Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Plain and Boring Do Not Always Go Hand in Hand

          Since my last critique seemed to bash The National Press Photographers Association for their use of unnecessary official style in their website preamble, I figured I should give them back all the positive credit they deserve! They have super cool aspects on their website like “The Visual Student” which is a blog that gives an overview of what many of the student members of the association are up to in relation to their journey of becoming a photojournalist. And guess what, it is mostly written in plain language! Here’s the kicker though, plain language style doesn’t have to mean it’s boring, nor does it have to sound uneducated!
            The popularity of blogging has been increasing rapidly in the past few years, and if done correctly can be a great way for anyone interested in media of all kinds, even visual journalism, to get themselves out their for public viewing. NPPA has the student blog, “The Visual Student,” which is a website any member of the association, from students to professional photojournalists. On this blog members can learn about internship possibilities, view contest-winning projects, participate in live chats, read about emerging photojournalists and their work and receive tips and advice on their own work.
            Since this blog is open to all members of the association, each member can post on the blog, and each person obviously has their own style of writing. With that being said, I am sure there are posts on the blog written with official style involved. Since blogging is so informal however, many of the posts are written with more plain style usage than official. Tone plays a big role in plain style writing, and also in blogging. The less formal, almost conversational tone of this blog also allows the reader to feel more comfortable with the information they are trying to take in. To me this is extremely important because as a student interested in photojournalism with almost no background knowledge, reading things written at more of an accessible level is very helpful for me.
            The section of the blog, “Chats” is completely in a conversational tone, which would make sense, as it is a chat room. Here is what the chat room’s look like:
Sarah Z: Hi! I graduate this winter and I need time to put a stronger portfolio together. What sort of things/variety do I need to include, and how long after my graduation date will I still be eligible for internships?
Sean D. Elliot: Sarah, a lot depends on what you're looking to do. if you're aiming for newspapers you do need to show the range of work. everyone is a generalist at newspapers these days, so show as much as you can. of course don't show crappy photos just to show you've done something. I guess that should be obvious, but I've seen portfolios with the crumbiest spot news photos just for the sake of having spot news.
bettinahansen: I think it's important to show a range of work that reflects your personal vision.
Maddie McGarvey: So if you're not necessarily good at shooting sports or spot news, do you recommend including them in your portfolio anyways even if it's not your strongest work?
Michael P. King: Variety is good but don't sacrifice quality for variety. Edit your work to play up your strengths and conceal your weaknesses.
Sean D. Elliot: Better to show you do a few things very well and not show what you don't do well.

The chats are extremely informal and completely conversational. The readability score for this section of the chat was a 7.8. This use of plain language is important because the chat is clearly not meant to confuse people, but instead is meant to help them. These tips are aimed to help whoever reads the chat complete the task at hand or at least helps them to wrap their head around what needs to be done. Not much detail is used in these chats, most people use few to no descriptive words or phrases. They simply state the facts.
            Another section of the blog is completely comprised of the perspectives of current and past interns. This is set up in a question and answer format and the intern’s talk about things like what they have learned through interning as a photojournalist, how they landed the position, what their biggest struggles were and what their favorite part of the experience was. What I love about how plain style fits into this is how the blog is truly set up to help young adults interested in the field of visual journalism. The articles and posts are written without any hidden context, in words that the average person uses regularly, and are concise and get the point across.
            One of the advice column articles, “Designing a Better Portfolio Website” was written by an accomplished photojournalist and professor at UMass named Brian McDermott who has had his work published in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Bon App├ętit magazine as well as in many other places.  I took this opening section of McDermott’s article and entered it into the readability calculator:
“A photojournalist needs a website. Having a portfolio website in 2011 is as pro forma as getting your pictures in focus. Editors use portfolio websites to find freelancers, gauge job and internship applicants and follow the progress of photographers they know. Potential subjects use websites to see if you’ll present them fairly. Yet for some photojournalists, having a website is an afterthought– even though for editors and sources it’s often a first impression. If you have a poorly implemented website, that first impression is the digital equivalent of having a piece of lettuce stuck in your front teeth.”
 The scores came out higher than I had anticipated, which I assume is because of some of the word choice he used. But with an average grade level of 11.5, I would think it safe to assume that this piece is fairly accessible for most readers. I mentioned McDermott’s accomplishments to point out the fact that he is indeed a professional, and knows what he is talking about.  While he may not have written this piece at the seventh grade reading level, he did write it in a style that is not too dense, fairly plain and still interesting. This proves that writing in plain style does not lose credibility for the writer.
            Based off of my observation of the National Press Photographers Association blog website I have drawn a few conclusions about plain language in general. In this situation, as well as in similar situations, the use of plain language is important for many reasons. Plain language is useful when communicating to the masses. It allows communication between most age groups, educational backgrounds, and professional status. Plain language used on all blog websites is efficient because it allows the people communicating to clearly state what they want to say, how they want to say it, so it is easily interpreted. After all, the purpose of a blog such as this is to help people, not confuse them. I can also see how plain language can be a slight hindrance. Sometimes being too plain can be similar to being vague which could be just as confusing as if official style had been used. But in this situation I believe that plain language is more helpful than harmful.
            Plain style doesn’t mean a compromise in writing ability is being made. The use of plain style does not make you sound uneducated. It does not make you seem less credible. And it certainly does not need to be dry. Using plain language helps us see the upsides of keeping things short, sweet and to the point with out over complicating things. In a setting like the National Press Photographers Association student blog, the use of plain language is perfect. Short logical sentences, the right amount of detail, conversational tone, common words and the use of strong active voice are all extremely important when talking about plain language and when trying to help someone get their foot in the door as an emerging photojournalist.

 Abbey Grall

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