Evidence

Evidence

Evidence | Guy L. PaceEvidence is a funny thing. Sometimes, what you think is evidence, isn’t.

As a jounalist (See SPJ’s Standards), attribution was always part of presenting facts. When you could not attribute information to a reliable source, an authoritative individual, or a direct witness, it became hearsay. When you reference an act and relate it to a possible perpetrator, you always use the word “alleged.”

For example: “Joe allegedly took the candy bar and left the store.” You don’t say he allegedly stole the candy bar, that would define the act. The act of taking the candy bar and leaving the store is an act of theft. However, the journalist is not law enforcement, nor judge and jury. The journalist is the conveyer of information. So, you don’t define the alleged act.

I won’t detail how certain recent New York Times articles completely ignore the SPJ’s standards.

Hearsay

As we move further into the story, we bring up more information.

“A witness said someone who saw Joe take the candy bar told them that Joe did actually take the candy bar.”

The above statement doesn’t name the source other than as a “witness.” Worse, the witness claimed that some other un-named person else actually saw the act. This can only be classified as hearsay and should have little or no place in the story. It encourages pre-judgement without direct evidence.

So, someone called the police, who arrest Joe and gather evidence. After review of the evidence, the police drop charges, and Joe goes home with his candy bar.

What Happened?

Well, evidence. There are rules of evidence and you can find them at these links:

Cornell Law

Rules of Evidence

I’m not going to go into great detail here, but the primary measure on evidence is relevance (See Rule 401). Hearsay does not stand up to the relevance standard.

If a journalist references third- and fourth-hand information (hearsay) without direct attribution, he or she did not do their job. So, they missed the part where the cashier told the police that Joe handed her a dollar before he left the store, and the part where the store security camera recorded the event completely (two examples of direct evidence collected by the police). Direct evidence shows “… the existence of a fact in question, without the intervention of the proof of any other fact ….”

Forensics

In my study and practice of digital forensics, my role involved identifying an actor and placing that person in a seat or in front of a device at a specific time. There is a rougher term for it I won’t use here. This involved gathering direct evidence from the device, from devices and/or services connected to the device, and from devices or equipment in the area (video cameras and recordings).

The important thing in the digital investigation was “chain of custody.” All devices and evidence gathered are carefully recorded, preserved, and the custody tracked. Any gap or mis-step that affected the chain of custody invalidates the evidence, and a judge will throw it out. Not only would a judge dismiss a case over a breach in chain of custody, your professional reputation as a digital forensics investigator could be ruined.

Relevance

So, what does this have to do with writing?

You must analyze a situation, scene, action in your fiction to make sure it reflects accurately any evidence, hearsay, and forensics practices you might use. Using these elements correctly, even in fiction, helps make the story more real, more believable.

Keep all this in mind, if you watch the television series, Wisdom of the Crowd. Crowdsourcing evidence is a slippery slope and violates so many of the rules of evidence, chain of custody, and promotes hearsay. So, exercise care and caution when exploring these topics.

Keep writing.

 

 

Voice

Voice

It’s best to use active voice in fiction writing, they tell us. Passive voice we’d best avoid.

I’ll break it down for you. Active voice keeps your reader engaged with action verbs. Passive voice puts the reader to sleep.

Back in the day, my mentor in the Navy, Senior Chief Journalist Raymond P. Lucasey*, put it this way when he found a passive voice sentence in my work.

“Why do you keep backing up into your sentences?”

He was right. Passive voice not only puts a sleeper hold on a reader, but puts the predicate first in the sentence and uses a lame verb that doesn’t direct action at all. It gets it all backward. Active voice gets your subject up front and uses a more powerful verb to direct the action.

We weren’t writing fiction, then. We were writing news releases and other material for media folks, as well as material for historical records of our command. Chief Lucasey demanded quality from me in everything we did that went out for media consumption. “What they do with it after they get it is on them,” or words to that effect were his sentiments.

A side effect of passive voice is it adds a lot unnecessary words to your writing. Cleaning up and replacing passive voice with active voice makes your writing tighter and more on point. Crisper. More intense.

Lazy

Text Clip from WIP

In this clip, Scrivener marks some of the text it thinks may be incorrect with green underscores.

But, I’m lazy and I need help. I’ve used grammar checkers since their inception back in the ’80s and I wrote reviews of them in an academic journal (Text Technology). But, that was when they were a separate, add-on application you might use with Word Perfect or Word. Then, software companies integrated the spelling and grammar checkers into the word-processing applications. Now, you have spelling and grammar checking as a menu option in the Edit drop down menu of your editor of choice. The problem with this is all you get are these colored underlines in your text where the spelling or grammar needs work.

