February 2, 2004

This long vs. short debate continues to frustrate me because we’re using the wrong language and confusing the debate. We should not be arguing length. Instead, tight writing needs our focus and attention.

For the past decade I have been convinced we need a pleasant mix of long and short stories in our newspapers. If we offer a steady diet of short stories we are going to lose readers who look to us for depth and insight. If we print only long stories the people who rely on newspapers for “surveillance’ are going to be bored and disengaged.

The real question we need to ask is does every word we print further a reader’s understanding? If we engage in “throat-clearing,” (useless setup paragraphs,) anecdotal leads without a point, unhelpful adjectives and phrases and yards of useless information, we are writing loose stories that are not worth the reader’s efforts.

When we write a 50-inch story that constantly makes a reader say “wow, I didn’t know that” or “damn, I’m glad I invested time in this story,’ we make the newspaper experience unique from any other media experience.

Roy Clark is THE writing guru and I’ve learned more from him than I could ever teach. Yet, I’m worried about the “law and order” nature of his essay. Editing and writing for a newspaper is not about rules. The essence of good newspapering is knowing what our readers need, and when, and delivering that in bright, tight, readable form.

For example, Roy’s Myth #1 does not recognize time and place. The questions Roy contends only clutter up a story are often essential to a reader’s understanding of the story, especially in the early stages of a developing story. The key question is do those essential facts have to take up eight graphs or could they have been told in three?

My wife Jean tells about a writing class at Texas Tech when the class was given facts and assigned to write an accident story. Jean wrote three paragraphs and got the A while her classmates wrote 10 paragraphs and got C’s. The lessons are obvious. Nobody cares 10 graphs about most accident stories, and any set of facts can be presented tightly.

Roy’s point becomes more relevant in developing stories. I often read the same six paragraphs of background in a story that I’ve seen for days. The answer to Roy’s concern is not to stop editor’s questions, because that could lead to gaping holes that will leave the readership scratching its collective head. The simple test should be am I enhancing my reader’s knowledge with this information?

Roy is absolutely correct on Myth # 2, and this one should be posted in every publisher’s office in the land. Too many publishers think writing short means more stories produced in a day. That’s just not true. I have learned the Mark Twain truth the hard way writing my weekly column on spirituality, ethics, and values in the workplace. I write 45 lines every week. My first draft is usually 52—60 lines. Trimming it to 45 is often arduous, but the column is always better. The first draft of this essay was 71 lines and I trimmed it to 60 by losing unnecessary words and ideas. That self-editing process does take time and self-editing is a step too many writers omit.

There is little to argue with Roy on Myth 3. Roy is making an important storytelling point here; the days in which newspapers only tell stories with narrative text are long gone. The pace and tone of a newspaper must be set by lively graphics, grabby photos and imaginative use of type. Take a long, hard look at ESPN the Magazine and try to appreciate why young people like it so much.

Roy’s finger pointing bothers me in his discussion of Myth #4. His point that some stories could be cut by a third has merit, but I don’t understand why it’s important to blame editors. It takes two to fight, and some reporters resist every attempt to tighten a story. Keep the focus on whether every word and sentence enhances understanding.

Roy and I are in complete agreement on the fact that concise and precise stories get underplayed. I remember warring with desk editors in Minneapolis about a particular writer who wrote beautiful, concise stories. He was convinced those stories were underplayed. He was correct. Roy is right on target when he says until we correct that problem we are hypocrites who deserve to be ignored on this issue.

I would have lost the jeweled belly button reference but Roy is also correct that tight writing deserves to be exalted more in our newspapers.

Roy makes some excellent points in his piece but we must redefine this debate around the words tight and concise. Those are the words that will help us make our newspapers better for readers. Long stories can be beautiful, too, if every sentence enhances the reader’s understanding and enjoyment. Insight, understanding and enjoyment are the keys to making newspapers crucial.

Tim J. McGuire writes a weekly syndicated column called More than Work for United Media. The column discusses ethics, values, and spirituality in the workplace. McGuire was a top editor for 29 years. He retired in June, 2002 as editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. He was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors 2001-2002.

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