He may have "lived life to the fullest," but please find another way to say it!
That's just one of many tips from Jade Walker, a member of the New York Times Web team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks. Jade gave a fantastic workshop on obituary writing at this year's College Media Advisers national convention in New York. I asked her if she would submit her top five obit-writing tips to The Deadline Diaries, and she agreed. She also gave me a list of the most common obituary cliches, as compiled by the Society of Professional Obituary Writers.
But first: What's Jade up to nowadays? Glad you asked. Jade runs Night Owl News, a website specializing in news that happens while America sleeps (literally and perhaps figuratively). She also runs The Blog of Death, a blog dedicated to interesting obituaries.
Here are Jade's top five obit-writing tips:
1. Make sure the subject is actually dead. (Deadline Diaries' note: This tip might sound obvious, but there have been many embarrassing cases in which celebrities such as Bob Hope read their own obituaries before they died.)
2. Talk to many different sources to get an accurate view of the deceased. Your mother and your best friend would likely describe you in different ways.
3. Be Professional, courteous, and compassionate. People in the grieving process often have trouble thinking clearly. Guide them to the answers you need.
4. Accuracy is key. You're writing the last word on someone's life. Get it right.
5. Avoiding cliches is not always easy, but we should attempt to do so.
Not sure what an obituary cliche looks like? Here are the first 30 obituary cliches from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. The message to my journalism students is clear: Find another way to say it!
1. She touched many lives.
2. He was my knight in shining armor.
3. He lived life/enjoyed each day to the fullest.
4. He never met a stranger/never knew a stranger/never met anyone he didn't like.
5. He'll be remembered for his smile/He brightened a room with his smile.
6. He only saw the best in people.
7. He had a twinkle in his eye.
8. Her children were the most important thing to her/She lived for her family.
9. He was a people person.
10. She loved her grandchildren.
11. He was a jack-of-all-trades.
12. She was a consummate entertainer.
13. He was a man's man.
14. His true love was his family.
15. He was an icon.
16. There will never be another like him.
17. She was always learning new things/Her curiosity knew no bounds.
18. He was a world traveler.
19. She was a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks.
20. He was just getting his life together/She was turning her life around.
21. She was a role model for all of us.
22. He didn't talk much about himself.
23. He wasn't a churchgoer, but he was a very religious man.
24. They were married in their hearts.
25. Their marriage had a few bumps in the road.
26. He died peacefully with his family at his side.
27. She engaged us all with her witty conversation.
28. He left this life with no regrets.
29. She was a natural born teacher.
30. He would have wanted it that way.