Friday, January 26, 2007

Words, but perhaps not "words, words, words"

Catching up on friends' blogs, now that I'm back on-line, I came across this entry on writing from my friend Brian Fies, creator of "Mom's Cancer."

Parts of it are excellent, as the young curate said. I'm very much a foe of the "story about the story" gambit, as well as stories about ordinary people with funny names or with the same names as famous people, and the "who's working during the holiday story," which I have had to do because, well, when you're working on Christmas and have to crank out a story, what else is there?

(Other than coverage one year of the fellow who attempted to burn the giftwrap but needed to keep it out of the wind so piled it up against the house, which had vinyl siding. And I managed to avoid saying that "he had apparently had too much Christmas cheer.")

But the search for cliches can become a witch hunt -- and that's a good example. The term "witch hunt" is often used because, however the actual history parses out, we all know what it means: a search for evil that turns up people who aren't guilty of it but who fit some pattern that the overzealous searcher, falsely, believes constitutes proof.

There's nothing wrong with saying that something "is threatening to become a witch hunt" as long as you confine it to things that are threatening to become witch hunts. If you only used "wind-whipped flames" for fires in which the wind is genuinely working to spread the fire, and backed that up with a quote from firefighters that, dammit, we'd have knocked this thing down easily if it weren't for that strong, persistent wind, I'd be okay with the phrase. But the wind blows more often than not and is often a factor, so save it for times when that factor rises to the point of significance.

Homeric poetry relies on certain stock phrases -- the wine-dark sea and rosy-fingered dawn being a familiar pair -- as well as a naming convention in which Hector is "tamer of horses" and Diomedes is "of the loud war-cry."

These epithets had certain purposes, both in preserving meter and in providing mnemonics for the singer, but they worked because they also produced an effect upon the listener that transmitted information without distracting from the subject at hand. If, to return to those wind-whipped flames, you came up with a long, unique description of how the ... um ... moving air was exacerbating the situation, fire-wise ... it would become a whole new subject on its own. If the wind is a factor but you'd rather use your 15-inches of copy to discuss the evidence of arson and the loss of a family business, the quick, familiar phrase allows you to make the point and move on.

Again, the problem is not in the words but in the writer. If, as ronniecat notes in the comments section of Brian's blog entry, buses always plunge, that's just lazy prose. I'd say a bus would have to fall at least three times its length and with a fair amount of free-fall involved, or at least significant speed, to truly "plunge." If it just went off the road and tumbled down a hillside, then that's what happened and "plunge" is simply the writer being overly dramatic and grabbing for a cheap effect with formulaic words.

An editor with time will ask "did it actually plunge?" But now that I are one, I realize how rarely editors have time to cross-examine their writers. You change it or you let it stand and you move on. That's not ideal, but it's how it happens. This editing thing is like parenting -- you find yourself doing things and saying things you swore you would never do or say.

I do think that it's worth devoting some thought to whether or not the bus actually plunged and to what extent the wind was whipping the flames, but I'm more concerned with someone having "too much Christmas cheer" on a night when we're getting "the white stuff" -- that is, the true cliches which masquerade as attempts to be clever. Which brings us back to the supposed cleverness of the story-about-the-story or the "I don't have an idea for my column" column.

They aren't clever or inventive and they belong on the editor's spike, if there were still an actual spike upon which stories that aren't going to see print were impaled. But spiking a story isn't a cliche -- it's terminology or, for those who hate terminology, jargon.*

(About 15 years ago, copy editors declared war on "in lieu of bail" as jargon. This is nonsense, but the idea spread and you'll rarely see it in print anymore. People go to jail rather than paying bail, but never in lieu of it. This kind of decision is what keeps low-level management types feeling important.)

For my part, I want writers to make sense, to be well-organized and to avoid lazy, sensational prose. I'd like them to think about what a story is -- the two questions being "So what?" and "Who cares?" Why am I writing the story, who is going to be reading it and why should they bother?

If they do that, they won't use a lot of cliches, though they may use some familiar and useful expressions. And their stories will read like Homer.

Well, maybe. Hey, an editor's reach should exceed his grasp.

* Poorly written stories never end up on "the proverbial spike" because, as far as I know, there is no proverb about spikes. At least, not this kind. But that's a rant for another day.


Rob said...

Two things:

1) I really enjoyed reading this.

2) Good to hear from you! We miss you over at racs!

BrianFies said...

Wind-whipped. Wind-whipped wind-whipped wind-whipped wind-whipped.


In fairness to me, way down at the bottom of my inverted pyramid I wrote, "Cliches serve a literary purpose as shorthand that instantly communicates a concept that may be otherwise hard or clumsy to explain." So I think we may disagree less on the big picture than on the words that sound to us on a blackboard?

Glad to hear you and Howard are getting on well.

ronnie said...

What Rob said. Your lack of posts has left a hole at r.a.c.s. that can't be filled. You're conspicuous by your absence, and we're beating the bushes looking for you. We're tired but determined to wait until you're back posting regularly. Of course, all good things come to those that wait. We believe you'll be back.

Only time will tell.

jtogyer said...

When I was a young punk working my first newspaper job, I used to tease the night editor every time there was a big fire: "Can I call it a conflagration?"

Finally, a massive pile of old tires on the outskirts of town caught fire, burning for several days and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people.

On the second or third night, I came back into the newsroom and Jon said, "Now you can call it a conflagration."

Oh, and welcome back to the interwebs, Deacon.