The Write Stuff
By Alan Crawford,
Five spelunkers got trapped in a cave in southwest Virginia in late April, and CNN’s coverage of this unfortunate event offers a good example of how not to write informative prose. The spelunkers entered the cave one Friday night, planning to spend “an extended amount of time” down there. While we wouldn’t want to make light of their predicament, they no doubt spent a more “extended amount of time” down there than they had intended. CNN tells us, on a hopeful note, that they weren’t “too far” into the cave. Unfortunately, they did not bring “a lot of extra” food or water with them, and the rescue effort would probably take “a considerable amount of time.” By Sunday, the men had been rescued, so there’s a happy ending to this story, badly told as it was.
Think about the way CNN described the situation. An “extended amount of time,” “too far,” “a lot of extra” provisions and “a considerable amount of time” are totally subjective. For some of us — meaning me — 10 minutes down there is “an extended amount of time,” and five or six steps into the darkness of a cave is “too far.” For an experienced cave explorer, “an extended amount of time” might be a month or more, for all I know, and A Journey to the Center of the Earth would not be “too far.”
For these guys, a Clif Bar and Red Bull might constitute plenty to live on, but, for this pleasure-loving, cave-avoiding hedonist, not “a lot of extra” food and water means only 10 days’ worth of baby back ribs, three tres leches cakes, and a case or two of Rolling Rock. (Maybe, under the circumstances, Rolling Rock is not the best example.)
And as for that rescue effort, “a considerable amount of time” could mean anything. I don’t know about those spelunkers, but you’d need to get me out of that cold and clammy hole in the ground in 20 minutes or I’d be screaming and crying and going all Donner party the first time my stomach growled.
Remember when you write to be specific.
Don’t expect readers to read your mind. It’s enough in this post-literate culture to expect them to read your words.
Annoying Word of the Month: Conversation. When Kamala Harris was asked at a CNN town hall whether the Boston Marathon bomber should have his right to vote restored, the California senator said that’s a “conversation” we ought to have. Harris was raked pretty hard for the guarded response, and while this turn of events did nothing to boost her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, it might have the beneficial effect of making other politicos and pundits avoid that overused word.
Harris seems to have defaulted to it to avoid a direct answer, but in recent years, calls to “have a conversation” about some matter of public concern carry a slightly different connotation. Usually, it means the person urging any such discussion has a preconceived notion of the intended outcome and rarely has any genuine intention of entertaining other points of view. Back in the Vietnam War era, this was a called a “teach-in,” but it has the same effect. Students who were actually in favor of that war never got to speak.
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