Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Wrong Way to Write


8 Common Mistakes That Can Make Your Copy Appear Amateurish

“Amateur Writer” just wouldn’t look good on a business card.  And yet, if you’re not taking your craft seriously, you might as well get a batch printed up because that’s the message you’re sending out.  No doubt there are successful clients and publishers who can’t tell good writing from bathroom graffiti, but if you have your sights set on a more discerning audience, you will have to prove to them that you are the real deal.  The marketplace is crowded with would-be Wordsworths, and getting more so every day. Why give your prospects even one more reason to look elsewhere?
     Pretending it doesn’t matter is just a lame excuse for not making the effort to find a better way.  So if you are motivated to be accepted as a professional, here are eight significant errors that you should try to avoid, along with some possible remedies. Give them some thought, and chances are you will be able to come up with even better ones.

1.      1. Relying too much on clich├ęs and trite expressions.  Television journalists are almost universally guilty of this, especially at the local level.  If there’s a story that involves a chimpanzee, the reporter seems compelled to observe that someone has “gone ape” or is involved in “monkey business.” If it’s about a canine, then the whole place has “gone to the dogs.” Only those people who laugh at the same joke over and over again – or have never watched a newscast before – would think this is clever writing.  At best, it’s a shorthand way of saying “there’s a dog in this story, and we’re not expecting you to take it too seriously.”        But couldn’t there be a more original way to introduce such a segment? How about switching the two tropes out: “Downtown Millville has apparently gone to the – apes?” The wording might be just enough of a surprise to hook your audience. But you could do better.  A little brainstorming would probably yield a few riffs on evolution, the 800-lb gorilla, Planet of the Apes (plenty of usable quotes there), and so on.  The idea would be to twist them or use them in a way that you haven’t seen before. Come up with your own way of expressing the idea, and who knows?  Maybe your turn of phrase will become part of the common vernacular, and someday news anchors will be wearing it out, too.

2.      2. Using out-of-date expressions.  This crime, also perpetrated by TV journalists, is even harder to avoid for the simple reason that our language is constantly evolving and what is in vogue today may be merely a shadow of a memory tomorrow. The trick is to stop using a popular expression once it’s past its expiration date.  Just because you are talking about something in outer space does not mean you have to describe it as “out of this world.” These four words came together back when the idea of space travel really had a hold on public’s imagination, and there was no better way to exhibit ecstatic awe than to call forth images of the infinite, unexplored heavens.
          But really, how long has it been since you heard anyone refer this way to something that was not space-related? It’s as dated as “neat-o” and “the cat’s pajamas.” Given the vastness of the cosmos, it should not be too hard to conjure up something new, and perhaps more descriptive of an extra-terrestrial experience.  You decide which sounds better: “The new StarBlast ride is out of this world!” or “StarBlast takes you from the edge of your seat to the edge of the Universe.” With a little bit of thought, you can probably do much better than this -- and all without a single reference to probes of Uranus (see No. 7 below).

3.      3. Not checking your facts. This is usually a matter of laziness or haste, but it is inexcusable either way.  Believe it or not, words have meanings, and the more technical the language, the more precise its definitions.  Let us once again venture into the realm of outer space.  Though there are plenty of space-related words in your thesaurus, it does not mean they are all applicable to your subject.  A glaring example of this kind of mistake is the overuse of the word “intergalactic.” It sounds impressive, and it should, because it refers to something that spans the unbelievably vast emptiness between galaxies.  A galaxy, in case you don’t already know, is a spinning cluster of billions of stars; each of these stars may be the sun for its own family of planets.  So a galaxy is a pretty huge thing, far, far bigger than our solar system, and intergalactic space is unbelievably more vast than that. So if you’re talking about a meteor that came from Mars, you should call it an “interplanetary” traveler; if you’re talking about NASA sending a probe to the nearby star Alpha Centauri, then use “interstellar,” which literally means “between the stars.”
           The same kind of attention must be paid to medical terms (a “schizophrenic” is not the same as a person with “multiple personality disorder”), as well as those employed in other scientific, legal, financial or even culinary circles.  All it takes is a little research.  Once you find a likely candidate in your thesaurus, take the time to check its definition and proper usage (from a dictionary, encyclopedia or a search of the relevant technical sites online) to make sure you don’t end up looking like an idiomatic idiot.

