Style Matters #44: Don’t leave readers wondering about forgotten details

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One of the biggest cardinal sins a reporter or writer can commit is to leave unanswered questions in their copy.

Most beginner writers commit this sin at least once. They’ll only keep doing it until someone points out the error of their ways, but being yelled at across a busy newsroom or down the phone by a cranky editor is a pretty humiliating experience.

It means the reporter/writer must be thorough and, if necessary, go the extra distance to complete information for the reader.

Take, for instance, a court report. At the very least, it should contain

  • the name/s and gender/s of the accused (if they can’t be named because of the nature of their crime, then just their gender/s)
  • their age/s
  • their suburb/s
  • the charge/s they are facing/have faced
  • when and where the alleged offence/s occurred
  • the name of the court where the case is being/has been heard
  • the day (or date) of the hearing/trial
  • any outcome
  • if the case is continuing after a publication’s deadline, the next scheduled court date
  • reason/s that explain why any charges are being/have been withdrawn or dismissed
  • if the accused is to be kept in custody until a subsequent hearing, that should also be stated

The reason so much personal information is usually necessary is to, hopefully, prevent any confusion between the named accused and any other individual/s who might have a similar name. That is why, with common names, even middle names should be included.

Yet corners are cut, longer court stories are reduced to news briefs (when detail is pared back to bare bones) but word economy should never trump factual completeness.

But – as I’ve seen frequently, especially in suburban and regional newspaper copy – reporters leave out critical details, most commonly the outcome of a court case that has concluded before the publication’s deadline. That’s just laziness.

Worse still, the person editing the copy may well be dealing with it after hours and will probably have no way to fill in the missing detail. In some cases that detail will be critical so the story will then need to be pulled and replaced because readers would be left wondering. Another cranky editor.

So it’s up to the reporter to check all the detail is included prior to submission for publication and any updates forwarded before deadlines pass.

Similarly, with fiction or non-fiction writers who are setting up a scene, it’s often a case of trying to condense the prose too much, rushing the reader through the action or skipping over fine detail/s that become/s important in later sections.

The best way to ensure readers are not left curious about absent details is to go back to first principles before finalising the copy.

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes.

  • What will they want to know?
  • Ask whether you have answered the who, what, when, where, why and how so that someone reading the story for the first time could retell it accurately with ease.
  • Check whether, having introduced interesting angles, you have filled in all the gaps.
  • Have you given enough identifying detail about an individual person or character so that readers are not confused about who you are talking about?
  • Have you introduced any contradictions between facts in your story?
  • Do your figures add up (a real trap for even seasoned journalists)?
  • Are names spelled correctly and consistently throughout the story?
  • Does the version of each name you’ve used tally with previous stories about those people?
  • Have you double-checked the correctness of any addresses (don’t just take the word of someone in authority about addresses, check them in street directories and if they don’t seem valid, get back to the source to check)?

Finally, be wary of using jargon and assuming readers will “get it”. If it’s essential to use jargon – say, in a direct quote – ensure it’s explained up front before using the term on its own.

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If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters or connect via Facebook by liking the reporting4work Facebook Page 

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