I'm bugged by formula-based writing, especially the kind we seem to get too often in wire service dispatches, because with a little fine-tuning on the desk we can produce stuff that's a lot easier on readers. And we want to make it easier because, as The Wall Street Journal's Barney Kilgore said, "Remember, the easiest thing for the reader to do is quit reading."
Here's a recent example: A serviceable lede, but formula and actor driven, when the news was otherwise:
Insurgents launched a barrage of attacks against police and government buildings in six Iraqi cities Thursday, killing more than 100 people, including three American soldiers.
Are "insurgents" the real point of this story? I'd suggest not, and so did the headline writer, who wrote "Attacks kill 100 ..." The insurgents keep attacking; the news here was the barrage. Recast it and you also get rid of that formulaic and weak floating particpial phrase:
A barrage of attacks by insurgents against police and government buildings in six Iraqi cities Thursday killed more than 100 people, including three American soldiers.
Or, if you think the deaths are the most important -- and some editors might -- then:
More than 100 people, including three American soldiers, died Thursday in a barrage of attacks by insurgents against police and government buildings in six Iraqi cities.
This fine-tuning can help with local copy, too. Consider this lede in my local paper today:
A special Richland County jury found Tuesday that a deputy was justified in the fatal shooting of a teenager in 2002 as he was driving away in a patrol car while handcuffed.
Nothing overly wrong with that, but if we think a bit, it can be fine-tuned. First is "found Tuesday." The verb found has a problem -- to many people the first meaning that jumps to mind is to discover. So did this jury also "find" Wednesday and Thursday, etc.? From context the reader will quickly snap back, but why use a combination that can even momentarily confuse or misdirect? Change it to "decided." The "he" driving away in a patrol car also has some minor problems. It refers to the teenager and is not out of place, but put "he" and "patrol car" together, and for some readers the connection will initially be with the deputy, not the teenager. Finally, "in the fatal shooting of" and "as he was driving away"" can be tightened.
A special Richland County jury decided Tuesday that a deputy was justified in fatally shooting a teenager in 2002 as the handcuffed teen drove off in a patrol car. (29 words. original was 32)
I think "drove off" also make clearer it was the teenager doing the driving; you might disagree.
In that same story was this: Willie Jones in March filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department, claiming race is a factor in the department's deadly force policy. "In March filed" is an unnatural way of saying it, and we should try to avoid these types of constructions, though you can't always do that. But here, the active verb sued solves the problem. The word "claims" also is misused. Claims has a connotation of some doubt. It also should be reserved for constructions where someone "claims" actual damages. In this case, the more correct word is "asserts":
Willie Jones sued the Sheriff's Department in March, asserting race is a factor in the department's deadly force policy.
Finally, one other example from a recent story.
The highest recorded level of rainfall in the Columbia area was 2.91 inches at Owens Field airport in the city, he said.
Tighten and fine-tune it:
The most rain recorded in the Columbia area was 2.91 inches at Owens Field airport in the city, he said.
We owe it to our readers to try to fine-tune whenever we can.