4.      4. Disregarding your audience.  You should never assume that all your readers talk the way you do.  Unless your target is your own posse (a term soon to be dated, I’m sure – see No. 2 above), you cannot expect them to be in on all the current slang that you use on a daily basis. If your goal is to reach more people, you need to meet them at least half-way.  That doesn’t mean you have to use worn-out phrases and dull language – you just have to be more creative in finding ways to bridge the gap. Sometimes you can get away with slang if the meaning of a term is easily gleaned from its context, and you can take pride in helping introduce it to a wider audience.  But if it’s too obscure or counter-intuitive (think of the generational confusion over the word “bad”), and you don’t want to burden your prose with an explanation or a footnote, then you’re better off leaving it out. 
    And then there’s jargon.  In some situations, the use of technical language is unavoidable.  But remember who your target audience is and, if necessary, fill in some of the blanks for them.  Informing the average reader about the intricacies of financial derivatives would probably require you to define the more arcane terms and possibly use some kind of analogy to get the idea across.  Then again, if your story is really about a reformed Wall Street con man who is trying to regain custody of his daughter after being released from prison, you shouldn’t bog the reader down with such irrelevancies. 

5.      5. Showing off your own illiteracy.  Well, perhaps “illiteracy” is too strong a word, but far too many people are unaware of their own limitations when it comes to writing, and that just makes them look even less professional.  I once attended a publishing convention where a gentleman had propped up a sign on his table proclaiming in big, bold letters, that he was a professional “playwrighter.” Maybe he was trying to be clever, but all I saw was a guy who either did not understand the word “playwright” (his own job title!) or was simply terrible at spelling.  Either of these shortcomings could be overlooked in a plumber or a house painter, but for a man claiming to be a professional writer? Come on!
         Just as an auto mechanic needs to know how a car engine works, a wordsmith has to know an awful lot about words.  If you keep confusing the possessive “its” with the contraction “it’s,” then you should be in another line of work, my friend. And you cannot rely on Spellchecker to find all your mistakes for you.  It can’t tell when you’ve mixed up “visible” with “visual” or when you’ve employed an incorrect homonym (“there” vs. “their” vs. “they’re,” for instance).  A certain amount of leeway is granted in the name of style – it’s called “poetic license” – but that should never be an excuse for sloppy grammar.
         If you do not have an eye for proof-reading (or perhaps you just don’t know because you’ve never had your proofing skills tested), then I suggest you find someone with a sharp eye to take a look at what you’ve written.  Don’t ask your brother or your best pal – go to your old English teacher, or maybe that know-it-all at work who’s always making fun of the way you talk. Don’t ask for an opinion on the story; instead, hand him a red pen and challenge him to find all your mistakes. It will probably be a humbling experience, but well worth it. 
        Publishers and literary agents say that if they come across more than two errors on the first page of a manuscript, they will simply toss the book into the “reject” bin and devote their attention to authors who know what they are doing. As for clients, the educated ones are always put off by easily corrected errors, although they probably won’t bother to tell you.  Not only does this kind of sloppiness pull their attention away from the message itself, they figure if the writer is indifferent about his own business, then how can he possibly give a damn about theirs?

