Hobbling along: Scaffolding as crutch

We need structure. We need rules, we need frameworks, we (for the love of God) need grammar. We, in this instance, are writers, and the things I refer to are often the crutches we employ in order to quickly impart whatever it is we're trying to get across.

But there's support a difference between support and constraint. One is there for you to fall back on, allowing you the opportunity to test your wings while still giving you a safe fall. The other informs your actions strictly, restricting your abilities and motion to the point where you've almost lost agency.

Guess which category I'm talking about with regard to journalism.

There's a reason the inverted pyramid exists and has been adopted by the journalism profession as the general template for telling a story: It makes sense for a lot of them. You start out with a very specific idea and then go broad the more you write. It keeps young writers from getting too bogged down in specifics, while also making sure they're not taking the 10,000-foot view on everything.

It's a guideline ... And that's all it should be: a guide. It's not inviolate, and it's by no means the best format for every story out there. Even more so than the idea that each story should be expressed in the best format possible, there are almost zero stories where a strict inverted pyramid is called for.

I get why it's taught — it's much easier to both instruct/grade according to a strict rubric rather than arbitrarily [and arduously] reading and weighing the subjective value of every piece of writing. But the problem is there's no point where, after the young journalist is instructed in the use of the inverted pyramid, permission is given to leave it behind when necessary.

I'll use for emphasis the story on a federal judge ruling against one of the NSA's data-collection policies, from Reuters. For starters, like most stories nowadays, it's overly long for its ostensible purpose: To inform readers about the specific case. Indeed, all of the actual data from today is imparted before the "Leaks" subheader, which isn't even halfway through the story. The rest of the story comprises reactionary quotes ("Snowden, in a statement sent by journalist Glenn Greenwald, applauded the ruling"), unnecessary (peculiarly editorialized) background ("Judge Leon has issued headline-making rulings before.") and the wire service staple, tangential information recycled from other stories:

A committee of experts appointed by the Obama Administration to review NSA activities is expected to recommend that the spy agency give up collection of masses of metadata and instead require telephone companies to hold onto it so it can be searched. But intelligence officials and the phone companies themselves are said to oppose such a plan.

Now, you might be able to argue that were this in print, it might be necessary to include some of this information to give readers background. But, since the information is being sent across something literally called the "Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol" (where hypertext is defined as a "format in which information related to that on a display can be accessed directly from the display"), there's absolutely no reason for that information to be there on its own.

Maybe — maybe — you could leave the lines about the judge's past rulings and the NSA review if you linked to relevant stories, as that might be of use to the readers. On their own, though, the lines appear to be nothing more than inch-count padding.

At best, journalists only gradually break away when they feel they can get away with it, either on low- or extremely high-profile stories. This, coupled with the mathematical truth that most stories are not situated on either extreme but rather complacently down the middle, means a majority of news comes across in an outdated, unnecessary and (above all) congenitally boring format. It's a trap that young reporters get ensnared in quite easily, and it goes beyond just the structure.

In the AP story, while the structure isn't quite so rigid, it still includes drop-ins like "The collection program was disclosed by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, provoking a heated national and international debate." This sentence underwhelms so utterly as to be entirely pointless. Reading it contributes absolutely nothing to the understanding of the story unless you've already retained a fairly exhaustive knowledge of the context. It's the equivalent of a series tag, a sort of textual cue to let people know, "Oh, this is part of the Snowden story." It doesn't actually impart any information. I'll resort to a David Foster Wallace quote to drive my point home:

I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities — where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency, and being able to speak the language of the discipline — pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one's own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning. ... people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won't be taken seriously, and their ideas won't be taken seriously.

In this case it's more style than jargon, but both manifest themselves eminently on a daily (often hourly) basis, online and in print. Even specific words can easily be overused — and, though they accurately depict something, their frequency of use lessens the impact and clarity.

The standard caveat: I'm not saying it's wrong to use the technique. Just don't become beholden to it. Be willing to take risks. Explore and discover the best way for letting people know (Ibid.) the story you're trying to tell. You can use the inverted pyramid, and the intertextual dog whistle, but you should only do so when you must.

With the advent of the popular internet, there are many literary, journalistic and writerly types who lament the reclassifying of writing as "content." I would think the best way to fight that trend is to stop treating your own output as content, and start reconceptualizing it (even in your own mind) as true writing.