Along with “What is ‘it’?” and “Recorded announcement: In multi-sentence quotes, put the attribution after the first complete sentence,” one of my most frequent comments on student writing is “Needs a few words of ID.” (I should put those all on save-get keys.)
When you’ve spent a lot of time and effort reporting a story, you can be almost too close to it. “Typically, anytime you write something, you think it’s clear because you’ve been wrestling with it forever,” said Craft professor Wayne Svoboda in an interview for my book, American English for World Media. “And so you think, how could anybody not understand?”
The facts may be perfectly clear in your head, but that doesn’t guarantee they’re clear to your audience. Often it’s matter of just a few well-chosen words. Here’s an example that leaped out of The New Yorker at me from a 2014 profile of the ballerina Misty Copeland:
Balanchine had been influenced by working with Josephine Baker, the black American dancer who became a celebrity in France during the twenties.
“Josephine who?” an under-30 (40, 50) reader might have asked. But the writer — or quite possibly an editor saying “Needs a few words of ID” — headed off the question. No need to describe Baker’s banana skirts or African-inspired dances; just use an appositive to tell who she was and when. Of course, the writer might also have explained who Balanchine was (George, the Russian-born founding choreographer and ballet master-in-chief of New York City Ballet). But The New Yorker still assumes basic cultural literacy in its readers.
Another example, from The New York Times:
“It can’t be Lake Wobegon where every building is above average,” said Kenneth K. Fisher, a land-use lawyer with the firm Cozen O’Connor and a former member of the City Council, referring to the fictitious town on the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Most Americans would have no trouble identifying Lake Wobegon, and they could have mentally skipped over that phrase. For anyone else, it would have anticipated the question. The whole point of making IDs graceful is to inform readers who don’t know without insulting the intelligence of those who do.
Last year, in a story about Argentina at the end of military rule, a CUNY international student wrote:
Despite the attempt to implement the “Full Stop Law,” which was overturned, more than 30 years after the ending of what was called the “National Reorganization Process,” a euphemism to describe the dictatorship, the wounds are still deep in the flesh of Argentine society.
Good job on explaining the “National Reorganization Process.” But the “Full Stop Law”? Few, if any, Americans would know off the top of their heads (that’s an idiom meaning immediately, without having to look it up) that it ended the investigation and prosecution of those accused of political violence during the dictatorship. Adding that explanation would make a too-long sentence even longer, so recast it and break it up:
More than 30 years after the “National Reorganization Process,” a euphemism for the dictatorship, the “Full Stop Law,” intended to end the investigation and prosecution of military personnel involved in torture, killings and disappearances, was overturned. But the wounds are still deep in the flesh of Argentinian society.
Better yet, say who overturned it and rewrite the clause in active voice.
Another international student, applying for an internship next summer, wrote in a cover letter:
The TKTKTK in the Flint River water had corroded lead in the city’s water pipes. . . .
No more questions.