Want to be a better public writer? Celebrate the versatility of the question mark. – Poynter
It was 1967 and I was playing organ in a college rock band called “Tuesday’s Children”. We were popular in Rhode Island and the surrounding states, playing mixers, socks, and frat parties. We made some pocket money and had a lot of fun.
We played a concert at Bryant College, a dance concert. We played the dance, and a hot touring band with a hit record performed the concert. The song was called “96 Tears”, a classic from the garage band. The group was called Question Mark and the Mysterians.
If the people at PolitiFact checked this, they would discover an error. The band chose not to spell the rock ‘n’ roll name of their lead singer. They preferred the actual punctuation mark: “? and the Mysterious.
They say the inventor of the question mark was an Anglo-Saxon scholar named Alcuin of York, a guy I remember meeting in college.
But who invented the question? I guess someone is feeling questioning, sick, and tired of the declarative and imperative moods of the people they’ve met.
My playful speculation is meant to remind the public writer – all writers – that when it comes to verbs, moods matter. The word “mood” describes a quality of verbs, not to be confused with “tense” or “voice”.
The mode of a verb describes the meaning environment in which a verb exists.
In English, basic moods include “declarative,” sometimes called the reality mood, the most common way of saying it as it is: “This vaccine will help save your life.”
The “imperative” atmosphere is one of parents’ favorites: “Clean your room”; or rescuers: “Get vaccinated today at the free clinic”; and, all too often, bullies, tyrants and loudmouths in general.
The “subjunctive” is the most subtle of states of mind. It tends to express ambiguity, hypothesis or circumstances contrary to the facts: “If I were you, I would get vaccinated. To which someone could respond in the declarative: “But you are not me!” The subjunctive appears in unusual and sometimes archaic sentences, such as “Anyway”.
See what I just did? (I did it again!)
For the purposes of public writing, the question may turn out to be the most versatile and, at best, the most engaging. From the question that elicits the advice column to those that land on cross-examination, the question is a writing tool that settles.
Among my favorite uses:
The narrative question: Stories benefit from the energy created by questions, especially those that can only be answered by reading the story: Who did it? Guilty or not guilty? Who wins the race? Who gets the prize? Who is worthy of true love? Who solves the problem? How many obstacles can Harry Potter overcome?
The question of maintenance: In their research, public writers will want to come into contact with many stakeholders who are affected by a policy or issue. Who has the most at stake?
Some speakers are official experts: marine biologists, epidemiologists, economists, all these “-ists”. But if you just ask the experts questions and write down what they say, you’re missing out on half the game. Each person is an unofficial expert from their own experience. I exaggerated it. But there are beneficiaries and victims, winners and losers, even in disasters. The best type of interview question, in most cases, is the open-ended question.
The open question: The philosopher Plato made famous the interrogative teaching style of his mentor. We call it the Socratic Method, manifested with the Socratic Question. Socrates taught his students by leading them to a predetermined destination, some wisdom about the world or the human condition. The teacher in this case already knows the answer. The questions guide the students along the way.
Such questions are of little use to public writers except, perhaps, in thorough investigations to see if a source is telling the truth. With open ended questions, the source has knowledge that the reporter wants to acquire. The questioner does not know the answer in advance. This is what makes the open question such a powerful vehicle for learning, collaborating, and gaining the truth. “You’ve been stranded by the side of the road for hours in this blizzard. How was it ? What have you learned?”
The question of anticipation: I imagine that over time, tour guides learn to anticipate the questions: How tall is this building? How long has he been here? Who was the architect? Where are the toilets? In the digital age, this anticipation function is put into practice on websites by a link to an FAQ: frequently asked questions. These questions do not come out of nowhere. They are harvested through human interaction and algorithms. Done well, they are extremely useful for audience learning and understanding.
Q&A remains one of the most powerful explanatory and understanding tools ever created. He anticipates the needs and interests of the public. He asks questions they would ask, but also questions they wouldn’t think of asking. The visual effect like this also facilitates the path to understanding. Questions are often typographically set apart, perhaps in bold type. The answers come in digestible chunks.
