What are the Main Problems faced by the Subeditor of a Newspaper?

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Word difficulty:

How can a sub-editor be sure that a word -will have meaning and above all, the meaning he intends to convey for a hypothetical average reader? One way of exami­ning the question is the matter of word frequency. How frequently does it appear in the written language? Clearly this is a clue to word difficulty.

Thorndike used it to study the difficulty of materials used at various educational levels. From the standpoint of the sub­editor a word which appears infrequently in popular writing and everyday conversation is one which will give the general reader more difficulty than the more frequently used word.

Using Thorndike's word list, he actually can test a word on this score. But, of course, there is not time for that, so the matter of frequency is of value to the editor only to the extent that it makes him conscious of the role of frequency in determining a word's usefulness in writing for a mass audience.

Another off-the-cuff test of word difficulty lies in its structural complexity. The original Flesch test of word difficulty counts 'affixes'. Affixes are prefixes and suffixes. His tests showed that words built out of more affixes are on the whole the more difficult. Later, he simply counted syllables per word.

The theory is that the longer and more complex word is harder to grasp as a word. Im­plementation is long and cumbersome. It has many affixes. It is also relatively infrequent.

The counting of affixes perhaps helps assess word difficulty by getting at another root of the problem; the more affixes the higher the degree of abstraction. The closer a word lies to a tangible thing; the greater likelihood the word will convey meaning.

It must be borne in mind that 'word length and complexity are a measure of word difficulty, not a guarantee. Many long words are easier than many other short words. "Transportation" is in the vocabulary of almost every English-speaking adult; but "ohm" is not.

The four-syllable word is of Latin origin and heavily affixed; the one-syllable word has none of these drawbacks, yet it is virtually useless in newspaper writing unless it is accompanied by extensive explanation. "Transportation" is a frequent word, however, while "ohm" is infrequent in popular writing.

The difference lies in their degree of specialization. Both words convey a wealth of meaning, but only one of them conveys that meaning to-the general reader. Technical terms, then, present the sub-editor with a serious problem of meaning. Besides the limited circle of readers for whom they are meaningful, they have another difficult property and that is their tendency to be precise in meaning.

Thus in communicating with his reading public, the newspaper writer must examine the technical term not only from the stand­point of whether it will convey any meaning with anything like equal precision. The solution often can be found in using the technical term first, then using enough additional (explanatory) wording to make its meaning clear.

Just as the sub-editor has no time for checking word lists, so he has none for counting affixes. But the findings are there for his use.

It is safe to say that reading ease can be improved when word difficulty is reduced. And word difficulty can be estimated, at least, by the sub-editor who judges the doubtful word for its frequency, its structural complexity, and its degree of abstraction.

Sentence difficulty:

Readability researchers have been unani­mous in identifying word difficulty as a basic source of reading difficulty. They have been equally unanimous in the matter of sentence difficulty. Stormzand found that writing in which simple sentences predominated was more readable than the writing which in­cluded a high proportion of compound, complex, and compound complex sentences. Gray and Leary, Lorge, Flesch and Dale and Chall all included "sentence length" in the formulas they developed for measuring reading ease. There seems to be no disagreement on this point.

The sub-editor can improve the readability of newspaper writing by converting long and difficult sentences into shorter and easier ones. He cannot perform this task arbitrarily; he must consi­der the total effect of such changes; he must realize that sentence length and/or complexity is not the only basis of reading ease.

To summarize briefly at this point, the sub-editor is concerned with language also from the standpoint of transmission of meaning, and finally, that meaning is not a function of language alone.


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