When we play the Dictator Game (if I ruled the world, here’s what happens) my husband’s first law is this: Everyone takes journalism in high school.
I concur, though my first rule would be no gum popping in movie theaters.
John, my husband, and I are journalism evangelists. He likes to joke he got into the business when Gutenberg invented the press. I came along not long thereafter when we wrote stories on typewriters and rearranged paragraphs with the original cut and paste tools: a pair of scissors and a pot of glue. If America had knights, we think Woodward and Bernstein should be declared Sirs. A free society rests on the strong shoulders of good journalism.
We think there’s no better way to learn how to write with accuracy, brevity and clarity – the ABCs of journalism – than studying it. And we’ve been preaching this gospel for the past 15 years at various colleges and universities including Georgetown, Washington and Lee, Hollins and Randolph. So we were delighted when American Horse Publications invited us to speak to equine journalists about crafting better stories at its annual conference this weekend in Williamsburg.
Horses and words are my two passions. So spending time talking about both is my idea of heaven. John loves words and loves to pet our horses. But that’s as far as his horsey love goes. So once again he gets the best husband award for plowing through piles of horse magazines looking for examples of good and bad writing.
I used to be the mystery review columnist for the Baltimore Sun. I read or thumbed through hundreds of mysteries and found it troubling that the standards seemed so much lower for this genre than literary fiction. As if to say, if you’ve got plot you don’t need anything else. Baloney. Good writing is good writing, and I refused to lower the bar when I reviewed them.
I feel the same way about journalism. Good journalism is good journalism, be it about a crooked politician or a blind therapy horse. The same ABCs apply. And that’s what we talked about to our group on Friday.
John and I play good-cop, bad-cop when we teach. Sometimes we switch roles, but he’s usually Bad Cop because he’s a curmudgeon or what our son calls him: a grump-aponomous. So I told him to ratchet it back a bit because a) the writers we’d be talking to work hard and don’t get paid enough, b) they don’t have to stay to get a grade and we could end up talking to an empty room and finally, c) we want to encourage rather discourage. There’s nothing worse than a coach who tears you down. I spent more than a year training with someone who thought I was the world’s worst rider. Guess what that did for my confidence.
The good news is there were many examples of fine journalism in the horse magazines we used to illustrate our points. One story about a horse who survived a tornado, became the benchmark for the telling detail, a good lead and our favorite writing tool, the interesting juxtaposition. She wrote that 20 bricks were all the remained of the tornado-flattened home. When we read that lead aloud, then later asked the participants what they remembered about it, everybody said “20 bricks.” From then on our advice about good reporting and writing was to “look for the 20 bricks.”
To our surprise and joy, the writer of the 20 brick story was in the room. Better yet, none of the writers we used as examples the other way – what not to do – were there. It wasn’t difficult to find examples of wordy, abstract, imprecise and inaccurate writing. Everyone makes writing mistakes. You could go through my articles and find enough examples to teach several classes. However, no journalist should make some of the reporting mistakes we found and no editor should allow them to go through. As in the word “perhaps,” which we found in more than one article. “Perhaps” tells the reader than the writer is too lazy to dig for the facts. If you don’t have credibility as a journalist, you don’t have anything.
The best news about reading all those horse magazines is how interesting and compelling the subjects were. The story about the blind therapy pony is a four-hankie read that could easily be turned into a Parade Magazine feature. Even John, who reaches his horse threshold easily, was riveted by the article about the Army’s cavalry unit.
We horse journalists get to write about the most magnificent creatures on earth. Let’s do them justice.
Next blog: an interview with Melanie Smith Taylor about her TaylorMade clinic, which I will be riding in and blogging about daily starting Wednesday, June 6.