For example, the above paragraph originally had two instances of passive voice. When I tested the text in Pages and Scrivener, they indicated nothing wrong with the paragraph. They both marked the “your” words in the previous paragraph, indicating I might substitute “you’re” (wrong). Both Pages and Scrivener have limited grammar checking capability. You can turn it on or off, but you can’t drill down into settings and configure the grammar checker for your needs. I’d love to find a reasonable grammar checker I can add to my Mac to help. Until then, I found a solution I can use until something better comes along.

I copy the text from a scene in Scrivener, paste it to a new post in my WordPress editor, which uses After the Deadline. Then I click the spelling/grammar checker. Where there are passive voice instances, or other errors, I make the corrections in Scrivener (because copy and pasting back to Scrivener makes a mess of the text).

Granted, a good grammar checker isn’t going to solve all your active/passive voice issues. You still need to know the difference between your and you’re; there, they’re, and their; to (toward) and too (also or excessive); and its (possessive) and it’s (it is contraction). It helps you take a more critical look at your writing. Is it okay to use passive voice sometimes? Well, yes. I allow characters to say things using passive voice in dialog sometimes. Not a lot, though. My rule is it cannot get in the way of the story or the action.

A may look at Grammarian Pro2 X as a grammar tool.

Keep writing.

 

*I lost track of Chief Lucasey after I separated from the Navy. I understood he retired to Arizona or Florida. Here’s to you, Chief, wherever you are.

The Lead

If It Bleeds …

blood_splatter_texture_by_ienigmagraphics

If it bleeds, it leads.

You probably heard a number of old print newspaper tropes like, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and “you buried the lead.” The word as I’m using it here (sometimes spelled “lede” lately to differentiate it from its homonyms) refers to the first paragraph of a news story.

The version of the term, lede, came into use circa 1965. That spelling just grates on me, so I’ll stick to the old way. The first paragraph of a news story should lead you into the rest by providing you with the most important elements. If I said it should lede you, you’d get all confused and think I committed a typo.

This is the first of a series of posts on journalism and how it relates to writing, specifically writing fiction. I was no famous journalist in my day, but I did work on a number of small weekly and twice-weekly papers. I had some good mentors both in the Navy and in civilian life.

It was through these experiences and practice of writing news stories that I developed my style, I think. An economy of words, precise description, active voice, all play a role in my writing. I’m not perfect, but I try.

So, what exactly is a lead?

In a news story, the first paragraph–usually no more than two sentences–is the lead. It normally contains four or five of the six critical elements of a news story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. It is the lead that draws the reader into the rest of the story which expands on the elements to offer a complete narrative of what happened.

Here is an example of a well-written lead from The Chicago Tribune, Tribune News Service, Oct. 3, 2016:

The Illinois state treasurer plans to announce that the state will suspend billions of dollars of investment activity with Wells Fargo.

This simple single sentence covers the critical elements of the story. Who (Illinois state treasurer), what (suspend investment activity with Wells Fargo), when (soon), where (Illinois). The bridge or body of the story will address these and the “why” and “how” elements in more detail.

Notice the economy of words. Real news writing still lives in Chicago, it seems. You get the primary information in a well-written sentence in active voice. It compels you to read further for more information.

Here’s a lead from the Associated Press in a story dated Oct. 3, 2016:

The Supreme Court has declined an Obama administration request to break its recent tie over plans to protect millions of immigrants, when a ninth justice is on the bench.

This lead is a mess and definitely not what I’m used to seeing from the AP. The sentence uses a passive verb and has a clause that is nonsense. Here’s how it should look:

The Supreme Court rejected an Obama administration request to break the court’s recent tie over plans to protect millions of immigrants.

I suspect the clause dangling at the end of the AP version was a cut-and-paste edit error that stomped on a part of the story’s bridge. The revision punches up the verb and helps drive the reader into the rest of the story without the confusion of the strange clause. Both stories are online and you may not see the versions I’ve clipped here if you go looking.

“So,” you ask, “just what does all this have to do with writing fiction?”

Using an economy of words and addressing the critical elements of the story (who, what, when, where, why, and how) are important in getting a reader to read initially, and continue to read. Fiction writing really isn’t that far from news writing.

The first element we address in a fiction story, usually, is the who. Tie the main character or protagonist quickly and actively to a what so you entice the reader to read more. If we spend too much time in all the detail of a who, or a what, in the first few paragraphs or pages, the book or story gets put down.

That first page of your book–or the first paragraph of a short story–is the lead into your story. You don’t need to go into excessive detail on the character’s description or personality disorders, or heavy description of the what the character gets involved in.

Just give the reader enough information to hook him or her into reading further. Salt your protagonist’s physical and character traits through your narrative, or use “show, don’t tell” techniques. Tease the reader with elements of the what as you go along. This keeps the narrative moving and the reader interested.

Keep writing.