Sunday, November 29, 2009

Professional Writing Mistakes

This is part five of a five-part series on writing mistakes.
I used to think of reporters, essayists, and other professional writers as too experienced to make writing mistakes.

Pshaw. The pros make mistakes too. But thanks to careful editing, we rarely see them.

But there are a few kinds of writing errors that escape even the most careful sentence-by-sentence editing. These are what I call professional-grade errors.

1) Slanted or politically biased writing
Some journalists do their best to avoid bias, but it only takes a cursory reading of key newspapers like the New York Times or the LA Times to see that in general most straight news stories are tilted to some extent to the political left.

2) Writing that carries a misleading appearance of balance and fairness
Whenever a reporter writes up a story, he has the obligation to include quotes, evidence and explanations for the various sides of any issue. But which side gets mentioned first? Are other viewpoints buried in the last few paragraphs of the article where no one will see them?

3) Marginalizing minority viewpoints
Furthermore, many issues have more than two sides. However, the news media, in its effort to put up a show of balance, tends to frame up issue and debates as having only two sides. As a result, the media tends to marginalize the viewpoints of cultural and political minorities. See former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's book Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years In The White House for an enlightening discussion of this issue.

4) Approaching a story with a preconceived conclusion
This flaw generally goes unnoticed by professional writers and editors because they operate in a world where no one is supposed to have preconceived notions. And yet everyone does--it's just that we are often completely blind to our inner biases. The best suggestion I can make to any writer who wants to correct for unseen bias is to ask yourself, "what is my gut feel on the issue I'm writing about?" and then put most of your energy into defending any or all opposing views. This should eliminate every trace of bias from your writing.

Remember, these types of errors are usually beyond the scope of even the most careful sentence-by-sentence editing. Be aware of them and control for them before you get to the editing stage.