When I first started editing people’s work as a journalist I noticed something very odd. Let’s call it Sounds Good Syndrome. SGS occurs when a writer think it’s more important to focus on how words sound than what they mean.
Example. From time to time journalists have to produce ‘colour’ pieces. Longer articles that aren’t strict news stories but extend into atmosphere. A chance for real writing in other words, which is fine if you’re a real writer. Not all reporters are — some of the best at chasing down facts actually don’t write that well at all, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Each to their own.
One day a very good fact-chasing reporter came in with a colour piece he’d written. It started, ‘Beneath a gibbous sun…’
I screamed, naturally. Gibbous has two precise, related meanings. The first is ‘hunched’ or ‘hump-backed’. The second relates to the phase of the moon. If it’s greater than half but not yet full then it’s gibbous. Since the sun, unlike the moon, never waxes and wanes describing it as ‘gibbous’ in this context is actually gibberish.
SGS strikes us all. I’m sure I’ve fallen for it over the years. I hope I don’t any longer because I’m now much more aware of language than I ever was starting out in this trade.
Where does it begin? In the head. When something, a phrase usually, appears instantly in your mind begging to be used. One of the first lessons I learned as a journalist was this: if something pops into your head and seems a very obvious candidate for the next chunk of text to be written then beware. Chances are it’s a cliché, and they’re usually to be avoided.
I say ‘usually’ because novelists write fictitious dialogue too, and I see nothing wrong with including a cliché in dialogue if it’s a way of saying, ‘This person has a clichéd mind.’ You will, of course, get an email from a dumb-yet-thinks-he’s-smart reader complaining your work contains clichés. But there’s no pleasing everyone.
SGS is the cliché on acid. Something pops up into your head and it sounds so good and cool you can’t wait to tap it into the machine, never once stopping to ask yourself along the way, ‘But does this actually make sense?’
I now try and look at the words I write, both as they appear and one day later during the initial post-writing read-through, and throw this question at every sentence. There’s no shame in producing drivel. Only in allowing it through.
This kind of close-focus work is something a good editor does naturally. It’s a hard-won, difficult skill. This is just one reason why the current fad for saying self-publishers can now ‘crowd-source’ proofing and editing to their readers is utter bilge.
I’m delighted to be able to send you to an odd place in which you can see such a good editor in action, though I’ve no idea who the editor in question truly is.
Yesterday I wrote about the sad tale of the Kidwelly festival. It turns out that someone has set up a site dedicated to analysing the work of the organiser. You can find it here, though in order to make sense of what’s going on you should scroll to the bottom and work your way up. It’s an odd blog, essentially a piss-take. But some of the textual and grammatical points here are priceless and made in a very sharp and entertaining manner.
“Her beauty ignored the morbid background of the ancient and neglected cemetery.
No it didn’t — beauty is an abstract noun, it can’t go around ignoring things. Maybe it made other people ignore the cemetery? Even then, what does that actually mean? Did they wander around tripping over gravestones? If it made them stare at Lise, then say that, for heaven’s sake.”
Precisely. There’s a brief set of examples on that site. They’re well worth reading, not just for the points they make but for an example of the painstaking, pedantic approach all of us should adopt when reading our own work before passing it on to others. SGS can strike at will and sometimes it can look so beguiling.
The older I get the more I think the best writing is pretty much invisible. If you notice it something’s wrong. With The Killing I made a deliberate attempt to simplify my writing to the extent that it mirrored the blunt, monochrome nature of the TV series itself. I worried that might make me less ‘readable’, whatever that means. Judging by the feedback I get it actually makes me more.
Lessons to be learned all round here.