Journalism Tips #26: Precision Of Language

Hello, everyone! After several weeks on hiatus in the Florida keys our Journalism Tips column has decided to return to the Haulix blog. The following editorial challenges writers to embrace mediocrity while examining the fears many aspiring professionals feel when tasked with review something they feel is neither good or bad, but rather something in between. We hope this post serves as a launching pad to further conversation and want to encourage anyone with an opinion on this topic to comment below with their thoughts.

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There is an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s classic young adult novel The Giver playing in theaters nationwide right now. I don’t know if you have had the time to see, and it to be honest it’s not exactly the greatest film ever made, but there is one idea present in both the original text and silver screen adaptation that has stuck with me. The story takes place in a dystopian future where society has fallen apart and been built all over again, only this time without emotion or color. As there is no emotion, people are taught to speak using precise language, including when describing how they feel. The word ‘love,’ for example,does not exist because it cannot be defined. Do your parents enjoy your company? Yes. Do they take pride in your accomplishments? Yes. Is that the same thing? Not really.

I never really expected to apply my fascination with this concept to writing, but over the last week I encountered a situation that gave me an opportunity to say ‘precision of language’ out loud and I knew immediately that the situation had become fodder for this blog.

Scrolling through social media this week, I stumbled across a link to a new review from a young writer whose writing I’ve often enjoyed. The opening paragraph immediately dismissed the artist’s previous work as trash without explanation or support. Less than 300 words later, that same writing called the artist’s latest release a masterpiece. Not just a good – a masterpiece.

After reading the review a handful of times, I commented on the post and inquired as to why the writer felt the original piece was so disposable it could be considered trash. I also asked about their definition of masterpiece, and if they could explain what changed between the two so dramatically to cause such a change of opinion. Instead of commenting back, I received an email. A long email. In it, the writer accused me of attacking them and tearing them down without reason. I replied I was simply trying to understand what inspired the use of such powerful words, but they took it far more personal than I expected. Frustrated and exhausted, I eventually dropped it altogether.

I’m all for proclaiming one’s love or disdain for a particular creation, but using words like ‘trash’ and ‘masterpiece’ so loosely is flat-out bad writing. It’s something almost every writer struggles with from time to time, yes, but it’s bad writing nonetheless. The use of superfluous language not only makes your writing weak from a stylistic standpoint, but it also weakens the impact your writing will have over time. There has to be a middle ground in reviews, and it has to be the place where the vast majority of entertainment falls. It’s silly for everything to be categorized as perfect or trash, especially without proper support for such generalizations. The idea of perfect infers that it’s possible for something to fall short of perfection, so there must be a middle ground.

I think the problem writers have with embracing the middle ground is that they believe no one likes to read reviews about the middle ground. Entertainment is a an expense that people do not have to budget for, and when they do they want to know their investment will result in something they will enjoy. If a review claims something is ‘okay’ or ‘pretty good’ it does not encourage consumption. It also does not encourage social sharing. On the flip side, if something is praised heavily – or trashed to an absurd degree – people are more entertained and therefore more likely to share the content (not to mention potentially purchase the release). Reviews that fall in the middle can sometimes appears wishy washy, and as a result there is a presumption among many writers, especially those in the younger set, that no one wants to read that type of content.

Let me tell you something: People do want that content. More importantly, you need to create it in order to better yourself as a writer and critic. It’s easily to shout your love or hatred for something from the rooftops, but to sit and dissect something that was anything less is a true challenge because it forces the writer to ask themselves why something only worked to an extent. It’s easy to proclaim something a success or failure, but to explain why it’s neither takes a kind of surgeon like precision that writers of all ages struggle to possess. We like to use big, passionate words to describe our feelings, but when something fall in the middle such words have no place in our work. You can view that as something that stunts your creativity, but it’s far more rewarding if you learn to view it as a challenge.

This week, challenge yourself to tackle the middle ground of entertainment. When you come across a release that strikes you as interesting, but not entirely entertaining, take the time and explore why you feel that way. Capture those feelings and share them with your readers. You may find that you’re able to appreciate what is being created in a whole new light as a result. Perhaps the lyrics are a thing of beauty, but the music turns you off, or vice versa. Perhaps the production is muddy when it would sound better clean. None of this is enough to make a record ‘trash,’ but it is enough to make it less than perfect, and there is nothing wrong with saying something is just ‘okay.’ Embrace the mediocrity, and learn to make the uninteresting interesting. When you’re as confident in your review of an album getting a 6/10 as you are one receiving a 1/10 or 10/10 then you will have a true advantage over the vast majority of writers today, and it’s truth be told it’s not that hard to accomplish. Like most things in life, practice makes not you perfect, but it does make you really, really good over time.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.