Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How a Gringo teaches writing to Spanish-speaking journalists

This is a neat trick. You kind of fake it. You get them to teach themselves.

I´m teaching an online course right now, How to Write for the Web, actually "Cómo escribir para la Web", totally in Spanish, for about 40 Latin American journalists from a dozen countries. It´s part of our offering at the Centro de Periodismo Digital.

Using a book helps

The point of this course is to show journalists how the habits of web readers affect the way they should write. (For one thing, web readers are lazy, selfish and ruthless, in the words of one researcher.)

Dumping text from a newspaper onto the web is surefire strategy for having a site that isn´t visited much. (Michael Agger wrote a witty piece about this for Slate.)

This is the only course I´ve taught from a book (it´s available free online in PDF form): "Cómo escribir para la Web", by Guillermo Franco, who was editor of Colombia´s prestigious El Tiempo website for many years.

Chapter by chapter, Franco takes the reader through behavioral studies of web usability and habits of web users that have implications for writers. Each chapter has a couple of recommendations to writers about how to make their work more web-friendly and more accessible to search engines.

The writing principles are the same

The cover of Franco´s book shows an inverted pyramid, which has been a guiding model for newspaper writing for a century. Specifically it means put the most important information at the top of the story.

So in the writing exercises in this course, we get back to the basics.

I ask the journalists to present an article they´ve written and then rewrite it for the web. Each participant puts the original (or part of it) in the discussion forum along with the edited version.

Here´s the trick: I´m not the only one giving them feedback. Each participant has to comment on the work of two others, so they´re editing each other, teaching each other.

Franco, whom I´ve gotten to know in the past year, also gave me some exercises to use. Participants are given an article to rewrite and then can compare their work to the rewrite that Franco himself did.

What isn´t easy for a non-native speaker

Most of the time I can recognize the difference between good and bad writing in Spanish. Bad writing is vague, windy, repetitive, sloppy, loose and imprecise, among other things. These kinds of observations I can make with no problem.

What´s not easy for me in Spanish is rewrite completely a piece of bad writing. There are too many chances for me to unknowingly use a phrase or construction that a native speaker would never use.

There are a couple of experienced editors in the class who do excellent rewrite of the other course participants´ work. Their contributions are invaluable.

The tricks of the trade are the same

Reading the comments in the forums of the course, I realize that Latin American editors use many of the same tactics with reporters that you learn in an American newsroom.

When a reporter hands in a rambling account of some news event, the editor will tell the reporter, put away the notes, sit down and tell me what this story is about.

Or the editor will say to the reporter, tell me what the headline is for this story. It helps the reporter focus on what´s important.

If a reporter covering a complex story falls into the trap of using technical language, editors will say, Explain it to the readers as if you were explaining it to your grandmother (tu abuelita).

It´s too much fun

For someone who loves good writing, it´s a pleasure to jump into these forums where writers are passionately debating their craft. I´m learning a lot about the shades of meaning and connotations of Spanish words that I could never pick up using a dictionary alone.

It´s also comforting to see that I´m not the only one who doesn´t understand certain expressions. Some of the regionalisms are incomprehensible even to other Spanish speakers.

What a blast. Or as we might say in Méxio, que padre.

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