Skills for journalists in print and digital media

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Coaching the active voice

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Question: How do I get one of my writers to use the active voice?

First, know that “voice” is really the absence of all affectation, conscious “style” or tricks. Voice is not ornamentation or trying to sound official or expert. In news writing, that is often expressed in “journalese,” a convoluted parallel prose style based on bureaucratic-speak and passive voice.

At it’s most basic, the active voice means the SUBJECT of the sentence does something to the OBJECT, and that expression of doing is the VERB. The passive voice, in sentence construction, is where the OBJECT is having something done to it by the SUBJECT, with the VERB transformed in many cases. Active voice usually involves fewer words, another benefit.

Bob threw the ball to Sue. (Active)
Sue had the ball thrown to her by Bob. (Passive)

So working with a writer to use the active voice means training them to see what is happening in a sentence, to understand who / what is doing what to who / what, to see how energy is transferred from one thing to another. And then to express that directly — actively.

Budget reductions were voted on by the school board. (Passive)
The school board voted on budget reductions. (Active)

Drivers face stiff penalties for broken headlights under a new state
law. (Passive)
A new state law imposes stiff penalties on drivers with broken
headlights. (Active)

People naturally speak in the active voice as they tell stories. People tend to comprehend and retain information better when expressed in the active voice.

The passive voice can also be a function of overly long compound sentences. So another tactic in working with a writer toward a more active voice is to impose a 20-word or so limit on sentence length. This forces or encourages a writer to keep one idea per sentence clearly in focus. This makes it easier to see the “active” exchange of action or energy in a sentence.

Seniors were angry that the local utility’s new tax would add more than 15% to their monthly electric bills, and vowed to have the board removed from office by taking their grievances to court. (Passive)

The local utility’s new tax adds 15% to monthly electric bills. The added cost angered seniors. They plan to take their grievances to court to have the utility board removed. (Active)

Coaching a writer to consistently revise for specific issues (e.g. sentence length; active versus passive voice), is more than fixing a single story; it shows them how to transform their writing. The key is revision, not first drafts.

Show writers some of their chronic bad habits, a list of 3-5 things. Ask that they set aside the time to revise a first draft on these specific issues. When you copy edit their work, the list then gives you and the writer a clear metric for success. This also enables the editor to highlight chronic writing the issues story to story, and not treat edit as an isolated incident. Gradually, raise the bar, add new things to the list. Over time an editor can help a writer become a better self-editor and gain more control over their material.

There are a number of good books on writing that cover active voice and other basic issues that can provide fodder for a solid revision / self-editing list. Among them:

The Magic and Craft of Media Writing, Carl Sessions Stepp

A Writer’s Coach, Jack Hart

On Writing Well, William Zinsser

I always recommend writers and editors read George Orwell’s immortal essay on writing, “Politics and the English Language,” for specifics and inspiration.

Amid many great passages in that essay, Orwell’s list of rules for clear writing:

– Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
– Never use a long word where a short one will do.
– If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
– Never use the passive where you can use the active.
– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
– Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


Written by mroberts8

05/15/2011 at 12:02 am

Posted in Q&A, Writing

Capturing the mood

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Question: I’ve been asked to develop a story on “the mood” of people in a certain area about a proposed new state sales tax. How do I make it more than a bunch of quotes? — NC

Answer: Many “mood” stories around big news trends, elections, and sports events are often just that, a bunch of quotes collected as quickly as possible. The way to more meaning is to stop and think about whose “mood” or opinion might actually be illuminating given the topic.

The trick is to find the right “microcosm” of a person or group of people to ask their feelings, and along the way tell a bit of their story to give their views context. In the case of a new sales tax, for starters, there are people who are selling things and people who are buying things, two large groups of people for whom the tax will have impact. More specific, one candidate might be small, local retailers who may quickly feel a cutback in spending. Another might be families of a certain household income level forced to make spending choices.

Once you have a list of meaningful candidates for reaction, consider where and how some interact. And then you might have the opportunity to capture the mood of different people in a specific setting or set of dynamics that not only conveys a feeling but reveals the drivers or motivations for those feelings.

