Thursday, March 10, 2011

Head Staples

There's a serious problem in the world today. I can't fix it. I wish I could, but, sadly, I'm just one woman. And this problem is an avalanche.

What is that problem, you ask? I know. You long to hear about problems because you haven't enough in your own life. You love whining. You love listening to people complain about avalanches, snowballs, and landslides of problems.

So that's why I'm going to tell you. Also, it does me good to get it off my chest. I can barely breathe and it's not just the baby being all selfish with the limited space in my torso and crushing the air out of my lungs (can you believe this baby?!).

The problem is clarity. Let me give you an example. This is from a story I read on a news site:

Meanwhile, C____ H_____ received seven staples in his head after the car nicked his right shoulder as it went airborne into the front porch. Doctors put his arm in a sling. His wife, S____, is still reeling from the experience.
I took the names out, obviously. I don't know these people and besides, I might complain about the entire story and I have nothing against them as individuals. It's the quality of the story itself and lack of a theme. Lack of everything, really.

I know I tread on dangerous ground to criticize someone else's writing. It invites scrutiny of my own writing and I'm sure there are several areas where I could improve, however, I'm not being paid to write. Nor am I part of the machinery of the AP or any of those behemoths producing material for the news agencies.

And I understand that journalists are often given assignments they resent. I'm sure it's crappy to have to create an article from material you don't care about. That's why I'm not a journalist. I did it for a few weeks, loathed it, and quit.

So this paragraph I shared with you. It's so horribly done, I can barely stand it. So C.H. received seven staples in his head, you know, like when I receive a package in the mail. Aside from receive being a terrible choice of words here, what's worse is the stupid doctors apparently didn't realize the real wound was in his shoulder! Where the car nicked him!

Then, of course, the doctors put his arm in a sling. I think somehow that must be related to the shoulder wound, which got scant attention after his head was stapled seven times (for no reason whatsoever). I imagine the shoulder will heal, because of that sling, but I don't know how long his recovery will take. Shoulder-nickings are on the rise, yet no studies have been done to determine lasting damage and whatnot.

I jest. Surely this is no laughing matter, surely. But the poverty of writing skill demonstrated in the article steals the attention. I'm sure you didn't even notice that what happened in the paragraph is that A CAR WAS FLYING THROUGH THE AIR AND NARROWLY MISSED C.H.

Yeah. That's right. It was difficult to determine the exact details, but what I gathered from the badly tangled story is that a family was out in their front yard on Sunday when a vehicle, recklessly careening down their street, bounced off a couple other stationary vehicles, soared through the air over the small gathering (nicking C.H. in the shoulder) and crashed into the house.

But don't expect such a concise summary of what happened in the original story. If you read it (after somehow finding it, bwah ha ha ha), you'll feel like a prisoner of the labyrinth, picking up a scattered trail of breadcrumbs, which lead you nowhere. It's like the minotaur sneezed and you've got to find where the crumbs were originally placed. That's how scattered the details are.

Originally, Ariadne used a ball of thread to help Theseus in the labyrinth. But for my purposes, bread crumbs have an inherent comedic element that thread lacks. Should you find yourself in a labyrinth, I suggest you follow Ariadne's lead.

Of course, you might argue that C.H.'s head injury is implied by the fact that it received seven staples. So there's no need to clutter up the paragraph with unnecessary details like the fact that while his shoulder was simply nicked, his head bore the brunt of the impact. Like, you know, his shoulder was nicked by the passenger-side mirror and his head was smashed by the windshield.

But if that's the case, wouldn't the greater injury demand more attention? And while I agree that it's clever and interesting to leave some mystery in the telling, there's an immense difference between clarity (bringing back my original complaint) and obscurity. And besides, news articles are hardly the place to concoct a mystery for eager readers to solve. We don't read the paper to get the satisfaction of deciphering meaning. That's the job of fiction.

