I’ve noticed this happen quite often in The Michigan Daily, and in professional publications too. There’s probably an official term for it, but I didn’t know it, so I made up my own a few years ago. It’s very tempting for all journalists — so easy to do and so easy to get away with. I call it “abusive analysis.” And it has to stop.
Every section of a newspaper is susceptible to abusive analysis. Yes, even the supposedly “just-the-facts” news section. But the concept requires explanation, so let’s start there. Simply, abusive analysis is exactly what it sounds like: taking too much liberty with analysis in journalism. It’s most easily recognizable on the language level. When a story reads like it’s “over-written,” when simple, direct words are swapped for fancy ones until the point is lost in the pomp, that’s classic abusive analysis.
But it need not always be only in the language; the content itself is sometimes an example of abusive analysis. The choices the writer makes in the narrative, and sometimes, the story he chooses to write in the first place, can be abusive analysis. This one is harder to explain, but you know it when you see it. When the first sentence of a simple sports cover on a gymnastics meet starts with a quote from Winston Churchill on leadership; or when an arts review of the movie “Fast Five” drops a flashy reference to Kracauer, you might say the writer is over-thinking and over-drafting the story, even if the language itself is clean and simple — abusive analysis.
The roots of this concept lie, I think, in a phenomenon that new writers are unaware of. What new writers do notice in their first few weeks at the Daily is how much their stories are edited, reworked and rewritten by editors. It’s disappointing and stressful, and in that understandable frustration, it’s easy for new writers to miss out on that other phenomenon occurring concurrently: The writer who drafts the first version of the story — even if it ultimately gets rewritten entirely — sets the pace, mood and theme of the story. That is a considerable power, and it’s wielded by every writer, no matter how young or inexperienced.
You see, regardless of how much editors might change the language and word choice, they are more limited in their ability to change the meat of the story. At the end of the day, it’s the writer who was at the event, saw the performance or had the initial column idea. That core of the story that the writer puts into his or her work is going to be very difficult to change. But it’s very easy for a writer to make that very core something it shouldn’t be — abusive analysis.
Writers can get away with a lot in their stories, and I think on some level, we all know that. Instead of stepping back and asking what needs to be said to tell this story, writers sometimes get locked into relating a particular narrative, whether it works or not. As they run out of things to say, they engage in literary gymnastics or pointless parallels and false comparisons to fill out the story. Where the true relevant thoughts leave off and the abusive analysis begins is sometimes known only to the writer himself. And only the writer can really fight it.
So what is the solution to this over-baked, false-orienting and annoying thing I call abusive analysis? Time and effort. I know from my own experience that writers over-write and over-analyze to the point of disaster when they lack enough relevant, concrete material for the story. And that is almost always a result of not doing their homework, not picking up enough background knowledge, not focusing enough on the subject and thinking and planning before ever sitting down to write. And that is a fatal error.
If you’ve made it this far into this column, then you might be tempted to say that parts of this column are arguably examples of abusive analysis. Mine was a conscious effort at irony, and I think the needy bleached nature of abusive analysis is made clear in parts of this column. It’s an annoying way to write, and we should work to avoid it. With just a little bit more thought and effort into laying the background and foundation for stories, writers could be doing so much more with those same stories.
The public editor is an independent critic of the Daily, and neither the editorial board nor the editor in chief exercise control over the contents of his columns. The opinions expressed do not necessarily constitute the opinion of the Daily. Imran Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.