“A 28-year-old man who died early Saturday in a crash was remembered Sunday as an outgoing, optimistic fellow who had fulfilled his dreams of serving in the Marines and becoming a police officer.
“Bill Smith, the longtime wrestling coach at Springfield High School, said Mark Blair was ‘a great kid, personable, had a lot of friends.’”
OK, how many of you thought at first that Bill Smith died in the crash?
The problem is that your mind was on “the 28-year-old man” introduced in the first paragraph. When a name appeared, you naturally associated it with the 28-year-old man you were already thinking about. You probably started to get a little suspicious at the phrase “the longtime wrestling coach,” because how could a 28-year-old man be a “longtime” coach? Then “Mark Blair” was thrown at you, and it might have started to dawn on you that this was the 28-year-old man, a thought confirmed by the rest of the sentence.
But that took an awful lot of work, and forced your mind to back up and recalibrate. Many readers would take that confusion as an opportunity to be distracted, and might stop reading.
The mistake is one of “indirection,” so coined by Harold Ross of The New Yorker. As a Ross colleague, Wolcott Gibbs, wrote in the nineteen thirties, Ross objects “to important objects, or places or people, being dragged into things in a secretive and underhanded manner. If, for instance, a Profile has never told where a man lives, Ross protests against a sentence saying ‘His Vermont house is full of valuable paintings.’ Should say ‘He had a house in Vermont and it is full, etc.’”
In the original example, the name of the man who died in the crash was dragged into a place where it was not expected. It belonged at the beginning of the second paragraph, to link the “28-year-old man” in the first paragraph with his name.
That could be done in a couple of ways. One would be to simply give his name first, before the coach’s: “Mark Blair was ‘a great kid, personable, had a lot of friends,’ said Bill Smith, the longtime wrestling coach at Springfield High School.”
Another way would use Ross’s more direct method: “The dead man, Mark Blair, was ‘a great kid, personable, had a lot of friends,’ said Bill Smith, the longtime wrestling coach at Springfield High School.” That way, there’s no mistaking who Mark Blair is.
Indirection also appears in the other direction: “When Maureen Casey was 8, her mother hoped she would one day become a surgeon. The 48-year-old says that inspiration was what kept her going.”
Who’s “the 48-year-old”? Maureen or her mother? The reader is momentarily sent in the wrong direction. Link the two concepts more directly: “Now 48, Casey says that inspiration was what kept her going.”
Although The New Yorker (and The New York Times) religiously practice indirection avoidance, you don’t need to all the time—but must in those situations where a reader could take a wrong turn. News stories don’t come with GPS receivers; we’re the ones who can keep the reader (and story) going in the right direction.Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.