There are more offenses in the original story. Another paragraph:

On Sunday, police say A____ G____ J____, 20, recklessly drove a Cadillac down [a street], hit the H____’s parked Honda Civic, and then hit a tree. That catapulted the vehicle J_____ was driving on top of a Toyota Corolla and Jaguar parked in the P___'s driveway. Then it hit their house, further impacting their lives.
So, there are a lot of blanks in there, but you can just substitute any names in. The Civic was C.H.'s car. In a line before this paragraph, we learn that C.H. and his wife were forced to move in with his wife's parents because they've been having difficult health problems.

The main point of the article seems to be that this couple is living the story of Job. Any possible complication that could happen has happened. And then out of nowhere, a car flies through the air and nicks C.H. in the shoulder (requiring seven staples to the head). It does seem rather implausible, but I'm not questioning that. I am, however, questioning the sentence structure of this paragraph.

First of all, sometimes people TRY SO HARD (bless their hearts) to use active verbs that they sacrifice (once again) clarity for ACTION. As though I read the newspaper to get a rush. Yes, the active voice is great. I agree. But what's even better than that? Making sense.

Maybe there's no way to write this paragraph so that it reads smoother*. There are, after all, several makes and models of cars and about a million names. It's like proper noun city in this paragraph. To complicate matters, the writer appears desperate to relate the sequence of the accident while also making sure to paint an accurate picture of the types of vehicles (very important!), but, not only that, he/she also wants to litter the sentences with exciting words like catapult. I question the use of catapult.

Here's why I question the word catapult. Stationary object becomes a projectile....

The first time I read it (and I had to read the paragraph several times to understand it), the thing that stuck out the most was the Jaguar. One of the main points of this short article is to let readers know that a fund has been established to help these people out. But, then there's a Jaguar in the driveway.

I'm not saying it belongs to C.H. It probably belongs to his wife's parents. And if they can afford a Jag, cool. No big deal. But there's a Jag in the driveway. And then there's a fund where I can donate money to help them out. But there's a Jag in the driveway. A Jag. And it's a Jag. Starting at $50,000 for the low-end models. A Jag. In the driveway.

My point is, it doesn't make sense. I'm not saying the writer should lie about things, but too many unnecessary details weigh the story down and all the active verbs in the world don't help me slog through them. And especially it doesn't increase my sympathy to the point of donating when I read that there's a Jaguar in the driveway.

It's like all the scammers in Nashville. One time, Stoker and I were in a parking lot, sitting in our truck and a van with a family in it pulled up. Stoker was on the phone with a client or his boss, but that didn't dissuade the female driver. She left her van to come to our window and asked us to help her out. She needed money for gas to get to Atlanta. Her husband remained in the van, on his very nice cell phone, and the lady left her van running. She'd been driving around the parking lot. Quite a bit.

We didn't have any cash. She left. My question for scammers like that is, how do you afford that cell phone? It's a luxury. If you have no money, sell what you have. Cut back. It's not that difficult.

So when an article asks for my money, but there's a Jag in the driveway, seven staples to the head and an arm in a sling doesn't illicit enough sympathy for me to donate. Perhaps I'm a cold-hearted jerk (I totally know that's not true, but I had to say it, you know, so I don't look like a jerk), but that's not how the relationship works.

I work hard to earn my living, and yes, I know I'm blessed and that it's not all me. Nevertheless, to make me want to part with (basically) my blood, sweat, and tears, you're going to have to show me that your need is desperate. And a Jag or a cell phone tells me things aren't quite as bad as you're trying to portray.

Anyway. Perhaps the author of the article WANTED me to feel like C.H. doesn't truly deserve my money. If so, bravo. If not, maybe, I don't know, the writer should sign up for some writing courses. Or don't. You're not the only one (you, meaning the writer) suffering. You're in good (or bad?) company. The entire community of journalists is on a swift course downhill in terms of good writing. It's an avalanche.

*Police say A____ G____J_____, 20, drove a Cadillac in a reckless fashion down D____ street on Sunday, careening into C.H.'s parked Honda Civic and a tree, which launched the Cadillac onto two other vehicles parked in the P___'s driveway. But the Cadillac didn't stop until it crashed into the P___'s house where it (describe the damage in a three words). 


Anonymous said...

Please don't call me Shirley.

Nicole Grotepas said...

Ha ha ha. Good one! :)