Surprising ambiguity exercises . . . one-paragraph
rewrites . . .describing blackboard diagrams . . . the
screen inside our minds . . . lateral thinking . . .
Fifteen trainee journalists sit at their college desks. They are all university graduates and have been newspaper reporters for about a year. The tutor reads aloud a paragraph from one of those heavy-going official documents that litter every newspaper office - a planning report, a budget statement, that sort of thing - and they all write it down in longhand. They are then asked to put the same information into different words, paraphrasing it freely in any way that they feel might improve its clarity, length or style. Three or four minutes pass. Total silence. No chance for discussion. The anonymous results, on sheets of paper all the same size, are immediately collected and shuffled into random order. If someone makes a complete pig’s ear of the job no-one will know who it was.
So . . . has anyone, grappling with even this pint-sized par of only about fifty words, got the facts wrong? If the tutor made nit-picking criticism there would be sulky objection, hostility even. So the students themselves decide, confident that even if they heap hindsight scorn on their own version no-one will know. A vertical line is drawn down the middle of the blackboard, with the word ‘Right’ on one side and ‘Wrong’ on the other. The lecturer, armed with chalk, is poised to place ticks appropriately as directed by the students. The re-writes are read out and analysed, one by one. Animated discussion ensues, and cries of ‘That’s not what it said’ and ‘That one is crap’ ring in the air. The right-or-wrong procedure turns out to be too blunt a tool for dealing with the nuances that are encountered, and ticks of varying size are positioned in response to such arguments as ‘Well, it’s wrong but it’s not quite so bad as the last one’.
Before looking at the rest of this paragraph, the reader may care to guess how many of the fifteen new versions would earn what journalists are fond of calling the ‘thumbs up’. How many are completely accurate? The students themselves, asked to forecast the result, clearly have a canny suspicion of what’s coming and cautiously predict that three or four will be faulty in some way. Not so - there are never more than four or five that say precisely what the original said, thereby earning themselves a firm tick on the ‘Right’ side of the line. I have done the exercise countless times and it invariably throws up errors ranging from the slightly misleading to the total opposite of what was intended. It doesn’t matter, since this is what some would call a ‘fake story’; there aren’t going to be thousands of misinformed readers. But fifteen young journalists have discovered that it’s harder to get it right than they imagined. Some of them - glad to be anonymous - are horrified by their unsuspected ineptitude, reflecting on how often they must make undiscovered mistakes in stories back at the office. Repetition of such exercises demonstrably leads to greater care and much more accurate re-writes. That’s training.
The word ‘training’, defined as the act or process of teaching or learning a skill, discipline etc, is not one that universities like to use. That is understandable. ‘Training’ is not what universities are about - until they succumb, that is, to the temptation to put practical, non-academic subjects into their curricula. Nearly 30 years after the times of which I speak, New Labour in general, and education secretary Charles Clarke in particular, were denounced for seeking to give university attendance an economic and utilitarian value rather than a purely intellectual one. And when - as I have mentioned - academics beckoned journalism on board with great enthusiasm in the 1980s, they were keen to have it understood that it should be seen not as ‘training’ but as ‘education’; physical performers such as builders, footballers, jugglers and waiters could be trained but journalists needed much more intellectual grooming. That view has some validity, but a balance needs to be struck. Over-the-top academia has been given a bad name in recent years by prolonged research that has ended up revealing the blindingly obvious. Even as I write, a lengthy study is reported (in the newspapers, admittedly!) to have discovered that the average Briton spends 40 seconds making a cup of tea with a tea-bag and stirs it three times. Given that painstaking approach, a journalism course could easily be made to last five or six years.
It is sometimes alleged that journalism students, especially those on pre-entry courses, learn to write in a bland stereotypical style that has to be unlearned when they join a newspaper. But, in general, the only ‘style’ advice offered by colleges is ‘Make it clear and get it right’. I say ‘in general’ because there will always be those with idiosyncratic preferences for particular techniques that they will seek to encourage in others. But that is true of any newspaper office, and a confident straight-from-college recruit should be able to adapt readily, certainly within a few weeks, to particular style-requirements.
