I can tell when someone doesn’t know what they’re writing about. The story is full of jargon and words people wouldn’t use in every day language. It could be a complicated environmental story or something about an upgrade in technology and my eyes start to glaze over because often there are phrases I won’t understand unless I’m an expert in the field.
Maybe the reporter didn’t ask enough questions to know what they were writing about. I fell into that trap more than once as a young reporter, especially when I had to write about Connecticut’s old affordable housing law. I had someone tell me to stop faking it and ask enough questions so I understood what I was writing about.
There’s another trap, though, and that’s writing too much about a certain topic. If you spend all your time covering cops and fires, you know their lingo. If you cover politics, there’s jargon only lawmakers and politicians use. You spend enough time around any of them and don’t check yourself, the lingo can end up in your stories.
Of course there also are the people who want to make themselves look smart by using all the jargon.
But as a reader it’s frustrating because this isn’t how they talk. I get frustrated because I want to take a red pen and change the words to something my mother would use.
And that’s the key here in breaking the habit of writing inside baseball (we have our own jargon in journalism too) and start writing how most people speak: How would you tell Mom this story?
I had a college professor who often talked about telling Mom the story. We want to write the stories we’d sit down and tell our moms about at the kitchen table. But we also want to write the stories in the same way of how we’d tell our mothers those stories.
Simplifying and breaking through the jargon doesn’t mean we can’t do something special with our stories. We can still write clever ledes. Just don’t write over your readers’ heads and write things in plain terms they will understand.
Also remember this: If you can’t explain the story to your mom, you don’t know the story.