Graceful IDs

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:

From my experience in the newsroom of RTVi, I am comfortable multitasking and meeting tight deadlines in a breaking-news environment.
A few years ago, when a Russian student wrote in her cover letter that she had worked for Mir, I told her there was no need for an ID; even Americans have heard of Mir. But RTVi was more obscure and needed those few precious words of ID. Once again, adding them would have made the sentence too long. Here’s the final edit:
My experience includes working in the independent television network Russian TV International (RTVi), which broadcasts news to Russian-speaking audiences in the United States, Israel, Germany and Latvia. I am comfortable multitasking and meeting tight deadlines in a breaking-news environment.
Just this week, another student wrote quite a good story about one family suffering from the water crisis in Flint, Mich. The story mentioned lead poisoning high up, but this sentence of background stopped me:
To save money, city officials decided in April 2014 to switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River.
“And what’s wrong with the river water?” I commented. “Lots of pollution? From what? Don’t assume we know.” (Confession: the Flint crisis has not been at the top of my mental priority list.)
This case was more complicated than just adding an appositive, as above. The writer elaborated:
The water from the Flint River was so corrosive that it had etched the city’s lead contained water pipes. As a result, lead was leaching into the drinking water in the Flint homes.
The answer to one question often raises another. What chemical in the water was corroding the pipes? The writer didn’t know, so I suggested digging deeper and finding out. If she did, she could reword the passage one more time:

The TKTKTK in the Flint River water had corroded lead in the city’s water pipes. . . .

No more questions.




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