June 10, 2005

Here's to You, Cliché Writers Everywhere

The death of actress Ann Anne Bancroft this week produced a gaggle of "Mrs. Robinson" headlines - and the subsequent send-up of same by sharp-eyed (and sharp-tongued) headline watchers.

They rightly skewer the "Here's to You" heds as predictable clichés. I'll go one step further (and this is not about copy editors vs. reporters, so back in your seats, kids): Clichés are the bane of good writing and their ubiquitous presence in newspapers directly undercuts efforts to reach younger readers, who prefer "surprise and humor." [Read: The Readership Institute's work in at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Readership: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis.]

Brian Montopoli of CJR Daily slices and dices the Bancroft heds most deftly in this piece, "Hard Day on the Rim." He writes:

"There's gotta be something in the song, you think -- go back to the song. You get up from your cube, stare out the window. Start singing to yourself. Wait -- shit -- that's it! The chorus! It's so obvious! There's that part where Simon and Garfunkel croon, "Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson." Why not just that? Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson. It's so simple, but it says everything. Everything. You type in the headline, sit back, and rub your eyes. You're smiling, for the first time in days." (Emphasis added.)

Nicole Stockdale, a copy editor, rounds up a collection of Mrs. Robinsons heds on her blog, A Capital Idea, and points to Bill Walsh, who links to a good (and only mildly defensive discussion) of the hed on Testy Copy Editors. Tom Mangan, a copy editor at the San Jose Mercury news who blogs here, offers the best reason to avoid clichés:

"The test for stories like this is: Does something jump immediately to mind?

"If so, whatever jumps immediately to mind must be rejected on the grounds that everybody else will have the same idea. Now, if you learn of Ms. Bancroft's death six minutes before deadline and there's no time for something better, then, sure, go with the first instinct. But if you're not that pressed for time, press yourself for something better.

"The big however: With obits, respect for the dead must figure in the equation, which is why the grownups at the better papers played it straight w/Ms. Bancroft's passing." (Emphasis added.)

Tom also is the keeper of Banned for Life, a handy list of clichés to avoid (or employ, I suppose, if you're so inclined.) A few from the list:

 Campaign trail: What on this green earth is a campaign trail? (Besides journalistic nonsense, of course)
 XXX years young: This hackneyed "inspirational" phrase is used on any old person who isn't dying right in front of the reporter.

(ACES, the copy editors association, also keeps lists of hackneyed ledes and worn out phrases. Read them, learn them, laugh at them and avoid them.)

Cliched ledes and heds abound in newspapers and are easy to find. Here is a collection of "but" ledes I put together in a few minutes of web searching. Let's do a few searches of Google news and see how often some of the no-no phrases compiled by Mimi Burkhardt for ACES show up:

 Carnival atmosphere: 14 pages of returns, including this lede, "Despite the rain, a carnival atmosphere permeated throughout the downtown …"
 Heated debate: 35 pages of returns, including this hed, "Patriot Act gets heated debate," over this lede, "Debate over the Patriot Act heated up Tuesday …"
 Manicured lawns: 11 pages of returns, including this lede: "They lived in a Sharpsville mansion ringed by manicured lawns …"

You get the idea. Despite most writers and editors knowing that tired writing equals tired reading, they continue to over-season newspaper copy with clichés - a recipe for blandness.

I often write about issues and forces in the newspaper industry that journalists cannot control - the changing demographics and economics of the business, for example - but what words appear in the paper are their choice.

Fresh writing is a good place for change to begin.

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Posted by Tim Porter at June 10, 2005 11:11 AM