13. Words like shallow, facile, glib and slick are not insults to a journalist. The whole point of paying for a newspaper is that you want information that slides down easily and quickly, without footnotes, serial caveats, obscure references and footnotes to footnotes.1
14. Words like "sensational" and "trivial" are not insults to a journalist. You read what you read - Elizabethan plays, Russian novels, French comic strips, American thrillers - because something in them appeals to your sense of excitement, humor, romance or irony. Good journalism should give you the sensation of humor, excitement, poignancy or piquancy. Trivial is a favorite insult administered by scholars. But even they became interested in their subject in the first place because they were attracted by something gleaming, flashy and yes, trivial.
15. Words have meanings. Respect those meanings. Get radical and look them up in the dictionary, find out where they have been. Then use them properly. Don't flaunt authority by flouting your ignorance. Don't, whatever you do, go down a hard road to hoe, without asking yourself how you would hoe a road. Or for that matter, a roe.
16. Cliches are, in the classic instruction, to be avoided like the plague. Except when they are the right cliché. You'd be surprised how useful a cliché can be, used judiciously. This is because the thing about journalism is that you don't have to be ever so clever but you do have to be ever so quick.
17. Metaphors are great. Just don't choose loopy metaphors, and never, never mix them. Subs on the Guardian used to have a special Muzzled Piranha Award, a kind of Oscar of Folly, first handed to an industrial relations reporter who warned the world that the TUC watchdogs were lurking in the undergrowth, ready to dart out like piranhas, unless they were muzzled. George Orwell once proposed an MP who claimed that the jackbooted fascist octopus had sung its swansong.
18. Beware of street cred. When Moses ordered his commanders to slay the Midianites he wasn't doing it show that he was well hard. When he warned Pharaoh to let his people go he wasn't saying "and then I go, give us our own space, man, and Pharaoh's like, no way, feller." The language of the pub or the cafe has its own rhythms, its own body language, its own signaling devices. The language of the page has no accent, no helpful signaling tone of irony or comedy or self-mockery. It must be straight, clear and vivid. And to be straight and vivid, it must follow the received grammar.2
19. Beware of long and preposterous words. Beware of jargon. If you are a science writer this is doubly important. If you are a science writer, you occasionally have to bandy words that no ordinary human ever uses, like phenotype, mitochondrion, cosmic inflation, gaussian distribution and isostasy. So you really don't want to be effulgent, or felicitous as well. You could just try being bright and happy.
20. English is better than Latin.3 You don't exterminate, you kill. You don't salivate, you drool. You don't conflagrate, you burn. Moses did not say to Pharaoh, "The consequence of non-release of one particular subject ethnic population could result ultimately in some kind of algal manifestation in the main river basin, with unforeseen outcomes for flora and fauna, not excluding consumer services." He said, "The waters which are in the river ... shall be turned to blood, and the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall stink."
21. Remember that people will always respond to something close to them. Concerned citizens of the planet should care more about economic reform in Surinam than about Millwall's fate on Saturday, but mostly they don't. Accept it. On November 24, 1963, the Hull Daily Mail sent me in search of a Hull angle on the assassination of President Kennedy. Once I had found a line that began, "Hull citizens were in mourning today as..." we could get on with reporting what happened in Dallas.
22. Read. Read lots of different things. Read the King James Bible, and Dickens, and poems by Shelley, and Marvel Comics and thrillers by Chester Himes and Dashiel Hammet. Look at the astonishing things you can do with words. Note the way they can conjure up whole worlds, in the space of half a page.4
23. Beware of all definitives. The last horse trough in Surrey will turn out not even to be the last horse trough in Godalming. There will almost always be someone who turns out to be bigger, faster, older, earlier, richer or more nauseating than the candidate to whom you have just awarded a superlative. Save yourself the bother: "One of the first..." will usually save the moment. If not, then at least qualify it: "According to the Guinness Book of Records..." and so on.5
24. There are things that good taste and the law will simply not let you say in print. My current favorites are "Murderer acquitted" and (in a report of an Easter religious play) "Peter Potts, who played Jesus Christ, emerged as the star of the show." Try and work out which one of those examples has the taste problem, and which one will cost you approximately half a million per word.
25. Writers have a responsibility, not just in law. So aim for the truth. If that's elusive, and it often is, at least aim for fairness, the awareness that there is another side to the story.6 Beware of all claims to objectivity. This one is the dodgiest of all. You may report that the Royal Society says that genetic modification is a good thing, and that depleted uranium is mostly harmless. But you should just remember that genetic modification was invented by people who were immediately elected to the Royal Society for their cleverness, by people in there because they knew how to enrich uranium fuel rods and deplete the rest. So [to paraphrase] the immortal words of Miss Mandy Rice-Davies (1963), "They would say that, wouldn't they."
1 Naturally I had to include a footnote to this rule. If I want something that slides down quick and easy now, I go to White Castle. For news I look at the Google News headlines, or turn on BBC or CNN for those "ticker" headlines. Alternatively, the news round-ups from wire services (like the state-by-state news snippets in USA Today) can serve this purpose. But in the current state of journalism, some papers are working to serve instead as an exclusive source of more content, more analysis, more local emphasis. It's their schtick to differentiate themselves from the aggregate sites. I think blogs can work in both ways - Hank, in his infinite wisdom, has included a news service-type blog on Scientific Blogging, but you can also get articles with footnotes, serial caveats and obscure references here (all woven in to erudite and scintillating content, of course). We also have the advantage of linking to pages that describe obscure references, obviating the need to discuss at length.
2 I agree with this rule completely. There are a number of authors out there who use the vernacular, often phonetically, as a device to communicate the character's, well, character - also known as "eye dialect." Personally I find this annoying and distracting. I understand why they do it, I just don't like it. I think you can get ideas across and still use complete sentences, or at least familiar words. Throwing in a "Yessir" occasionally doesn't bother me. Look at Flannery O'Connor or Toni Morrison or Richard Wright, versus Zora Neale Hurston. In Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I did like), you have to first figure out what the hell they're saying, and then you can enjoy the story.
3 The Catholic Church didn't think so, up until about the mid-1960s. Some congregations still disagree.
4 Clearly these names change, or are added to, as years go by. Check out Junot Díaz, if you haven't already - man alive, can he write a scene.
5 This is standard practice in journalism - never be the one to assert something. Always always always attribute. That way, if something is wrong or slightly inaccurate or offensive, you avoid getting the blame. Karl Rove and Dick Cheney perfected this.
6 Although in science this can be a disservice - look at climate change. By implying that there are two "sides" to the debate grossly overestimates the number of scientists who don't believe in it and legitimizes their claims.