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It’s stale, mate

February 16, 2012

From my very first, trepidatious steps into journalism at 20 it was made clear to me that clichés were bad, bad, bad, and if you ever used them you were a shit writer. Even the definition of cliché, from the Macquarie Dictionary online, reads “a trite, stereotyped expression, idea, practice, etc”. And who wants to sound trite, right?

The thing is, as a magazine subeditor in Australia, I read numerous clichés every day, and I’ve decided that while some clichés make my skin crawl (that’s not one of them), others I quite adore.

One I read today that I probably dislike more than any other is ‘people from all walks of life’. And it’s been used in an introduction to one of my articles. Aargh! Yuk. But what do you do? I certainly can’t point the finger and say, “Oh, yuck, you’ve used a cliché”, because I know I use them, too. Though I do try to limit my use of them to corkers such as ‘to hell in a hand basket’. Love that one.

Here’s what a few famous writers have reportedly said about clichés.

“I think to be oversensitive about clichés is like being oversensitive about table manners.” – Evelyn Waugh (I am fond of good table manners.)

“It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.” – Stephen Fry (Huh?!)

“The average man never really thinks from end to end of his life. The mental activity of such people is only a mouthing of clichés. What they mistake for thought is simply a repetition of what they have heard. My guess is that well over 80 per cent of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought.” – H. L. Mencken (Ouch!)

It’s best not to get too caught up with what successful writers have to say about clichés and other such things, because as a writer you quickly learn that if you want to improve, you simply have to write, and write, and write, and write.

I can’t believe how many times I have to tell my kids the same thing: put your toys where they belong, sit properly at the table, don’t use your shirt to wipe your nose! … but it’s similar with me. Only after I’ve written my millionth cliché have I started to think, “Oh, that expression is rather stale. Perhaps I’d better change it.”

So, yes, it’s best to avoid clichés in your work, but before you can do that, you have to be conscious of what they are and when you’ve used them.

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2012 is a new year

December 6, 2011

I had a couple of new post ideas I was going to finish the year on, but when I tried to follow through on them, I realised that though they seemed liked legendary ideas in my own mind, written out they are just lame.

That’s the beautiful thing about the written word – it helps sift the weeds from the roses. And, to be honest, 2011 has drained me of every last rosy idea. It’s time for a break.

Thanks for reading and commenting. I wish you a joyful holiday break.

I’ll be back in the new year, on February 1. That should give me enough time to prune my internal landscape, so to speak.

Thought I’d close the year with a funny link that lists best/worst similes. I think it’s been around for a while, so you may have seen it. My favourite is: “The sunset displayed rich, spectacular hues like a .jpeg file at 10 percent cyan, 10 percent magenta, 60 percent yellow and 10 percent black.”

Surely you can picture that.

Subeditors make the best writers

November 29, 2011

“Subeditors make the best writers,” a magazine editor I once worked with said. It was a casual remark, and it was clearly made in relation to our specific field: magazines. But it got me thinking about how, as a subeditor, I approach writing.

For me, a story unfolds from a solid understanding of language: words, sentences, paragraphs, and the cement that holds these bricks of language together – grammar. Over the past 15 years, I have carefully considered many aspects of grammar, always curious about why things are done – or not done – in a certain way. It’s a passion. And I think it’s what inspired my editor to make the “subeditors make the best writers” comment. She appreciates the care that subeditors take when they write feature articles.

That isn’t to say we never make mistakes, or never need our own articles subedited – we certainly do. My experience as a writer and a subeditor suggests to me that each task requires a different focus. As a writer, I must focus on the story and, though I do take care with how I tell that story, my eye is on the bigger picture – how to structure and tell the story in a way that I feel invites the reader in and keeps them interested until the end. As a subeditor, however, my eye is on the detail, on the correctness of the facts, the grammar, the style.

Most experienced writers are aware of these two facets of the writing process, I’m sure. What I am curious about, however, is a comment I read on a blog post the other day, which essentially stated that story telling is a talent, but writing can be learned by any intelligent person.

I don’t doubt that story telling is a talent, if by talent we mean ‘natural ability’ (as defined in the Macquarie Dictionary), but isn’t writing a talent, too?

In my first blog post, I made the distinction “between being able to thoughtlessly scribble words on a page and being able to write something that other people want to read. And can read. And enjoy reading.”

And I do think the latter requires talent, along with passion, commitment, and the dedication to learn and practise the craft of writing.

Surely talent is not reserved solely for someone who can tell a good tale, but also for someone who knows how best to use language to tell that tale.

Would love to know your thoughts.

To factcheck or not to factcheck

November 22, 2011

I happened upon this article on Twitter recently, which got me thinking about the future of my profession. Is it long for the modern world?

At first I thought it was a great indicator that my role is safe, but then I realised I work in magazines, not newspapers, and the role of a magazine subeditor is different, in one vital way: we must factcheck.

Colleagues who started out as subeditors on newspapers are often surprised at the intensity of what is involved. Every website, address, phone number, statement and statistic must be verified. However, we usually don’t touch quotes, unless clearly wrong, and then we just leave them out.

Interestingly, I approached @guardianstyle on Twitter – which you must follow if you’re a language lover – great style advice delivered with humour – to find out whether the subs on that newspaper factchecked. “UK newspapers generally regard factchecking as a quaint US thing” was the response, which I feel is probably a similar attitude adopted in Australia. And that may be why it’s more common for newspapers to outsource the role to organisations such as Pagemasters.

So why is it different for magazines? I think there may be a couple of reasons.

