Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

Writing critical reviews

January 7, 2008

Dann Gire, the movie critic for the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, offers some terrific advice on writing reviews. Read it. Know it. Live it. (But don’t be it – – he hates the ‘to be’ verbs.)

In the concrete and deadline-ruled world of print journalism, space that once looked vast and wide-open has become like Manhattan apartments: scarce and competitive. In print, every word counts. Every thought must be concise and well-articulated. In short, print stories must be be air-tight. (So should on-line reviews, by the way.) With that in mind, I present the following suggestions on how to improve writing skills, based on the most common problems I spotted in the contest materials submitted in the Movie Review category:

Never fall back on “wind-up leads,” where it takes a paragraph or two or three before you get around to telling readers your real subject or point. We now live in the era of technological and cultural ADD. Get to your point.

Burn off the literary flab. Eliminate redundant verbiage. Just because you have time to read the same information over again doesn’t mean your audience does.

Dump space-wasting, mind-numbing filler phrases and weird idiomatic expressions. When people “find themselves” in a bad situation, did they get lost first? Why do people always “manage” to do something? Why don’t they just do it? How about those classic clichés “on the other hand” and the ever-popular “race against time”? This kind of writing can kill reader interest deader than a doornail.

Other suggestions:

If you ask a question in your copy, you must answer the question in your copy. Otherwise you create confusion and disinterest in the reader.

Can’t find your lead? I found five stories with their leads plastered to the bottom. Writing tip: When you think you’ve finished your story, take the bottom graph and paste it on the top. In most cases, you’ll find your true lead.

Free yourself from the tyranny of easy, slothful verbs such as IS ARE WAS and WERE. Kill them. Before they kill reader interest by sucking the action out of your sentences.

Do not command your readers to do your bidding. Don’t tell them they must see a movie, or avoid a movie. If you have properly done your job as a critic, they can make up their own minds, thank you.

Never praise a movie with faint damnation, such as calling a movie “worth the price of admission.” What does that phrase mean? Admission can be 10 cents or $10. Besides, admission prices have no relation to the level of quality in a motion picture.

If a movie sucks, it sucks. Period. If a Mandy Moore movie sucks, how does being a Mandy Moore fan make the movie suck less? Don’t pander to readers by undermining your critical analysis with caveats such as “Even though this movie sucks, Mandy Moore fans will probably like it.” Critics write criticism. Not predictions of what consumers will like (or won’t like).

The movie critique belongs to you, the writer. It should reflect your views, your education, your values, and be presented in your voice. If you use outside sources for the criticism (other critics, authors or authorities), you have written a feature report, not a critical review.

Never use abbreviations such as etc., et. al, e.g. or i.e. Your review should present a fascinating story for your readers, not sound like a legal brief.

Finally, take this pop quiz: How many times do the lethargic verbs IS ARE WAS WERE appear in the text of this memo?

Now ask yourself this question: Did you miss them?

Respectfully submitted,

Dann Gire


Local angle … specific examples … research … quotes … oh yeah, we’ve got ourselves an editorial

October 30, 2007


Today’s editorial includes good research, perspective, context and solid insights. The editorial offers specific examples, good sources and good writing. Plus, we offer a suggestion. We had ourselves a nice, relevant edit today, folks. Good job.

Here’s the context (or thesis)

Four people of the 11 in the board did not show up.

Apparently, the responsibility of managing more than half a million dollars for the campus is not enough to encourage people to show up for the meetings.

A quorum for the AB is eight members, and only seven showed up.

This includes specific examples.

Three absent members gave reasons for not coming – Pat Lindstrom, Karen Gaines, and Laurel Fuqua.

Fuqua is a non-voting member, so her absence did not cause the failure to make quorum. Her excuse was also much more reasonable than Lindstrom’s and Gaines’s – Fuqua’s daughter was having a recital, and she wanted to attend.

Lindstrom’s and Gaines’s excuses were “schoolwork.”

And later, we add more details.

Last year, AB forced University Board to cut $77,000 from its budget. That is not a small change. It caused a real reorganization of priorities for the UB.

We also have a nice conversational tone.

Understand, these meetings are not very long. With little new business, a meeting may only last 15 minutes.

Plus, we offered a suggestion, which is really a warning.

This is an organization with a great deal of power and influence, and one that needs to be active if it is to have any effect.

Leah Pietraszewski, chair of AB, said last year that she plans to strongly enforce the attendance policy.

This means that three unexcused absences result in removal from the board.

The board should start looking before we reach a crisis point.

Bad Pedro, but good editorial

October 22, 2007

We did not unfairly attack the University Board for the Pedro fiasco this weekend; instead, we offered our commentary inside an editorial that folded his unimpressive performance inside a piece that also addressed all the fine things presented during the weekend. To have ripped into a single event would have been unfair; instead, we offered an editorial that had better perspective. Good job.

Tips for writing columns

October 6, 2007

Dan Hagen, who has won many awards for commentary and reporting, offers the following tips for writing columns.

• Have the courage of your convictions — “Tell the truth and don’t be afraid.”

• Have the convictions worthy of your courage. In other words, don’t print half-assed ideas that aren’t well researched and well thought through.

• If the majority already thinks so, what’s the point? The majority doesn’t need to be told when it is right. It desperately needs to be told when it is wrong. People are already self-satisfied enough, and I don’t care to contribute to that. On a practical level, columns that agree with majority opinion tend to be dull, sometimes frightfully so. “Isn’t it wonderful that the flowers are in bloom?” isn’t an opinion worth wasting ink on. On the other hand, defense of an unpopular position is sure to attract attention and stimulate discussion.

• Don’t hit back. It’s easy to demolish your critics in an editor’s note attached to their letter, so don’t do it. Let them have their say without comment, unless you have to correct errors of fact.

• You sound smarter when you quote smart and witty people. Here are some of the world’s great wits — Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Winston Churchill, Tallulah Bankhead, Groucho Marx.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside
of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
— Groucho Marx.

• Be careful of satire, because some people are too stupid to get it.

• Use sensual description.

Editorials can be engaging

September 28, 2007

Editorials can be written conversationally, include quotes, and can even profile an individual. Editorials, like columns, are really news stories with strong opinions. Check out today’s editorial on voter registration, a topic that is often presented in a preachy (screechy?) manner. Ours was much more engaging. Plus, we included historical perspective (the 1992 elections), and reasons one needs to register and vote — to be a solid citizen, really. The strength of this editorial, though, is that it profiles someone who feels passionately about this topic. Good job.