or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Right now there's a debate going on--you may have missed it--regarding the status of bloggers, and whether they really qualify as journalists. My opinion is that they can, sort of, but only if they have editors.

I enjoy reading James Wolcott's blog: he's a good writer, sharp and smart and funny. But he needs someone at Vanity Fair looking over his shoulder with a red pencil in hand. His blog entry titled "Money Changes Everything" and datelined "04.12.05 4:46PM" starts with the following sentence: "I share Tom Watson's yecch reaction to this week's cover story of New York magazine luxury class of ultra-rich, which I read attentively in the checkout line while waiting for some dimwit ahead of me to punch in the correct PIN number to purchase a bag of potato chips, a gallon of orange soda, and an apple. "

The sentence contains one of those expressions that all but force me to ask, "As opposed to...?" These are expressions that by design or ignorance contain unnecessary redundancy, as opposed to useful grammatical redundancy. To my mind, these expressions come in two forms.

First is the one that Wolcott commits: overexplaining an abbreviation. "[W]aiting for some dimwit ahead of me to punch in the correct PIN number....." "As opposed to the correct PIN letter?" The acronym "PIN" contains the word "number", and "PIN number" sounds kind of stupid. Same with "SIN number", "VIN number", "CAD design", "ATM machine", and depressingly so forth.

Second is overstating the obvious, something newspaper writers are all too guilty of: "Jane Smith, a woman doctor..." "As opposed to a man doctor?" ("Doctor" would be fine, since her sex is irrelevant and in any case her first name tells us all we need to know.) "Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones had a homosexual relationship..." "As opposed to a heterosexual relationship?" (They had a sexual relationship.) This seems to be done for an elbow-in-the-ribs effect, which makes it doubly reprehensible; journalists are expected to know better.

(Despite all this finickiness, I'll admit to a moderate liking for the construction "-shaped". "Cube-shaped" ought to drag out of me the question, "As opposed to cube-coloured?", but it doesn't, even though "cubic" would probably do the job just as well. Such are the mysteries of language.)

I'm not picking on Wolcott, and I don't read his writing (or anyone else's) with an eye to editing it. It's something I can't help but do; errors in other people's writings stand out like a beacon, for some unexplained neurological reason. (I can usually find the errors in my own writing after a quick re-reading, but not always; one of the axioms of editing is that you absolutely cannot copy-edit your own work.)


Blogger Tony Pius said...

"[O]ne of the axioms of editing is that you absolutely cannot copy-edit your own work."

Agreed. I had to spend years trying to convince my bosses of this, back when I was a writer-editor. My experience is that while you're reading your own material, your brain fills in what you meant to write.

I've found that it's possible to edit my own work if I've left it strictly alone for two to four weeks. That seems to be long enough for it to drain out of the mental buffer, and I can see what's on the page without interference from my compositional lobe.

Thursday, April 14, 2005 3:37:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

"Compositional lobe"! Oh, I like that.

Your brain does indeed see what you meant instead of what you wrote. I write in a perpetual state of editing and revision; I might put down "A far better thing is to..." and then a few sentences later go back and change it to "It's far better to...", except that I'll leave one of the original words in, giving me something like "It's far better thing to..." which sounds like it was found on the instruction sheet for assembing a Chinese car model. And this sort of thing is astoundingly easy to miss in your own work.

Easier still is a typo that's a word. I couldn't count the number of times I've written "that" instead of "than". My brain quickly and effortlessly picks up misspellings: it isn't quite as efficient with such errors.

I hope your bosses eventually saw the light.

Thursday, April 14, 2005 4:41:00 PM  

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