By Darvell Hunt
I recently read the following online national news story title:
"Feds tamp down fears leaks mean BP well unstable"
This took me a few times to read to understand what the news writer was actually trying to say. In writing, this is rarely a good thing. You do not want to force people to reread sentences to understand your meaning—this interrupts the reading process, the flow of the story, and often frustrates the reader.
Why was this title hard for me to understand? Well, to start, it's hard to tell if "fears" and “leaks” are plural nouns or verbs. It's also difficult to understand that "well" is a noun and not an adjective.
So, how can we write more clearly and catch unclear writing such as this before it gets out to the world?
First of all, I do realize that news headlines must be short. Often in the news world, clarity is sacrificed for print space—the Headlines section of Jay Leno's late-night talk show should be all the evidence we need to realize this. But, that doesn't mean this title could not have been written to better relay what was meant. Consider this simple revision:
"Feds tamp down fears that leaks mean BP oil well is unstable."
Now granted, this now becomes a real sentence instead of a news title, but by adding three simple words (that, oil, is), the meaning is clearer. But still, I don't think it's quite there yet. I would further suggest that we change "tamp down" to something simpler, like "downplay," which gives us this:
"Feds downplay fears that leaks mean BP oil well is unstable."
It seems to me that "tamp down" is unnecessarily complex—and may even distract from the intended meaning instead of add to it, as "clamp down" more accurately represents physical action, rather than a more abstract term, which I think it what we want here. (If you're unfamiliar with this new story, I apologize, but honestly, where have you been hiding? Under a rock? LOL. Or, more appropriately for this topic, at the bottom of the ocean?)
In any case, it seems that with a very small amount of editing, we can greatly improve the clarify of our writing. You certainly don't need to edit to perfection to get your meaning across to the reader, but it sure does help to spend an extra second or two to think: "Hey, what's my reader going to think this means?"
I believe that understanding our readers is a big part of being a good writer. But maybe I'm just being greatness with oblong words that don't primarily mean what I'm exactly it is my meaning that is obviously supposed to come along toward the reader.