6.      6. Not bothering to rewrite.  You worked long and hard on this piece of copy, and now that you’ve reached the end, it’s time to send it in. After all, you’re a professional, the best writer you know.  You’ve proofed it, and all the misspellings and grammar glitches have been corrected.  What more could anyone possibly ask?  Well, how about this: did you get the message through?  The whole point, remember, was to put some kind of idea across.  Sure, the message is obvious to you. But then again, wasn’t that true even before you set down a single word?
         What really matters is how it is received by someone who doesn’t share your brain. Obviously, the easiest way to find out is to hand a copy to another person and see what she gets out of it.  Quiz her to determine if and where your ideas might have gotten lost in translation. Maybe she’ll have a suggestion or two about how to fix it – not so much to trample on your pride or usurp your position as the writer of the piece, but as a member of your audience to whom a little more emphasis here, or the spelling out of an acronym there, would make all the difference. She doesn’t have to tell you what words to use, and you certainly don’t have to accept all of her recommendations, but it would be in your best interest to learn how and why any misunderstandings occurred so you can use that creative mind of yours to find your own solution.
    Don’t be too reluctant to change something if it isn’t working.  That joke you wrote in the first paragraph should have killed -- if only the reader had a better sense of humor, or more familiarity with the subject matter, or time to look up the definition of that obscure word you used in the punch line.  These are just excuses; if the idea doesn’t come across immediately, then even the most lyrical word choice in the world won’t matter. I once tried to impress a Japanese client with the name of a theme park concept based on a pun I had worked out in his native language (with which I was only vaguely familiar, even with a helpful translator at my side). As you can imagine, it flopped like a boneless chicken.  It was not his fault; I should have flight-tested the idea with other Japanese speakers before deciding to go ahead with it. Lesson learned.

7.      7. Letting style overshadow meaning.  A poetic license is not a permit to murder the English language. Every writer eventually develops his own voice, which is often what makes reading his work so enjoyable. One author might include colorful phrases he heard while growing up in the old neighborhood; another might seem to go through contortions to avoid ever splitting an infinitive. Or using a sentence fragment.  One author may use similes whereas another would always opt for  metaphors; one may be known for his hyperbole, and another for her understatement.  But all successful writers have one thing in common: their style does not get in the way of the message.
         “Well, what about Shakespeare?” you counter. “His stuff is so stylish, I can’t understand what he’s talking about.” That’s a fair point, as far as it goes.  But the flowery language that the Bard employed was much more accessible back in his day.  People talked like that all the time, though perhaps not with quite the same flourish. Those with an education strove to exhibit the same sort of eloquence, especially in their writing, even if they were just scribbling in their private diaries.  Many of the terms and idioms they used are so out of date that nowadays we’d need a guidebook to follow along, and indeed much is lost in the translation.  But those people were not writing for the readers of some distant future; they were conversing with their contemporaries in a language they all understood.  To them, the poet’s style was hardly a barrier to understanding. More likely it was an enhancement, as it helped them to experience feelings as well as ideas.  Modern poets rarely try to emulate Shakespeare’s archaic wording, but they do labor, as he did, to convey levels of meaning and emotion using the language of our day.
    On the other hand, simulating a famous author’s style is a time-honored technique in advertising and entertainment, where the idea might be to invoke a particular feeling. You could imply the power and manliness of a new cologne with the black-and-white drama of a film noir scene, complete with robust adjectives and plenty of slang right out of a pulp novel.  Here the style serves the message: men who want to be perceived as masculine might be lured into buying a bottle. 
    But sometimes the message gets lost, as in the case of those beautiful commercials that leave you wondering what the heck they were even trying to sell.  Unless you already know something about the product (in which case you’re probably already a customer), the ad is not going to convince you to make a purchase.  That’s too bad for the client, no matter how many awards the agency wins for its artistry.
    Sometimes the connection between style and message is crystal clear, but the style is still not appropriate.  Not too long ago there was an ad on TV for a product that promotes regularity.  It featured a guy in a hardhat at a construction site.  While he talked in innocuous terms about this new-found solution to his constipation problems, the action in the background showed various metaphors for the biological process he was finally able to experience.  A rusty steel beam was extruded through a small hole in a cement wall, a load of 55-gallon drums was released to roll off a truck bed behind his backside, and in the final scene he stood with one leg up on a cord of lumber as a dump truck poured forth a colossal pile of bricks in a direct line of sight beyond the seat of his pants.
   I chuckled, of course, but I was not at all surprised when the ad was pulled after only a couple of weeks. Though the message was pretty clear, no doubt the style of the presentation was offensive to a lot of potential customers. Potty jokes may be the easiest to come up with (just ask any five-year-old boy), but they usually aren’t appropriate in mixed company. Is it any wonder that phrases like “that not-so-fresh feeling” are brought into play? Here we have an acceptable exception to the rule: when dealing with sensitive matters, you could do a lot worse than skirt the issue – in this case, to intentionally use style to obscure the message, so that only the more discerning (read: adult) audience members can connect the dots. Your best bet is to run it by someone in the target demographic (especially if there is a possibility of  running up against community or ethnic taboos) and make sure the message comes through the way you intended.