1. Longer shelf life. The magazines I’ve worked on are usually monthly or bimonthly, which means, unlike the daily churn out of news – read today, forgotten tomorrow – readers have more time to think about the articles – and find fault with them. And for magazine subeditors, in the constant pursuit of written perfection – our Holy Grail – that can cut deep, though less so the older you get and the more you understand the role. Critical readers usually have no idea about what a subeditor’s job involves: the pressures of deadlines, editors and publishers.

The subeditor is also often the easiest person to blame when a reader complains. Recently, I overheard a managing editor say, “Oh, we’ll just tell them it was the sub’s fault”, when the art director pointed out a potential issue with a layout that readers could complain about. I think it was supposed to be a lighthearted joke. I laughed, but I can’t say that laugh didn’t have a bitter tinge.

2. Use of experts. Magazines often feature experts who, while proficient about certain subjects, can not write well. The relationship between a subeditor and a magazine’s expert ‘writers’ is therefore very important. The expert provides the information, which is well-informed and often unique, and the subeditor spruces it up so it reads well.

The other thing I should mention – as an afterthought and as something I’ve spoken about before – is press releases. PR spin is the way of the modern world, but while some writers may refer to press releases as gospel – how much easier is it to take quotes from a press release rather than seek original ones? – most subeditors approach anything written from a press releases as highly suspect. As one example of many in my 15-year career, a book publisher recently sent out a book with a press release that had the title written out incorrectly.

As a magazine subeditor, it pays to check everything. It’s a role I don’t think is going to die out in the near future.

What do you think? Is factchecking important or a waste of time? I’d love to know what people think in relation to writing fiction, as well.

Whom meets lowbrow

October 4, 2011

“Chris whom served you is a qualified stylist whom has a sixth sense for fashion, and Chris’s only problem is that he is too good at what he does, and as I am sure you are aware, people whom are talented …”

Yes, it is a quote from the GASP exchange that sent snickers and guffaws around the internet last week. In an attempt to win #1 snob of the year, the haughty manager used ‘whom’ when a simple ‘who’ would have been, well, correct.

Clearly, he wasn’t up on the latest grammar memo: it’s become quite acceptable to use ‘who’ in place of ‘whom’ these days—Twitter’s ‘Who To Follow’ is an example, but to use ‘whom’ in place of ‘who’ is, frankly, laughable.

I’d never heard of GASP before now, but based on the language used by its staff members, I certainly don’t imagine a high-class fashion house. Anything attached to Kim Kardashian suggests lowbrow to me, and to call someone a “fat bitch” is, frankly, the cheapest and most unimaginative school yard taunt there is.

Ben Pobjie* takes a page out of the GASP book on PR.

*Warning: bloody funny.

Do you know – or care about – the subjunctive?

September 26, 2011

To be honest, I only found out about the subjunctive a few years ago, which means there were many years before that when, as a subeditor, I was blissfully ignorant. But now that I know about the elegant subjunctive, I like to use it. Probably not so much in my spoken communication, or on Facebook, where I tend to adopt a more casual approach to language – the Blue Mountain bogan* lives within, still– but certainly in my professional life.

The subjunctive refers to mood, which appeals to my romantic sensibilities as it belongs to the world of imagination, wishes, what ifs … it’s indicative of the hypothetical, which can, at times, be more appealing than the present. The subjunctive is what dreams are made of. Something my four-year-old daughter delights in, often.

I wish I were a fairy, then I could fly.

If only I were able to fly, then I could play with my friend, the butterfly. 

The softer ‘were’ is much more pleasant to the ear than the clunky ‘was’.

If you, like me, appreciate its subtle beauty, its softness, and would like to use it at times, just remember that a sentence that starts with ‘if’ or ‘I wish’ is likely to be the subjunctive mood.

* Fuckin’ ay!

PS Blog posts shall return to a weekly timetable shortly, after I have completed my tax return for the year. Until then (end of October), I have dropped to fortnightly posts.

Direct address (or Commas III)

September 12, 2011

I received an excellent question from Kirsten yesterday, who wanted to know whether you should put a comma before someone’s name whenever you address them. Kirsten was referring specifically to point number 5 of my first post on commas, and wanted to know if it was wrong to write ‘thanks Sarah’ without the comma.

Essentially, the rule is to always use a comma when directly addressing someone.

Thanks, Kelly.

How are you, Bob?

Where are you going, David?

The rule helps us, as writers, to avoid ambiguity. Take the following sentences, for example. The comma is essential for clarity.

Should we wash up, Frank?

Should we wash up Frank?

Perhaps the rule makes more sense if we put the name first. In these examples, it’s clear a comma is needed, though you probably wouldn’t see sentences written as such—not very elegant. I do so only to highlight the direct address rule.

Kelly, thanks.

Bob, how are you?

David, where are you going?

It is easy to get confused about the direct address rule. I can see two reasons:

1) You’ll often see thanks not used with a comma before the name it’s addressed to, and it doesn’t seem to cause any great confusion. In informal contexts, why not? And now that you know the rule, you can use your better judgement for more formal situations.

2) I’ve noticed some people use ‘thanks’ when they sign off emails. And a comma may follow that ‘thanks’. For example:

Hi Kate,

Just wanted to make sure you’re still on for Friday night.

Thanks,

Sarah

In fact, that was part of the problem Kirsten had with ‘thanks, Sarah’. She thought it read as though she was Sarah, saying ‘thanks’, as indicated in the above example. Personally, I would’ve written the above email to read:

Hi Kate

Just wanted to make sure you’re still on for Friday night.

Thanks, Kate.

Sarah

Even that is awkward with ‘Kate’ repeated so close together. However, I’ve made another ‘mistake’ in the email that I wasn’t even aware of until today. Can you see what it is?

Wait for it.

Are you ready?

Okay, so who knew that there should have been a comma after ‘hi’? Grammar Girl explains why, here.