Tuesday, January 09, 2007

One Strike and You're Out

Blogger was messed up for a while but seems to be back on track now....

I read something in the newspaper today that, combined with my previous post on writing, reminded me of an informal mental checklist I maintain. It’s a collection of little phrases or tricks that as far as I’m concerned every writer should be allowed to use once, and only once—preferably before the age of 25—and then never again.

What set me off this morning? In connection with fires now burning in southern California, the words “wind-whipped flames.”

I used “wind-whipped flames” once as a young reporter covering a grass fire at a dump, where it really was windy and the flames really were whipping. An editor flagged it and told me it was a pretty poor cliché (I thought I’d invented it), and I’ve been alert to it since. Television news readers are worse offenders than newspaper reporters, probably because “wind-whipped” is fun to say. It's almost poetic.

“Predawn darkness.” Another one I was surprised to learn I hadn’t invented. I believe I got away with it, but immediately started reading and hearing it everywhere. Again, it’s kind of poetic. I think it evokes the sense of still anticipation when the sky just begins to lighten in the east. But it’s poor journalism—how much more accurate to write that an event happened under clear skies at 4:15 a.m., if those facts are relevant at all—and, as a cliché, poorer prose. Remove it from the quiver.

Others off the top of my head that catch my eye or ear:
* Combing or sorting through charred rubble.
* Densely wooded area. You mean a forest?
* Firestorm of protest.
* Rain failed to dampen (a party, a game, a protest, spirits).
* Anything moving a step closer to reality.
* Closure. If I’m ever in a situation so unfortunate that a writer or reporter asks me when I think I will “get closure,” I hope I have the presence of mind to punch him or her in the face.

“The story about the story.” This is pretty common, even among writers who are otherwise professional and exemplary. In my case, it worked like this: my newspaper editor noted that a Friday the 13th was coming up and wanted a little feature about it. No one else wanted to touch it, but I had an inspiration and volunteered. I would write a story about how hard it was to write a Friday the 13th story. I confess it was kind of cute: I wrote about calling the contacts on my beat—mayors, city council members, the fire chief—and asking if anything bad had ever happened to them on that date. For the most part nothing had, and that non-story was my story. My one misfire was a councilman who said yes, in fact, his daughter had died on a Friday the 13th. Crap. Of course I apologized and left him out of the article, as journalistically suspect as that might have been (a good reporter would never dismiss evidence that disagreed with their thesis. Tough cookies.). I thought myself quite clever and original until, again, I started seeing the device everywhere. It’s not clever and original; in fact, it’s desperate and sophomoric. So get it out of your system when you’re a sophomore.

It’s hard to avoid using clichés if you don’t know they’re clichés, and everybody falls into the trap sometimes (perhaps even by writing things like “falls into the trap”). Cliches serve a literary purpose as shorthand that instantly communicates a concept that may be otherwise hard or clumsy to explain. If you twist them a bit, they can even be rejuvenated (“It’s a gift horse. Don’t look in its mouth.”).

The cliches that really grate on my brain are the lazy automatic ones that people use without considering what they mean or if they provide useful information. They are combinations of words that no one would ever say in real life. Every word should serve a conscious purpose; that’s the ideal I always aim for and will always fall short of.


ronnie said...

Here's another one:

Buses never drive, roll, slip, fall or plummet into ravines.

They plunge.

Always with the "Bus Plunge".

On another note, our local paper, which serves a sleepy city of 47,500 that has about one murder every two years or so is currently covering a dramatic and high-profile murder trial. The headline yesterday was in said local rag was "MURDER TRIAL MAY HINGE ON DNA". I thought to myself, "That guy has waited his whole career to write that headline..."


Arnold Wagner said...

Sigh, guilty Brian. I think it's a bigger sin in newspaper offices than elsewhere.

I cut myself some slack by remembering that cliches became a cliche because they worked so well everyone startd using them. No I don't buy that either, but it's a usable answer to critics.

BrianFies said...

The big danger in writing about abuses of language is that it invites too much scrutiny. Pot, kettle, etc. I believe this is an area where we're all sinners. I do my best and try to be as forgiving as I can, hoping to earn the same in return.