Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

Indirection in writing, and how to fix it

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Eleanor Gould Packard was for over 50 years a grammarian and proofreader at The New Yorker.

Her passion as an editor was the pursuit of clarity. When she died in 2005, New Yorker Senior Editor Deborah Garrison said, “Eleanor’s understanding of grammar goes deeper than stuff like making sure subjects and objects agree. It’s about the architecture of the sentence and the paragraph. And it’s about the architecture of the thought behind the sentence and the paragraph.”

One of Packard’s pet issues was “indirection,” defined as “the practice of obliquely insinuating new information into a narrative as if the reader already knows it – a technique feature writers often use to jam facts into tight space and achieve a knowing tone.”

Newspaper writing is full of “indirection,” and is one of the primary reasons readers turn away from newspaper stories. An awareness of the damage indirection can do in a story should be part of every writer’s and editor’s set of language skills.

Examples of indirection:

“The 36-unit apartment building burned in just two hours.”

“Acme Real Estate, the Tristate’s third largest commercial real estate firm, will purchase Allied Real Estate.”

“The hard-hitting third baseman, twice voted MVP of the Central Valley League, went hitless in the struggling ninth-place Cardinal’s weekend doubleheader.”

To remove the indirection, each sentence could be broken up so the information is delivered in a simple, logical order, closer to how people speak.

“The apartment building burned in just two hours. It had 36 units.”

“Acme Real Estate will purchase Allied Real Estate. Acme is the Tristate’s third largest commercial real estate firm.”

“The hard-hitting third baseman went hitless in the Cardinal’s weekend doubleheader. The struggling team is now in ninth place.” (The “twice voted MVP of the Central Valley League” is not only indirect but irrelevant in this context.)

Unfortunately, jamming information into tight spaces is what newspaper reporters and editors do. Some do it in an effort to pack more stuff in limited space. Some do it to achieve that knowing tone. In either case, readability suffers and we have given readers one more excuse to stop reading.

Attention to indirection, particularly in the opening paragraphs of a story, can be a very valuable part of the revision and editing process. The immediate benefit is improved clarity. Ideas are clearly stated. Sentence length tightens. Non-essential information is pruned. Comprehension and reader satisfaction can only go up.

And clear writing lays bare the “architecture of the thought.” Another way to say this is that brevity reveals both weakness and strength. If the thought is a good one, it will shine through. If not, then peeling away the husk makes it easier to spot and fix the problem.


Written by mroberts8

January 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm

One Response

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  1. Does anyone know where to find Packard’s full memo about editing for the New Yorker. In the memo, she goes into much detail, with examples, of indirection.

    I searched the Web and could not find the memo. Any help will be greatly appreciated.



    March 8, 2011 at 6:43 pm

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