These last few weeks of editing shifts have been a disaster for family dinners, but interesting as professional development. I used to think I could never be an editor. I lack the patience to be good at it. I’d look at some steaming heap of raw copy and say, get this outta my sight. I knew it was bad, but I really didn’t know how to fix it other than flush it down the toilet, and that’s sort of demoralizing for most rookie reporters.
But if you’re diligent about improving your own copy, you pick up a few tricks, and now I’m not the worst line editor you ever met, although I still strive to be merely mediocre. After seeing more than a few sorry-ass writers — who struggled with writing complete sentences and getting their minds around the concept of subject/verb agreement — grow, through hard work, into something resembling real competence, I know great improvement is possible. But the best many of these folks could do was write with simple sentences that got the point across and didn’t embarrass them to have their names at the top. The ear for music — and call me a crazy dreamer, but that’s what good writing is, to me — is something you have to be born with, and develop throughout your life.
I thought of this when I read Jon Carroll’s column this morning. Here’s how it started:
No one can say when a relationship starts to go bad. The changes are subtle, barely noticeable. One might sense an easing of commitment, but one might put that down to outside pressures.
Then the forgetfulness starts. Gestures that used to be automatic now become rare and grudging. If one reminds the partner of the earlier commitment, the partner turns irritable. "You are not the boss of me," the partner might say, half joking but also half not.
Soon, there is no relationship at all. Sure, the old spark might flare briefly, particularly in trying times when the need for comfort is greatest, but soon all denial is fruitless. The thrill is gone. People who played by the rules no longer play by the rules. They indulge in risky behavior, endangering themselves and others.
It’s bad enough when it happens to one person. But when it happens to an entire nation, it becomes a sickness, almost an epidemic. So I ask you to join with me to answer the following question: Is it possible to reunite Americans with their turn signals?
That’s four paragraphs, a long time to wait for the punchline, especially in a newspaper. I sat back and read the whole thing several times, marveling at the trick — the string of Oprah banalities, piled atop one another like fish in the market, slap slap slap, with just that little hint, midway through ("You are not the boss of me"), that this isn’t going to be a deadly exegesis about a divorce, or about our falling-out with the United Nations. One more would have been too many; one fewer wouldn’t have been enough to make you wonder, what the hell is going on here?
(PAUSE FOR DISCLAIMER: Not all senses of humor are alike. Your sense of the humorousness of the example cited may vary.)
That sort of ear you just can’t teach. You think it’s easy to write a column about why people don’t use turn signals and not sound like Andy Rooney or some desperate, sweating Seinfeld manque? Try it sometime. Go ahead and give me 700 words on that topic right now, see how you do.
Things have gotten so bad that I fear some of my readers may not even know the phrase "turn signal." In every automobile, there is a device (mine, like many others, is mounted on the steering column) that allows the driver to make his or her intentions known.
Before you turn right, simply flick the lever, and a blinking arrow on the dashboard will confirm that your right taillight is sending out rhythmic pulses of light. I should perhaps mention that the same procedure can be used for the left taillight (in case of left turns), although the lever must be flicked in a different direction.
"Rhythmic pulses of light" — that’s just right. That’s funny. I laughed, anyway.
One reason I like reading good webloggers is that, being "amateurs," many of them haven’t had the creative stuffing beaten out of them by bad editors. If they have the ear, and the confidence, it comes through as something really fresh. Once again, I offer The Poorman, Andrew Northrup, who as far as I can tell is some sort of science guy, but then I read something like this and I think, he’s got it:
I hate to even bring it up, because it’s just so "I read a stupid editorial and now I’m going make snide comments about it in my New Media Web Log," but I really think that this Norman Mailer editorial is the single stupidest event in the history of writing stupid things in newspapers.
I like the way he manages to distill bloggers’ most irritating habit — the so-called takedown — into something that sounds like a teenager said it, which is about the level of most takedowns, and as for "the single stupidest event in the history of writing stupid things in newspapers," well. I read the piece in question. That might be the most succinct summation possible. I know veteran editorial writers who can’t get to the point that fast.
OK, enough of this. I should teach a little course in brevity, one-a these days.
Instead, I’m going to go peruse the Ann Arbor City Guide I was given at my fellowship interview last month, try to figure out where to live.
Here’s one fellowship story before I go. It’s really Ron’s story, but Ron doesn’t have a website, and what the hell, it’s a good story: So Ron has to go to the airport in Detroit one day in March, to pick up Mike Wallace, yes, that Mike Wallace, who gave the Knight-Wallace Fellowship half its name. And he’s driving back, gets into Ann Arbor, and his car just … stops. Dead. No mas go. They’re in traffic, and there’s honking, and while Ron is trying to figure out what to do, Mike jumps out and starts directing traffic. Imagine what a sight this would have been to passing motorists: Honey, is that–? But then, while Ron’s looking for the four-way flashers, he feels the car jostle a little. Looks up, into the rear-view.
Mike Wallace is pushing his car. Eighty-four years old, this guy.
"When you have your interview," Ron advised, "say that you have a brand-new car."
I couldn’t fit it in, but I guess it didn’t matter.
See you tomorrow.