Let’s say the town you cover has a tourism segment built around outdoor activities. You might select a locally owned outdoor gear store where the owner or manager fears a cutback in spending. Then also talk with customers in that store on whether the added sales tax may cause them to spend less — or not. And perhaps you can determine who might benefit from the tax, such as people in education or law enforcement and ask their feelings.

The worst “mood” stories are quickie street corner or coffee shop interviews that offer anyone willing to talk. The best are pieces that seek out meaningful reaction from people connected to the topic, pieces that offer the stories behind the subjects’ opinions and show the relationships and dynamics that bring nuance and a sense of life to the issue.

Written by mroberts8

04/05/2010 at 8:54 pm

Q&A: Sloppy copy

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Question: One of my reporters has many talents, but turning in clean copy is not one of them. I dread opening up this person’s stories knowing I will likely face a maze of misspelled words, typos, style problems, and unchecked facts. How do you train someone to turn in clean copy? — J.H., Seattle

Answer: First off, do you have a clear standard for how you want copy to arrive? How would you state the expectation for clean copy? Even though you may assume its obvious, a first step is to draw the line of a clear expectation or “desired outcome.” Example:

All copy will be filed on deadline having been spell checked, revised for style, grammar and typographical errors, and all facts (anything that if in error would result in a published correction) properly CQ’d. Copy turned in on deadline, without those quality control steps taken, will be considered to have missed deadline and will be sent back.

Armed with a clear standard, if necessary, then spell out what needs to be done to achieve that standard. Such as actually running the spell check  program, taking one more read on a story just for style-grammar-typos, using the newsroom’s style book. And describe what steps to take to properly CQ names, locations, figures and other facts in a story — including URLs and phone numbers — and how to indicate in copy that each fact is CQ’d. If the person truly does not know how to produce clean copy, or was under the mistaken impression that is your job, then these are the steps to take to change that person’s performance.

Then the person will either improve, or you will know their failure to do so is not a training issue, but rather a management issue. That means training is not the solution. Instead, some form of  progressive discipline to underscore the importance of clean copy and what is at stake for the person who chooses not to meet that standard. Failure to respond becomes a personnel issue.

This will take some time and effort. But far less than you are now devoting to cleaning up bad copy.

And in what may seem like a small-scale example, the same process applies to all the skills and behaviors newsroom managers are trying to coach with their staff, all in a rapidly changing landscape of print and digital media. The need has never been greater to quickly frame evolving standards, describe how to achieve them, and coach for success.

Written by mroberts8

03/03/2010 at 11:21 pm

Posted in Newstraining, Q&A

Q&A: Effective A1 story pitches

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QUESTION: I think I have good story ideas. But I have trouble getting my pitches past the A1 editors. How can I write better budget lines so they take a chance on my stories? — R.K., California

Bad story pitches — as expressed in budget lines — usually come in two forms.

Take a look: A too-short budget line written something like, “Acme School District unveils its new budget for the coming school year. We take a look.”

Full story: A too-long budget line that begins in the past and recounts in excessive detail all that has happened leading up to this particular story.

Both usually fail to clearly state the news at the heart of the proposed story and the impact of the news. A1 editors study budgets from several departments looking for stories with broad appeal. They want to avoid routine process stories or stories of interest to a narrow audience. Impact is a first important measure of appeal. Impact might a matter of precedent (e.g. first; last; biggest), scale (e.g. in dollars, people, geography), universal experience (e.g. something many people or organizations face), or human emotion, as in a story about a death or courageous act or happy ending.

If you have a good story, articulate the news and its impact in clear, concise terms that someone unfamiliar with the subject can grasp. Avoid jargon and vague references. Cut to the chase. Think of how a freelance writer might frame the pitch to the New York Times for regional play.

In the school example above, A1 potential might be how drastic a cut is expected, or that the district has struggled for years and this could put them under state control, or what the loss of a band program will mean to the students. If you have some preliminary information, put it in the pitch.

In the second example, a little context goes a long way. Do not recount the long history of the district or delve into other issues unrelated to the budget. This may be how you think about the story, the subject, or your beat, but the people studying budgets just want the essence of today’s story pitch so they can quickly compare to other contenders.

And if possible, update the budget line. Maybe send an update e-mail to your online and print editors. Once the kernel of the story is clearly stated, it is easier for people to become invested in your story and work with you to shape it.

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Written by mroberts8

02/02/2010 at 5:26 pm