At Richmond College - and no doubt at the other establishments - various demanding exercises were devised to help students gain this confidence. The two most valuable, I believe, were those that became known simply as ‘Ambiguity’ - which I have just outlined - and ‘One-par rewrites’. They were born out of my conviction that, whatever the subject matter might be, the crucially important need was for crispness, accuracy and clarity. That was what editors and readers wanted. A degree in Modern Greek would be a bonus only if a local couple happened to go missing in Halkidiki.
The exercises, intensive and fast-moving, had everything to commend them. Students could evaluate their own performance instantly and were often greatly encouraged by recognising improvement as they went along. There was no handing in of work, no waiting for it to be laboriously marked and handed back days later, no awarding of A-minuses or C-pluses.
The emphasis in ‘one-par rewrites’ was on using the smallest-possible number of words without losing or obscuring any of the actual information. Run in an atmosphere of good-natured rivalry, such sessions were not only immensely effective, they provided hours of fun. Some entered the fray with enthusiastic optimism - ‘I was good at this at school,’ they would say. But never before had they sweated so much over a piece of apparently simple prose, scribbling, re-jigging, weighing every word, all the while wondering if the person at the next desk had hit upon precisely the snappy phrase that would do the trick.
The original par was, say, 50 words long, and no-one was allowed to reveal the number of words used until everyone had finished writing. It was important to create tension - and the suspense was intensified by my forecast that, notwithstanding the painstaking effort that they had all displayed, there would be a difference of about 20 words between the shortest and the longest of the new versions. Twenty words! How could that be, given that everyone was working on the same brief chunk of information and striving for the simplest way of expressing it? There were a few anxious looks. ‘Someone in the room,’ I warned kindly, feeling the need to state the obvious, ‘is going to write the longest version. Don’t be upset if it’s you - it’s partly a matter of chance at this stage.’ Nervous laughter. With the pens down and the moment of truth only seconds away, I refined my forecast: ‘The shortest new version will be around 21 words, and the longest will be, say, . . . 43.’ A few gasps. Frowning and muttering among those who had, until that moment, been eager to demonstrate how they had skilfully got rid of half-a-dozen spare words and ended up with 44.
Long experience with this exercise enabled me to be rarely more than a couple of words out with my forecast of the crispest and the wordiest versions. I wrote my prediction on the blackboard, and there was spontaneous applause whenever - as occasionally happened - I was spot on with both figures. They thought I was psychic, but I had merely observed, over months and years, the remarkable truth that most people use roughly twice as many words as they need. We all do it (the critical reader would no doubt find many examples in this stuff of mine) and most of the time it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, indeed, it is desirable, for colour, effect or detail. But the reader of a straightforward news story should be acquainted rapidly with the facts, and it seems to me appropriate that, in such cases, journalism lecturers should go for what is nowadays called ‘zero tolerance’ and decree that any word that is unarguably not necessary is avoided. Money on the table proved a great incentive. As a jokey experiment I asked each student to put 50p on the table in front of me. I contributed a goodwill 50p of my own, producing a thrilling bonanza of about eight quid for the winner. Minds seemed to be considerably sharpened.
One-par fillers from the national papers - nuggets of literary skill that are far under-rated - were usually the raw material. I’d select a little gem of about 25 words and pad it out to twice that size with waffle. The students, aware of the source, then had the occasional satisfaction of coming up with precisely what the Mail or the Express or the Sun had said originally. They came to appreciate, indeed, that the much-maligned Sun was especially adept at this business, and many a hitherto censorious trainee was magnanimous enough to say so.
A particular example that sticks in my mind - a classic Sun story, this - concerned thieves in Northampton who had been reaching under the partitions in men’s toilets to snatch wallets. The culprits had consistently escaped because their victims, literally caught with their pants down, were unable to give chase. Students would labour over a crisp version of this entertaining tale, only to gasp in admiration to find that the Sun had managed the whole thing in only 28 words and had neatly described the thieves as ‘immune from immediate pursuit’.