I’m writing this on July 20, 2021, from what used to be my home dining room in St. Petersburg, Florida. This space became a home office at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence of the delta variant of the coronavirus. Additionally, we were hit by a small hurricane Elsa with some flood damage in the area. There has also been a return of a natural phenomenon called red tide blooming. This tide kills tons and tons of fish and other marine life and fills the air with harmful pollutants.
I had so many questions. I had the chance to meet the work of Zachary T. Sampson and his colleagues at the Tampa Bay Times. Their timely Q&A was titled, “Tampa Bay Has Questions About the Red Tide. Here are some answers. This is not the space to reprint all of the text, but it is worth reprinting the questions. They will give a quick idea of the breadth and complexity of what is available to the public:
- What is the red tide?
- What is a flowering?
- Why is the red tide now raging in Tampa Bay?
- Where does it come from? Did the Piney Point disaster have something to do with it?
- Why is it killing so much marine life?
- When will the flowering stop?
- How long has Red Tide been a problem?
- What role does man play in a flowering?
- Does the red tide also affect people?
- Is it okay to eat seafood at this time?
- Can I walk my dog right now on a beach with Red Tide?
- Can I swim in the red tide?
- Where does all the dead stuff go?
- It all stinks. What can I do?
I have 15 questions, accompanied by answers that range from scientific and technical to practical. The answer to the question about the Piney Point disaster reveals the level of care in reporting and research:
Harmful algae feast on nutrients that are regularly found in Tampa Bay, such as nitrogen.
Excess nitrogen enters water in a number of ways, including runoff from fertilizers and sewage discharged from the soil.
But this year, scientists say, the red tide is almost certainly finding more fuel due to a singular man-made disaster: more than 200 million gallons of polluted water were dumped into the bay between late March and early March. April off old Piney Point. fertilizer plant in Manatee County.
The state authorized the release by owner HRK Holdings because regulators feared a large, leaking reservoir would collapse, sending devastating flooding to surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. This sewage was dumped into Port Manatee Bay and carried a lot of nitrogen with it.
You may have heard local leaders and researchers say time and time again that Piney Point did not cause this red tide.
What they mean is: Liberation is not why Karenia brevis ended up in the bay. This is not to say that pollution could not exacerbate flowering.
Think of a bushfire: something must emit a spark, like a match, to start it. The flames then need dry matter to continue burning. In this case, the nutrients – the ones already in the berry and the huge amount Piney Point adds – are the fuel.
As for the ignition? Scientists have hypothesized that several environmental factors may be at play.…
A print version of this type of Q&A can be very long, especially in magazines. Oral histories generated by questions and answers can fill volumes of books. But there are times when only three or four questions are enough, followed by short answers.
In broadcast journalism, once a story is delivered, a presenter can ‘question’ the reporter, a call and response that, even when traced, looks a bit like a conversation. Public radio makes the best use of the form. I particularly like them in reported programs such as “Marketplace”, when the anchor, usually Kai Ryssdal, unboxes a complicated problem with the economy.
Seasoned broadcast journalism teacher Al Tompkins offers this perspective:
Some anchors want scripted questions and some don’t. The best questions are real questions based on the content of the story. Producers sometimes insist on knowing what is going to be requested so that they can budget the time. Journalists hate being asked stupid questions they don’t know how to answer. The worst questions are when the presenter isn’t listening to the story and then asks a question you just answered in the room. You mean, “Well, Mike, if you had listened to the story rather than chatting with the meteorologist, you would have heard me say …” But you don’t. You say, “Great questions, Mike, so let me underline …”
The key is that when asked a question in the public interest, I’m more likely to sound like an informed person sharing information than an expert giving a lecture.
Since I started this essay with an anecdote on rock ‘n’ roll glory, I’ll end with one on domestic happiness. I can testify that after 50 years of marriage, my wife Karen and I know each other’s moves and moods. What I learned was a strategy you could call “imperative interrogation”, an order disguised as a question: “Did you take out the trash?