As editors, we’re suckers for words. Give us a good quote, pun or catchphrase, and you’re sure to spark a smile or comment from one of us. Words are our bread and butter (pardon the cliché), so it’s no surprise that we rely on such sayings to remember the best practices and rules of journalism. Most of us can’t remember where we first heard the adages that follow, but we can’t forget them! Here are six of our favorites:
- If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Never assume anything in your story. It doesn’t matter how rock solid your research seems or how trustworthy your source appears to be. Never take a piece of information for granted until you have verified it through a firsthand source. It’s also a good practice to double-check any dates, names, locations or statistics you cite in an article. It might seem like a hassle, but it’s much easier than dealing with the angry phone calls, letters and e-mails that come when errors are printed.
- If it bleeds, it leads. It’s a hard-and-fast rule in the world of instantaneous news that information that carries the greatest impact (in this case, life or death) should come before anything else in a story. Though this adage doesn’t apply as much to feature stories, there is truth at its core because the lead should introduce and put into context the central conflict in a story — with everything afterward supporting or advancing that idea.
- Garbage in, garbage out. With creative thinking (and occasionally the right software), designers can work some magic — we have witnessed that on many occasions. But when it comes to production, there are limits to what can be done. A low-resolution image or a poorly shot photo, for instance, might suffice, but it probably won’t look that great, no matter how much you try to tinker with it.
- Less is more. Yes, it’s cliché, but it’s true, especially when it comes to design. Simplicity can speak volumes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment with different fonts, treatments, angles and looks. But the design of a layout should enhance the story, not detract from it. The more complicated the design, the harder it can be for readers to digest, and the less impact it will have on the audience.
- Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory.” Referenced in his nonfiction book on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway compares good prose to an iceberg whose tip can be detected above water while the rest remains submerged and hidden from view. If a writer knows enough about his subject, Hemingway theorizes, he may omit certain information, and the reader “will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” In other words, it’s better to show than to tell. Using action, description, body language, quotes and other kinds of subtext can be the most powerful way to get your point across.
- “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” Grammarians love to refer to this Mark Twain quote when emphasizing the importance of clear, concise writing. Choosing the right words to use in a sentence can make a big difference in how your story is perceived. The UPI Stylebook said it best with this former entry: “A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist, you’re expected to know the difference.” The point is, taking time to dig deep for the precise word to convey an idea will save you lots of embarrassment and laughs from readers in the long run.
For more memorable (and humorous) journalism rules, check out these grammar gaffes from William Safire’s Fumblerules of Writing. Our favorite one? “Avoid clichés like the plague — they’re old hat.”