


Be clear, of course.

"Clarity is next to godliness" becomes the commandment.

"When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair," E. B. White once observed.

And that can happen because of words -- slithery, slippery, misused, abused, or too-rarely-used words.

Euphemisms for instance. "Negative patient care outcome" versus death. "Lost workers" versus those who were fired or laid off. "Education transport modules" versus school buses. Seals "harvested" versus slaughtered.

Jargon, for another instance, code words not understood by at least some of the readers.

Clichés, which bore and turn the reader off.

Status symbol words like quantify and optimize and parameter and infrastructure and paradigm and quid pro quo and symbiosis and dialectic and longitudinal study and colloquy and replication and all the rest of them. Test a dozen walkers-by out on the street with those words and see what happens. These are words people sort of know but don't know. These are words they're not going to look up in the dictionary. These are words that could be lost in the flow or cause a reader to lose the flow of the passage.

And there's also that disease called "thesaurusitis," the hunt to find still another word to "say."

Being clearer also depends on proper pronunciation and proper grammar. Permit no run-on sentences. Permit no blends of singulars and plurals. "Everyone has their own special image of paradise," begins a story I recently came across. Such an opening sentence does not give me confidence in what's to follow. "Everyone" is singular. "Has" is singular. "They're" is plural, at least traditionally. Not good. Not acceptable.

Being clear also means using manageable sentences. Permit me to throw a dart at a distant-past "Dart and Laurels" column that ran in the Columbia Journalism Review. A "dart" item dealt with then TV commentator David Brinkley. He had taxed his credibility, according to the item. Explanation, and I quote in the words of that era: "At a time of growing unease over the apparent conflicts of interest that arise when working journalists take on lucrative assignments for corporations, trade groups and the like -- an unease made manifest in the various attempts, by Congress and by other journalists, to require disclosure of such outside sources of income, as well as in the restrictions upon such extracurricular paid assignments laid down by, among other networks, Brinkley's own ABC -- the highly respected, highly paid moderator of This Week with David Brinkley, produced an article in the fall on the 'twisted' logic of a federal tax code aimed at 'soaking the rich.'"

Well, a dart to that classic sentence, all 103 words of it.

Being clearer also means finding a flow, creating an informational and verbal chain that easily leads the reader from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph and idea to idea.

Being clear also means locating the proper structures for the information being written up. The writer needs to find an appropriate shape for the material, a logical progression or development, an understandable sequentiality, a plan. And for this, no doubt, an editor often becomes a saving partner. Writers find themselves overwhelmed by gathered material, by details and themes and options. All the informational trees hide in the forest. The editor's task is to find the forest, to help the writer determine and work out a presentational plan for the article. But that's a subject all by itself, and I'll deal with it at a future time.


Another "C" word is cohesive.

Be cohesive. Make sure that, indeed, there is flow, that there is transition, that material fits together, comes together, and stays together. The article should become a whole. It should become a unit. Call it a package; the information inside has been all wrapped up.


Be consistent. The writer who begins an article with an anecdote and then switches to informational sludge the rest of the way is not being consistent. The writer who develops a descriptive feature on an art exhibit and then, two thirds of the way in, turns to analysis or evaluation is not being consistent. What a writer seems to promise early on should get a follow-through later on.

The reader looking at the narrative lead does not expect everything that follows to be of the same nature, but he does look for a somewhat less formal piece than the writer of sludge then provides. The article that changes from description to evaluation suggests either that the writer hasn't determined purpose or is trying to sneak in some opinions via the back door.

Consistency shouldn't be considered restrictive. A writer has plenty of maneuver space. But the editor should make sure that a promise made is a promise kept.


Be concrete.

The enemy of good writing is generality, lack of specificity, the absence of detail. We've had occasion to discuss the power of detail in this series of columns. But can the point be overstressed? I think not.

Some fancy writers may want to be just that, fancy. They shun the reporting aspect of their assignment, trusting that their way with words will be sufficient. Disabuse them of that notion. Remind them that your readers need to be better served, that manner without matter is a no-no.

We speak not, of course, about the term paper approach to detail or even the encyclopedic. Our readers must not feel overwhelmed. But sufficient facts should always be present. Readers want to learn; they want to gain information, even intelligence, while being massaged with style and grace of language.


Be constructive. No, one shouldn't serve up pablum. Honesty toward subject is an imperative. But with so much gloom and doom coming at your audience from other sources -- the daily newspaper, television and radio newscasts, the newsmagazine -- there must be respite.

It was T. S. Eliot who observed that people can take only so much reality. Beyond that, market strategists have studied and ruled, people begin to stop reading or turn off their sets, saying to themselves if no one else is around to hear: "I can't take any more of this."

Deal with pessimism, with negative subjects as you must. But remember that in most stories, there are elements of progress or promise. A big-city school system may be in shambles, and if it is, the writer should say so. But that same school system contains pockets of good work. To such positive aspects, attention also should be given.

Seek balance in coverage. Point to the element of beauty. Hold out hope, not false hope, but hope. By doing so you are likely to hold on to your readers a little longer; they won't give way to despair.


Be credible. That means, first, the writer should know his audience, a matter in which the editor can be most helpful. If what the audience is interested in or is likely to understand doesn't reveal itself in an article, then that audience is lost. Idea, material, writing style will need to be on the reader's wavelength. If not, credibility is lost.

And so it is also if the writer depends too heavily on the weight of his own byline. Credibility comes to a story if the writer seeks out credible material from credible (and attributed) sources. Stronger belief is engendered through the use of trustworthy information from trusted experts or authorities. As editor, ask for that.


Be conversational.

The best writing, much of it, tends toward the chatty, giving the reader a sense that the author is in an easy chair nearby talking one-to-one.

You, as editor, must determine how far in that direction your writers can or should go, depending on subject matter and publication profile and reader types. But all of journalism, including magazine journalism, has gone in the direction of the conversational, the informal, the more down-to-earth use of language.

Well, whether or not you desire such writing, make your writers read their copy out loud. Make your editors read the copy they are editing out loud. At the very least, you and they will find that convolutions and missing steps and things that don't sound right will be eliminated. The eyes are forgiving, as I've emphasized before. The ears are less so. "Relatives served at family dinner," goes the headline. "Iraqi head seeks arms," goes another. Reading aloud will straighten out such confusions.

So come and encourage noise in your office when deadlines come. Out-loud reading should be the order of the day.

And if you seek conversationality, that, also, will be a product of reading aloud, of sounding out the words.


The twelfth "C" word is comfortable,.

It's not the writer, however, who should be comfortable. It's the writer and her writing that should make readers comfortable. That's why conversationality is a factor to consider. People out there seem to feel more comfortable with conversational writing.

With so much discomfort in people's lives, you provide a service through comfort. Poet Jean Cocteau once wrote: "Music is not always a gondola, a racehorse, or a tightrope. It is sometimes a chair." Think reader comfort.


The captivating.

That's the thirteenth and final "c" word on my list. And in a way -- actually in different ways -- I've been discussing the importance of that word in column after column ever since I started this column years ago. Never lose sight of captivation.

The reader becomes harder and harder to capture and to keep. Through the fascinating facts we gather and the delicious style in which those facts are shaped into articles, we find the means to hold on to our most prized possession, the reader.

We regale with stories. We thrill with descriptive nuggets. We amaze with startling propositions. We engage with an eye-opening analogy or remarkable examples. We play with the language. We experiment with the techniques of structure and design. We excite with approach. We surprise with perspective.

All these to satisfy the readers and keep them loyal. Our audience is not captive; it needs to be captivated.

Thirteen words. Thirteen duties. Thirteen opportunities.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter J. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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