Hundreds of former Richmond College trainees, now shouldering journalistic responsibilities all over the globe, must have wrestled with my first-ever ‘one-par rewrite’, a Daily Telegraph snippet about cholera in Barcelona to which I became fondly attached and with which I used to launch each session. My wordy version included these two sentences - ‘A chart of figures released yesterday showed that as many as ten new cases in one day had been notified during the past fortnight,’ and ‘The smallest number of new cases in one day was five’. In a room silent but for the scratch of pencils and the occasional angry scrunching of paper, a dozen students would chop and twist those 35 words in a three-minute quest for simple but wholly accurate brevity. Some would opt for ‘up to ten cases a day’; some would go for ‘at least five cases a day’; some would try ‘an average of seven cases a day’. A few would refine this last idea, multiplying the notional average of seven by 14 and saying ‘nearly 100 cases in the past fortnight’. One or two, frightened of even tackling the daunting mathematical challenge presented by two numbers, would try to get away with feeble variations on ‘There’s a lot of cholera about’. Usually only about a third of the group would employ the neat phrase ‘Between five and ten new cases daily’ (which was what the Telegraph had said in the first place). What joy! Twenty-odd words saved in one swoop! The rest would then usually accept without demur that ‘up to ten’ and ‘at least five’, though technically accurate, were demonstrably less precise than ‘between five and ten’. If they also conceded that the ‘chart’ mentioned in the original was irrelevant, better still. And the really bright ones saw that the word ‘figures’ wasn’t necessary either. My long-winded version also included the sentence ‘Fortunately the disease is only mild in character’ . . . and those who extracted the single word ‘mild’ and attached it to ‘cholera’ were well on the way to the eight-quid prize. We usually ended up with around 15 or 16 words along the lines of ‘Between five and ten new cases of mild cholera are being notified daily in Barcelona’. Those who had used 30-odd words to say the same thing simply screwed up their paper and resolved to do better next time. They invariably managed it.
In the lecture-room, the briefest version was not always the best, of course. An over-zealous student would proudly claim to have won with a mere nine words, only to be booed off when he read out a bland sentence from which all information had been drained. A story of three naked foul-mouthed rugby players being thrown out of a restaurant by an angry nun needs more than 'There was an unusual brawl in a town-centre last night' to do it justice, even if that does happen to be the shortest version.
* * *
When instruction can genuinely be combined with entertainment, the lecturer is on a winner. And one of the best exercises of this sort is the ‘drawings on the board’ session that pops up in various guises wherever there is group discussion about effectively communicating ideas. It is particularly relevant for journalists, who can mislead many thousands of people at a swoop if they somehow fail to say what they mean. And its great strength in the classroom is that it provides vivid, unassailable demonstrations of how easy it is to confuse and misinform.
In the Sheffield version, six students were asked to leave the room and a simple diagram was shown to the rest, who now became the audience. The others returned two at a time, and in each case Student A, armed with the diagram on a piece of paper, described it to Student B, behind him or her, who drew it on the board as the instructions were given. There were two important stipulations: Student A was not allowed to glance round to check progress (misleading information at the outset of a story inevitably sows the seeds of further confusion to come), and Student B could not speak (a puzzled reader cannot say ‘How d’you mean?’ to the writer of a puzzling story). Early results were often hilarious, and the audience had to be instructed not to give the game away by guffawing at the grotesque patterns being so solemnly drawn before them. When the task was done, Student A would turn to the board and say ‘What the hell’s that supposed to be?’ Student B would inspect the diagram on the paper and say ‘Why didn’t you say that it was that way round?’
An exercise of this sort is a great leveller. Oxbridge graduates might be sharing the session with 18-year-olds not long out of school, but all of them come to realise that it is the simple words - their use or their omission - that cause the problems. Student B is told to draw a horizontal line on the board. Then - ‘Put a vertical line at the end of that first line,’ says Student A. Puzzled already, Student B stands with furrowed brow, chalk motionless in hand. Which end? Is the second line to be shorter or longer than the first? Or is it perhaps the same length? And a vertical line could ascend from the first line or descend from it - which is it to be? And does 'at the end of ' mean that the two lines are to touch each other? If not, where should the second line be in relation to the first - higher, lower, or perhaps centred on it? A remarkable feature of this exercise is the way in which highly intelligent participants issue ludicrously vague and useless instructions with every confidence that they will be readily understood. Such people cannot understand why the hapless fellow at the blackboard, thirsting for information that will take him forward, is standing there as if turned to stone.
