My wife and I were watching the network news the other night (yes, we may be the last two people on earth doing that) when I blurted out:
"I'm really glad winter is over because I am so tired of bracing and reeling. Brace, reel. Brace, reel. It's exhausting."
How can the network people expect us to keep up this pace, I said as she gave me a puzzled look.
"When I snowstorm is coming, they say we are 'bracing for the storm.' After it hits, we 'reel' in its 'wake.' "
With so many storms this year, we are endlessly "bracing" and "reeling."
Big, deadly floods and hurricanes have "aftermaths" as the survivors reel around looking for generators and water. Less severe storms simply leave us reeling "in the wake" as if we were run over by a Russian cargo ship.
We don't actually reel or brace for a snowstorm. We just pick up some extra bread and milk and watch TV in our recliners. We don't reel around like a drunkards afterward, we just start up the snow blower and get to work.
But "bracing" and "reeling" is all part of the cliche-riddled world of news writing. Yes, "riddled" is another news cliche; bodies are most often "riddled" with bullets; testimony is riddled with contradictions.
When I started in the news business a long time ago, I was a painfully slow and dull writer.
Some people say I still am.
My mentor, Linda, was an old hand, probably about 30 at the time. She could take notes in shorthand and bat out about eight stories a day.
She was a news writing machine, and her stories were so much more dramatic than mine.
So I began studying Linda's stories to see how she did it, and I quickly noticed there was a sort of news writing glue that held her stories together.
People weren't just shot, they were "gunned down." The county didn't reduce its budget like I was writing in my stories, it "swung the budget ax." When a robbery failed, it was a "botched robbery."
Her politicians were on the "campaign trail" or "stumping for votes," while mine were simply running for office.
Her union talks were always "heating up" until the two sides finally "hammered out" an agreement, as if they chiseled the damn thing in stone.
Politicians in trouble were "plagued" or "dogged" by controversy or scandal, while heavy rains were always "torrential." Accident victims always had to "undergo surgery" and were often "clinging to life."
Whenever a storm approached, road crews would "gear up" during a storm, while "area residents" always "hunkered down."
When somebody escaped from the jail, he wasn't just missing, he was "at large" and deputies didn't just search for him, they conducted a "manhunt." When caught, the "jailbird" wasn't arrested, he was "apprehended."
Really, if your teenager ran away, would you ever say she's "at large?"
When the town's budget was off, it was never just off, it was off "to the tune of" $15,000.
What tune was that? It doesn't even make sense.
Odd events were always the first time "in recent memory," because we reporters had all started within the past year, we weren't from around there and we didn't have anything other than recent memories.
A prominent civic issue always took "center stage," and the person doing the explaining was either in the "spotlight" or on the "hot seat."
Cars didn't just go off the road and down a hill. They "plunged into a ravine" and we usually pronounced the driver "lucky to be alive."
As I read Linda's stories, the solution to my slow, dull writing became clear. I could make any story seem more exciting by linking my facts with these colorful expressions.
Perhaps like this:
"County Commissioners Dallie DeArment and Herb Yingling (their actual names) were on the hot seat yesterday after receiving a blistering barrage of bile from teachers intent on wreaking havoc on their weekly powwow.
"The two solons were fully engulfed in the firestorm after plotting to gut the school budget during a flurry of clandestine activity.
"Yingling was easy prey in the brewing battle, as teachers brandished accusations during the botched meeting.
"DeArment, meanwhile, was reeling over the unrest and openly miffed, speculating that alcohol was a factor in the dissension among the rank and file."
Ah, pure gold. I had found the secret to success, my productivity improved and my writing seemed twice as colorful.
From that point forward, my politicians were usually "embattled," two-inch snowstorms "packed a punch" and even the slightest tax increase was "whopping."
My editor didn't seem to mind and my stories appeared exactly as I had written them, without comment, good or bad, often with typos intact.
Over the years, I've never had a reader complain about reading a news-writing cliche.
Together, we have a comfortable secret language between news reporters and news consumers, understood by both, questioned by neither and likely incomprehensible to people trying to learn English.
"Hector, why the man sit on a hot seat? How is it heated? Why doesn't he stand up?"
Only now, toward the end of my "checkered career," have I begun thinking literally about words.
Sure, I know what a writer means when he says a man was the "mastermind" of a prostitution operation that kept videotapes of its illegal encounters.
That man is a nitwit, not a criminal mastermind.
I hope my writing has improved some over the years.
I'm "cautiously optimistic" it has.