Friday, April 17, 2015

Are Newspaper Articles doomed to be as Plain as Jane?

           For writing to be accessible does it have lack in flair? In looking at the article Write? On Paper? Summer Camp Letters are an Oddity in the Digital World by Jeff Stickler a journalist for the Star Tribune, a regional newspaper located in the Twin Cities, it is clear the writing is intended to be accessible, which is good otherwise Mr. Stickler may want to look into another career other than that of newspaper journalist.  The piece meant to inform readers and as well as entertain them. This can seem to be juxtaposition since informing on any topic to a mass number of people from a variety of backgrounds requires plain language which can be, well, a bit boring at times. In looking into the article further I wanted to explore how what is considered how plain style can vary depending on context, as well as, whether a writing needs to be plain in order to be understood.
The title is what first struck me as interesting. While it was to the point it also had creative elements.  At first glance it may seem very conversational and yet the word “oddity” is not one would expect to come out of someone’s mouth in everyday conversation. It is more of a highbrow word; more likely to be found in an official document rather than in article articulating that handwritten letters are no longer the norm. The second part of the title that piqued my interest was the phrase “digital world.” This phrase signifies a change in generations. The generation raised on computers, video games, and cell phones versus the generations who were not. Now since the article was originally posted online it can be assumed the authors was speaking more to the latter rather than the former who are more likely to read newspaper the traditional way, on physical paper. This means that the phrase “digital world’ could be seen as plain language since the intended audience would most likely be familiar with the phrase and its meaning since by reading the article online they would participating in the “digital world”.
             When diving further into the article I found more words that did not quite fit in with colloquial speech such as unfathomable, novice, cowed, and notion. Now while these words are not unheard of in everyday language, they are still not commonly used.  Words like unthinkable, new, intimidated, and thought are much plainer words that would get the job done and yet Stickler chose ‘fancier’ more official style words.  The answer why is because to stick strictly to plain language would cause the writing to be none other than plain or in other words boring. While it is the average journalist job to try and reach as many readers as possible they do not want bore or talk down to their readers. It is their job to entertain as well as inform, otherwise readers would turn to other sources for their news.           
            To keep the language easy to follow the author included short sentences with an average of 15 words long. With shorter, to the point sentence, it is harder to lose the reader along the way. In general, despite the discrepancies listed earlier, the words chosen where on the simple side with an average of 1.5 syllables per words making for short words to be the rule. The article after being placed in a readability calculator had the average grade level of the text come out as being 8th grade which is on par with average reading level Americans prefer to read at being at the middle school level. This again circles back to the idea of writers for newspapers trying to reach as many people with the target audience as possible.
            In keeping with the point of the article, at the ended the author provided a list of tips on how readers can personally try and help bring back the art of postmarked letters. He structured it as a list of bulleted points like so:
“• Imagine a conversation. Share your activities and your thoughts, but also ask questions so your correspondent has something to respond to.
• Don’t hurry. Pen, paper, long summer sunset — take time to reflect, open up and write as much or as little as you feel.
• Warm up. Jot a few notes or start writing on a scrap of paper until you are ready to jump into the letter" (Stickler).
For easy of reading, the writer purposefully placed the tips in a parallel format. Frist, he started with a strong, to the point action, using a strong verb. Then the author provided a longer clarifying sentence to help prompt ideas on how to accomplish said action. This is very use full plain writing technique that is used in many how-to types of text which it could be argued as one of the purposes of the text.
 In the further explanations more creative rather than plain writing can be seen for example with “until you are ready to jump into the letter.” Now none of the words are difficult to understand however the verb “jump” is not being used in the typical way. The word “jump” in this instance not being used literally but figuratively. This understood by readers even though it is not the typical plain Jane usage. No one is picturing a person physically trying to jump into a letter, which is hilarious mental image by the way, but not the intended or perceived meaning. In word choice such as using “jump” the way it is this example illustrates the point that writers trying to reach as many readers as possible are not doomed to only using vanilla words. They can mix it up with some strawberry or chocolate from time to time though some choices such cotton candy may be pushing it a smidge too far. As reader and a writer this is an uplifting thought because who wants to always read writing that is lacking in originality all of the time. Writers just have to aware their context and audience when they play with their words. 

- Sarah B.

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