Some words and phrases, of course, are capable of being legitimately understood in two completely different ways. The user who, at the time, fails to appreciate this is self-righteously indignant when the listener gets the wrong end of the stick. I remember a particularly disastrous illustration of this fact (it surprised even me, in my capacity of the know-it-all who was running the session). The moment was rendered even more piquant by the fact that the participants - university graduates whom I shall call Freda and Alice - had previously declared that they were going to give a superlative performance. The diagram (try to picture it) was a square with a triangle sitting like a steeply-sloping roof on top of it and a circle balanced centrally on the point of the triangle. The top of the square was itself the base of the triangle, and all the sides of both square and triangle were of the same length. The circle was the same width as the square. Supplied with this pleasingly simple, symmetrical drawing, Freda spoke her instructions slowly and clearly and Alice produced a neat version on the board. Freda, smiling with satisfaction and obviously expecting to be carried shoulder-high round the room in triumph, turned to see the result. There on the board, to her horror and astonishment, was a mysterious zodiacal sign that she’d never seen in her life before. It turned out that Alice, hearing the phrase 'on top of the square', had taken it to mean that she should superimpose the triangle on the square, not place it higher up the board. The next instruction, to place a circle on top of the triangle, was similarly taken to mean that the circle should be superimposed on the composite figure of triangle-and-square that was already sitting there. The curious device thus created looked as if it had been dug out of an ancient burial mound. Freda, who had an excellent degree in something or other, was not pleased.
The students made noisy analysis of poor Freda’s fiasco. She should have said ‘balanced on’ instead of ‘on top of’. She should have emphasised that the top of the square was also the base of the triangle. And so on. Someone said it would have helped if, describing the positioning of the triangle, she had employed the visual image of a roof on a house . . . but someone else was quick to point out that normal roof was of a much lower pitch and that the suggested technique would have led to even greater distortion. Meanwhile, I privately rejoiced in the fact that I had a roomful of young journalists seriously arguing about the need for precision. I still occasionally think about these sessions when I see some sloppy newspaper account of wreckage being spread over ‘an area of half a mile from the explosion’, whatever that might be. And I should like to put a question to the reporter who, writing about early-morning confusion at the scene of a reorganised traffic roundabout, said: ‘Motorists seemed confused at first, but after about an hour they seemed to have got used to it’. Now how could that be?
Anyone who sets out diligently to teach journalistic techniques learns a great deal himself - indeed, in his first year he may well learn more than he teaches anybody else! Forced by circumstance to examine in detail what is actually happening inside his head as he conducts interviews, decides on intros, wheedles his way round evasive politicians, placates angry readers and so on, he may well appreciate for the first time precisely why and how he does what he does. I remember, for example, suddenly discovering that our minds operate on two distinct and recognisable levels at once, though I admit I don’t know what the experts say about this phenomenon. A reporter giving a politician a real grilling over some contentious issue can, at the same time, be thinking ‘This is going better than I thought it would’. Two levels of thinking, then (never three, as far as I can make out) and the reporter who recognises this can develop it to his advantage, consciously planning his next move while seemingly totally involved in discussion.
Of more practical value, perhaps, was my realisation that we all have a sort of cinema screen permanently set up in our minds on which we project pictures that we think illustrate the words that we are hearing at the time. Years of analysing videoed interviews (more of that in Chapter Eight) showed me that, unfortunately, those pictures are often grossly misleading. Many an error in a newspaper story could be traced back - if anyone had the time for such a thing - to a distorted picture on that mental screen.
Classroom exercises on the subject were always illuminating and often - as a bonus - a lot of fun. Having asked the group to clear the space inside their heads in readiness for a random signal from outer space - from me, in this case - I would speak one word, and then repeat it. The word might, for example, be ‘ocean’. Silence. A roomful of students, some with eyes closed, surveyed the picture inside their heads. ‘How many of you,’ I would ask, ‘can see only the sea and nothing else?’ Usually only a couple of people, out of maybe a dozen, would raise their hands. Water in various forms was in everyone’s consciousness - but so were deckchairs, sand-castles, piers, boats and hotel balconies. Where had they come from? No-one had invited them. They just appeared unbidden on the screen, images fanned into sudden life in the embers of life’s memories.
