n My View ‘Do not write to impress,’ U.S. professor tells journalism students— October 1, 2021
Syed Badiuzzaman: On the first day of our news writing and editing class at Northeastern University Graduate School of Journalism in Boston, Massachusetts in the U.S. in the early 1990s, we all were waiting impatiently with great excitement as that was the most important core course of our 40-credit master’s program in journalism on professional track.
The class consisted of some 20American and international students. But most of the pupils were from the United States. Some of us including me had already begun their career in journalism in U.S. and abroad. And Nancy Gallinger, the shift-in-charge of Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published American newspaper and the largest daily in the state of Connecticut, was assigned to teach this important course of our master’s program.
Sharp at 8:00 p.m., Prof. Gallinger entered the classroom with a bunch of books in her hand. All of our classes for the graduate program in journalism were held in the evening allowing working people to participate in the program after finishing their regular work. Prof. Gallinger stepped up onto the low-height dais and briefly introduced herself. Then she asked the students to individually introduce them to that year’s graduate class of news writing and editing at Northeastern.
After the introduction, she stood on the dais in a relaxed way facing all students of the class and asked the most fundamental question of the course: “Why do we write news?” Some students promptly said that we write news to inform the public about an incident. Some students said we write news to tell people various stories of people. And some other students said we write news because that’s what we are supposed to do as journalists. Each time a group responded to her question, she nodded her head in affirmation.
But then Prof. Gallinger advised the class with a strong emphasis: “Do not write to impress.” Initially, this suggestion of the journalism teacher that evening came as a kind of shock and surprise to many students of the class who apparently thought journalists were supposed to write their stories in a manner that would impress the readers. “Just write to communicate,” she said adding: “Your job is not to impress people; your job is to tell them the stories in the easiest possible manner so that they can clearly understand them.”
After the well-versed American journalist corrected the ideas of many of us about news writing, the whole class got quite impressed on the very first day by her thorough knowledge and clear understanding about journalism. “Remember, you are not writing for scholarly journals, you are writing for mass media which will be read by common people with average education or no education at all. Therefore, always write in a simple language with common words so that your writing will be easily understood by everybody,” she said.
In every journalism class of our master’s program at Northeastern University, the students were highly encouraged to participate in the discussion anytime even by interrupting the lecture of a professor. However, the whole class was in complete agreement that evening with Prof. Gallinger. Because everything she said about news writing made perfect sense. “Just a little earlier, you all said you write for the people,” she told the class and added: “But if people do not understand what you write then your writing is nothing but some useless texts that only fill the empty space of a newspaper.”
In Bangladesh, attempts are made to write daily news for various media more or less in a simple way. However, some stories are sometimes presented in a complicated manner with inappropriate and uncommon words in both print and digital versions of some of the media outlets of the country. They often lack clarity and thus are not easily understood by common readers. Many journalists write their stories in mostly long sentences. And many stories routinely miss important background information. So, when new readers read a follow-up story on something, they do not get the full picture.
In addition to hard news, many Bangladeshi newspapers regularly publish articles and other materials written in a clumsy way with no clear meaning. Not only the writers of these articles but also the editors who approve them for publication bear responsibility for not following the basic rule of writing simply with simple words for the mass media. And thus they deprive the common readers of a chance to read and understand these articles easily. Many writers and journalists do not know how to write in a simple way using simple words. And some writers and journalists rather take pride in writing complex sentences with uncommon words.
While I was in Bangladesh several years ago, one day I was sitting with the joint editor of a daily English-language newspaper at his office in Dhaka. He was also in charge of the editorial and op-ed pages of that daily. As we had coffee, I started reading an article published on that day in his newspaper which was written by a college professor of Dhaka. When I read the first paragraph of the article, it didn’t make any sense to me. Then I read the second para but that paragraph also appeared just meaningless. After that I read the third paragraph but honestly I had the same experience. Then I asked the joint editor if he had read this article at all before publishing it but he just smiled and never uttered a single word.
As I left his office, I thought that this kind of thing could happen only in case of a Bangladeshi newspaper. It would never happen in any newspaper of any other South Asian country — let alone India and Pakistan. Publication of articles with no clear thoughts, opinions or messages or written in an ambiguous way with complicated sentences and unheard of words questions the qualifications and experience of not only the writers of those articles but also the editors who approve them for publication. There is no doubt that such articles or opinion pieces hurt the reputation of the concerned editors and of course the newspapers that publish them.
According to a guidebook for newspapers published by American Press Institute, “clarity, style and accuracy” are the three keys to what it called “the magic kingdom of writing.”A writer’s job is to make things clear to the reader and they should do it by writing simply with simple words. Jules Loh, a fine writer for the Associated Press once said: “A simple declarative sentence is like a beautiful woman in a plain, black dress.” And echoing his point of view, Arthur Brisbane, an old-time American editor added: “See a thing clearly and describe it simply. That is the essence of good newspaper work.”
A host of American journalism experts have concluded that a writer is nothing without readers. A reader reads a story with high expectations; if the writer betrays that expectations, he or she destroys reader’s trust. “And the editor is the conscience of the writer and the newspaper. He challenges facts and writing, and upholds the newspaper’s standards,” noted Kenn Finkel, former news editor of Dallas Times Herald.
The writer is a Toronto-based journalist who also writes for the Toronto Sun and Canada’s Postmedia Network