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The WaPo's Outlook Section Avoids These Phrases, and You Should, Too

A set of posts on the Jim Romenesko blog this week reveals a long list of words and phrases that writers at The Washington Post's Outlook section are instructed not to use. Looking at the list, it strikes me that lawyers would be well-served to similarly keep away from these words and phrases.

On Tuesday of this week, the managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sent a note to his staff stating they were "seriously over-using the word 'iconic.' ... Let's try not to use it unless it is truly the best possible word for that sentence." After this note was discussed on the Romenesko blog, Carlos Lozada, editor of The Washington Post's Outlook section, sent Romenesko his lengthy list of "Things We Do Not Say in Outlook" (and noted that he'd been inspired to add "iconic" to the list). The list is as follows:


At first glance
As a society (or, "as a nation")
TK is not alone
Pundits say (or "Critics say")
The American people (unless in a quote)
The narrative (unless referring to a style of writing)
Probe (as substitute for "investigation")
A rare window (unless we’re talking about a real window that is in fact rare)
Begs the question (unless used properly -- and so rarely used properly that not worth it)
Be that as it may
It is important to note that
Needless to say
[Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0 ...)
At a crossroads
Outside the box/Out of the box
TK is a favorite Washington parlor game
Yes, Virginia, there is a TK
Midwife (as a verb that does not involve childbirth)
Call it TK
Pity the poor TK
Imagine (as the first word in your lede)
Palpable sense of relief
Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)
The Other
Effort (as a verb)
Little-noticed (that just means the writer hadn't noticed it)
Ignominious end
Tightly knit community
Rise of the 24-hour news cycle (it rose a long time ago)
Remains to be seen
Feeding frenzy/feeding the frenzy
Double down
Dons the mantle of
Hot-button issue
Face-saving compromise
The argument goes (or its cousin, "the thinking goes")
Shutter (as a verb)
Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)
Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)
Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely)
Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are grizzled -- unless they are "seasoned")
Manicured lawns (in journalism, all nice lawns are manicured)
Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)
Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)
Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)
Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids are predawn)
Sparked debate (or "Raised questions")
Ironic Capitalizations Implying Unimportance Of Things Others Consider Important
Provides fresh details
But reality/truth is more complicated (oversimplify, then criticize the oversimplification)
Scarred by war
Shines a spotlight on (unless there is a real spotlight that really shines)
TK is no panacea (nothing is)
No silver bullet
Shifting dynamics
Situation is fluid (code for "I have no idea what is going on")
Partisans on both sides
Charm offensive
Going forward
Stinging rebuke
Mr. TK goes to Washington (unless a reference to the actual movie)
The proverbial TK ("proverbial" doesn't excuse the cliche, just admits you used it knowingly)
Fevered speculation
Growing body of evidence
Increasingly (unless we prove in the story that something is in fact increasing)
Tapped (as substitute for "selected" or "appointed")
Any "not-un" formulation (as in "not unsurprising")
There, I said it (more self-important than "voicey")
To be sure

The reasons why these words and phrases are discouraged at the Post are not provided, but I believe most are self-explanatory. Many are simply cliches; others are over-generalizations -- there is probably not one thing in the world that "the American people" agree on or have in common; others are simply so worn-out that if I gave you the first word you'd instantly be able to provide the second word (grizzled veteran, manicured lawns, dizzying array, withering criticism, predawn raid).

Other phrases on the list are avoided, I assume, because they are common words and phrases that writers use to make their piece, or themselves, seem more important or insightful. As Lozado notes, writing that something is "little-noticed" just means the writer hasn't noticed it. And writing that "reality/truth is more complicated" suggests that the writer has oversimplified a point, and is now criticizing that oversimplification.

I really like this list and I'm going to try to live by it in my own writing. Lawyers may want to do the same.

Posted by Bruce Carton on March 21, 2013 at 04:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)


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