There was usually much merriment when the word was ‘nude’. A few minds conjured up famous paintings or works of sculpture, others produced topless-bathing scenes on holiday beaches, and occasionally an alarmingly forthright speaker would have to be hastily silenced. ‘No details please. Right, forget the nudes - we’ll try another word. Ready? Church.’ There would be two or three spires, a couple of square towers, a long-distance view across rolling pastures, a close-up of a stained-glass window. And there would be people - a preacher in a pulpit, a group of choirboys. Rarely could anyone say why they saw what they saw, though anyone who had recently attended a funeral would all too readily realise why a coffin was slowly being carried by hazy figures across the mysterious grey space inside his head.
To some readers, all this may sound like merely playing games. But such sessions, while certainly entertaining and enjoyable, address directly one of the fundamentals of good newspaper reporting - the writer must see the situation clearly in his own mind before he can report or comment on it accurately. The interview section of the National Certificate Examination (known more precisely in my day as the Proficiency Test) throws up countless examples, twice a year, of wildly inaccurate mental pictures - any of the senior newspapermen and women who are called in to mark the papers would confirm that sad fact. A man who collapsed and died on a roof while mending a chimney stack had ‘been killed when he fell from a roof’, said one candidate. A rowdy group of youngsters - four girls and two boys - was described as ‘a gang of youths’. Students who went in two school mini-buses to a Channel port and there transferred to a French coach which was later involved in a crash were said to have had the accident ‘while crossing France in two mini-buses’.
Weak shorthand, careless note-taking or mis-hearing can all contribute to mix-ups of this sort, but the reporter most likely to get it right is the one who makes sure he is painting an accurate picture on the mysterious hazy canvas tucked away somewhere under his hat. The vividest demonstrations of this truth occur where measurables such as crowd-sizes, time and age are involved. Ask a dozen people to write down how they visualise ‘quite a crowd’. Answers normally vary from as low as around fourteen or fifteen up to 50,000 or 100,000 or more - depending entirely on the picture in the subject’s mind. (The smallest number I’ve heard in the ‘quite a crowd’ exercise was seven; asked what was in his mind, the student concerned replied: ‘We tried to get seven people in the car when we were coming home last night - that was quite a crowd!’) To the supporter of a small-town soccer team, ‘quite a crowd’ might be 2,000 . . . but a ‘crowd’ of 2,000 at Old Trafford would be disaster.
I have perhaps given too much space to my amateur psychology but, if so, the man at least partly to blame is Dr Edward de Bono, whose The Mechanism of the Mind and Lateral Thinking - published in 1969 and the early 70s and still in demand today - stirred me mightily. The good doctor - who is still, I believe, an indefatigable lecturer on the world scene - was particularly inspiring in his assertion that where some people saw an unsurmountable brick wall, others saw possibilities and opportunities. He cited engineers as prime examples of those who needed to fall into the second category - and I felt that journalists should be in there too. As a result, every group of students that passed through Richmond College for about 15 years had one 90-minute session during which they had to think how they would respond to various problematical situations back at work. You need to speak to someone in your town called Fothergill, but there are 32 Fothergills in the phone-book and you have only eight minutes - what do you do? You are sent on a five-mile journey to speak to someone called Bloggs at 14 Acacia Avenue, but the chap who answers the door says he doesn’t know anyone called Bloggs - what do you do? And (since mobile phones were unheard of in those days), at the scene of a train smash you urgently need to phone your office but the only two phone-kiosks are occupied and several other reporters are waiting - so what do you do? There was always brisk debate, and increasingly zany suggestions were tossed around the room (de Bono encouraged zany suggestions on the grounds that some of them, on examination, were not so zany after all and, in fact, led to clever solutions).
The debate, I must admit, usually involved only perhaps three-quarters of the group. The rest, who hadn’t a clue about what they would do in any of the tricky situations put before them, sat in silence and looked on with a mixture of admiration and surprise as other people’s bright ideas bounced around the room.