Saturday, July 12, 2008

Noble calling

SOME people who end up in Mass Communication should have been doctors, surgeons, sainted medical trailblazers.

I should know, after no longer counting the years I have tried to teach news writing to generations that often write this first-meeting expectation: “I hope writing will not turn out to be such a nosebleed.”

A decade ago, my students fondly dwelled on the size, color and degree of trauma betrayed by their eye bags. These were certainly more impressive than the drafts that were composed a few hours before the 8 a.m. deadline. Had Dr. Frankenstein been born in this generation, he would have been only one of many and not been immortalized by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly.

Yet, June always finds me back, wielding the chalk and red pen. Infected by my students’ medical bent, I have this undying zeal to contaminate not a few with the germ of word love and newsprint.

After all, the youth that can shear letters to come up with compact English for texting can learn to appreciate the lean beauty of news: a lead or introduction that’s longer than the headline only by a period; anorexic paragraphs that don’t run longer than an amputated sentence; “lite” words that are not polysyllabic.

Think of the possibilities of an adjective-free life! Journalists may be poor cousins to novelists but they don’t labor under a baggage of bloated sentences and hairy modifiers. Listen to these winning entries from the Bulwer-Lytton contest for wretched writing, and thank your fortune and editor that nothing longer than an article to plug the news hole is expected after fieldwork:

“With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.” (A. Hall, Fort Wayne, Ind.)

“As if on cue, the dark clouds began spitting at passersby, not the warm watery spit that mistakenly passes one’s lips while speaking, or a little stream emitted by a playful saliva gland, but the thick, heavy spittle that is brought up dark, humid bronchial tubes, a pulsating esophagus, and spewed forth by dirty-mouthed boys trying to be men. (M. Ruby, Fresno, Calif.)

While literary writers have to tax their imaginations peering down private throats, news chasers dig dirt only in the public sphere. If your newsroom’s corruption problem is no more serious than the toilet occasionally clogged after a failed suicide attempt by a reporter despondent over failing to write a lead that raises his hazard allowance, you should not be sent off to write a story on these routine coverages:

“Wilkens, the tall muscular fisherman, shielded himself with his pantyhose by tugging it up and over his head and holding it there while the arrows shot by the Eskimo sailors bounced mercifully off him and didn’t hurt him either because apparently they could not pierce the fine knit fabric, especially the ‘control top’.” (T. Dempsey, Cambridge, Mass.)

“Ripping the third bodice from Belinda’s hot, palpitating body, Lord Trewithit realized that he had also removed four camisoles, six petticoats, two corsets, and five pairs of pantaloons so far and there still seemed a lot of linen ahead, and with a cry of passion he demanded, ‘Good God, woman, are you nothing but skivvies!” (G. Ellis, Houston, Tex.)

Although students hold all editors in superstitious dread, believing them capable of using their X-ray vision to expose their core of bad English, I always try to soothe away their fears by confirming that there is a soft human side underneath that tough, reptilian intolerance for malignant metaphors.

But even if an aspiring news writer were to pass copy that began with “The sun hiccupped morning onto the weeping landscape… ,” all editors are always multi-tasking and would never have the luxury of time to vent their malice.

Rewriting always offers a chance at redemption so, unlike the Bulwer-Lytton winners, a beginning journalist may never receive this email of rejection: “A book so bold, so daring, so totally outrageous that no one else would publish it—and neither would we, so we published this one instead.” 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 13, 2008 issue

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