June 2008

On assignment

Sorry I’ve been a little irregular posting here. I’ve been spending most of my precious free time here preparing to go on assignment, producing a radio documentary in Washington State all next week. I’m hoping to get back to a more regular posting schedule here at Curran Events once I return.

No mind reading allowed

While we’re on the subject of “says” and similar verbs of expression…

In addition to all the silly synonyms I listed in my previous post on the subject, it’s also wise–journalistically–to avoid words that imply you have mind reading skills and actually know what the speaker is thinking. That means “thinks,” “feels,” “believes,” “understands,” and so on are O-U-T, out. If the subject says he feels relieved… Then. Say. That.

WRONG: Senator Cornwall feels the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

BETTER: Senator Cornall says he feels the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

PROBABLY BEST: Senator Cornwall says the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

In some cases, where you really are dealing with Senator Cornwall’s interior, emotional state, the middle form, “says he feels,” is a better choice than just plain “says.”

Senator Cornwall says he thinks both candidates have turned in disappointing performances.

Consider this practice another form of accurate attribution… a subject we’ll come to soon.

Say “says”

One of the imperatives of good writing that’s drilled into beginner’s heads is not to repeat the same word or phrase too often. If a sentence has the word “ability” in it, the next sentence shouldn’t use the same word. I agree that this is generally good practice. But I make a big exception for all forms of the word “says” — especially in the case of broadcast writing.

It’s tempting to cook up a bunch of synonyms to avoid saying “said” over and over again: “He laughed,” “He announced,” “He revealed,” “He exclaimed,” “He chuckled,” “He sighed,” “He intoned,” and so on and on. Don’t.

Unless you have a synonym for “said” that is absolutely on-point and accurate, that just cries out to be used instead of “said” because it is just right… then use “said” instead. Feel absolutely free to formulate a paragraph that uses “says” over and over again.

Governor Smith says the state treasury is nearly empty. He says tax and fee income has “totally failed” to keep up with expenditures. Smith says he plans to call a special session of the legislature to deal with the state’s financial crisis.

As you can see from this example, “says” is such a ‘null’ word that — as long as there’s enough going on in the story — its repetition will bother absolutely nobody. Also notice that it’s good practice to restate the speaker’s name once in a while, to create variety in the shape of the sentence, and so that you don’t give listeners a chance to actually forget who’s talking.