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Why Journalism Matters: Spit It Out!

This is the fourth in a weekly series by NCTE member Alana Rome.  

Alana RomeNo teacher wants to read it. No student wants to write it. It’s the two-page essay that stretched into five. Why did the student write SO much when it wasn’t required? Was it his passion to analyze the psychological underpinnings of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye? Was it her love of playing with words: reordering, replacing, adding, and subtracting until she created the perfect construction to prove her claim? Although that may be every English teacher’s dream, a paper likely rambles on, repeats ideas, and strays off topic because the writer does not know how to write a strong, succinct composition.

Journalism classes, even more than English classes, value conciseness, consistency, and clarity. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, today’s readers have the attention span of gnats; you’d better grab them hard and grab them fast, because they’re one click away from the next story, the next book, the next tweet. To circumvent this problem, journalists typically use what is called inverted pyramid structure.

This construction, different from traditional essay writing, places the most important information first and allows editors to quickly and efficiently cut copy, from the bottom up.

This weekend, I read through The Associated Press Guide to News Writing: The Resource for Professional Journalists by Rene J. Cappon. Through organized chapters, Cappon details what makes for superfluous writing, including unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, passive voice, modifiers, and qualifiers, just to name a few. He makes this stripping-down easier to see through side-by-side examples:

There was no one in the group of bystanders who came to the victim’s aid.

vs.

No one in the group of bystanders helped him.

A simple editing and rearranging of this sentence is the difference between a winding, 15-word sentence and a concise, 9-word sentence.

Entries and exercises like these, found in journalism classes, could help English students create clear, organized writing, and by extension, give them a clearer idea of what they are arguing in the first place. Students should be encouraged to “cut the fat” and stop worrying about sounding sophisticated, complex, and “smart.”

Need more evidence that journalism’s focus on concise writing fits the needs of English classes? Just take a look at some of the Common Core State Standards for English, grades 9–10:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.A: Introduce precise claim(s) . . . and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.2.D: Use precise language.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience

Alana Rome is an English teacher, newspaper adviser for Trailblazer, and soon-to-be journalism teacher at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, NJ. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English education, grades 7-12, both from Iona College. Alana is a contributor of English Leadership Quarterly and has provided professional development sessions at EdScape, Global Education Conference, and Columbia Scholastic Press Association on a variety of topics, including global awareness, authentic assessment, classroom technology integration and student goal-setting.