8.      8. Using lots of typographic tricks and creative fonts.  Go bold or go home, the athletes say.  But that does not apply to everything.  If your writing needs visual tricks to garner the attention of your audience, then maybe you should be using different words altogether.  Comic books use bold lettering to denote emphasis, but I think that is because they traditionally use a hand-lettered all-caps style in their captions and word balloons, and there’s not a whole lot left to work with.  Italics are a bit too subtle for the sans-serif letters, and underlining, when it is used, tends to look more like a proof-reader’s mark.  But if you’re not writing lines for Spider-Man and his ilk, you should reserve bold type for section headings and chapter titles.  Typing a word in all-caps can indeed seem like shouting (how many times have you been flamed for leaving the Caps Lock button on while conversing online?), but it’s also how we express acronyms, abbreviations and certain brand names, and there’s enough confusion already in each of those arenas.
    So how do you emphasize a word or phrase?  Well, if you really feel you must do something, and the words aren’t already set off in quotes or parentheses or brackets (due to their nature or context), then use italics. Not bold italics, and not all-capital italics, and certainly not some extravagantly fat version of the typeface you are using.  And never, under any circumstances, try to emphasize a word in your text by using a different font altogether! 
    This is not to say that different fonts have no place at all in a passage of text.  If, for example you are trying to show the reader just what a name looks like in Old English script, then by all means, knock yourself out.  But here we are talking about a special purpose other than emphasis.  In advertising copy, especially, where language is often a graphic element in itself, the use of various fonts is a pretty useful way to catch the reader’s eye and perhaps to convey a secondary meaning.  You might portray a falling leaf by tracing its path down the page with a looping line of text, or convey the idea of growth by making each subsequent word in a sentence several points larger, or fatter or taller. The unusual appearance of such words does command a certain amount of attention, as all novelty does, but the emphasis itself is merely a fortunate by-product of a more targeted purpose.  The aforementioned trail of text is not crying, “Hey, look at me!” so much as it is saying, “Flutter down the page with me and see all the pretty red and orange leaves that are gathering at the bottom.”
    What about punctuation?  Certainly it has its place; quotation marks are often used to denote irony or the unreliability of an assertion, and the whole purpose of the exclamation point is to provide emphasis.  The main problem with the exclamation point is that (except in Spanish) it only appears at the end of the sentence, so you don’t always know what’s being emphasized until you’ve passed it by.  The same can be true of attributions, although in this case the fix is not too difficult.  Compare these two versions of the same sentence:
                “I’m going to the store,” he shouted over the sound of the lawnmower.
                Over the sound of the lawnmower he shouted, “I’m going to the store.”
If you’re reading these aloud, you would have to go back and read the first version again to get it right.  In the second, you don’t even need an exclamation point to know ahead of time that the character is yelling.
    But here is the rule that applies to all of these techniques: use them sparingly.  If every sentence ends with an exclamation point, how will the reader know when a character is shouting?  Have you ever opened a used textbook and seen where someone had highlighted practically every sentence? I’ll bet it wasn’t much help to the person who did the highlighting, either.

    So there you have it:  a short list of common writing mistakes that can derail your bullet-train to respectability as a professional wordsmith.  I’m sure there are plenty of others, and just as many exceptions to the rules I’ve laid out.  The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to commit such errors; a little self-education and perhaps some outside help with editing will go a long way toward overcoming even the worst of habits. 
    Maybe you don’t agree.  That’s fine with me;  I don’t accept every suggestion I hear as gospel, either.  But just hearing a comment makes me examine why I prefer to do something a certain way, and as a result, my choice becomes a deliberate, defensible act instead of a mistake born out of ignorance. If my reasoning has as much merit as the argument against it, I will likely continue to do it my way. But if it doesn’t, then I will try to re-train myself so I can meet that higher standard. After all, in today’s hyper-competitive world, I need every advantage I can lay my hands on.  Don’t you?

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