08 Jul 2020

Falling Down Deep With the Carousels in Your Eyesa

Copyediting – I've been lazy about my copyediting, and the laziness shows in a lot of the things I've written both for myself and for work. The battle against adverbs is constant, but wordiness is my main sin. A lot of it comes down to the way that I think and, by extension, the way that I write – basically, I start all of my sentences without 100% knowing where I'm going to land at the end. I flatter myself that I treat conversation like jazz, but more often than not it's the bad kind of jazz. Either it's weird and atonal, or boring and stock; smooth jazz, or child banging on pots.

Part of my job at work is student-facing. Because we are a small team, everyone has to help clear the ticket backlog – which means, in addition to making significant purchasing decisions, I also have a customer service job. I consider this a positive, rather than a negative. The people responsible for making decisions should be required to use the tools they decide to buy, and field questions from the people who are affected by any changes. If I make a bad decision, I know about immediately: I have to answer the complaints.

But this does mean that I write a lot of text in the voice of the company I work for – as their representative. Corporate speak is antithetical to good writing practices. The goal is to numb the reader, so they do not react emotionally; to bore the reader, so they do not feel threatened or confronted; to confuse the reader (slightly), to obfuscate responsibility; and, finally, to assure the reader that our corporation is serious and well-run by being exactly as bureaucratic and frustrating and vapid as every other corporation the reader deals with every day.

This leads to sentences that stretch on forever, like a ribbon in the sky studded with diamonds, except the diamonds are clichés, and the ribbon is made of boredom. It's also a kind of writing that doesn't require a lot of copyediting, because the more brutally you twist the language to avoid responsibility or deaden the impact of your words, the better. In drama, you might have a character declare, as Aaron does in Titus Andronicus: "Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, // Blood and revenge are hammering in my head." In a communication from a corporation, it would read more like: "Due to the ongoing uncertainty regarding recent events, and with sincere regrets offered to those impacted by any forthcoming decisions, AAA Corp has begun an initiative to review our partner network, which may result in a reduction of stakeholder relationships in the coming quarter."

Actually, that's not quite right – corporate speak needs to not just announce an upcoming murder, but also make that murder sound like an exciting new initiative that will lead the company, and especially the company's shareholders, to a new era of prosperity. To announce a blood-vendetta in such a way that the victims are excited about what this will mean for their portfolios.

So, when I say that my copyediting skill has declined, too fully absorbed the immaterial style manual of corporate behemoths. I can write pages and pages of meaningless drivel, very quickly, because it's easy and you don't have to actually edit all that much. As long as it spelled correctly and it seems to have the right keywords in it, most people will just sort of not along as if they understand, when in fact they don't. Which honestly is the last thing that corporate writing needs to do: sound impressive enough that the reader doesn't want to risk sounding like an idiot by saying that the text doesn't actually mean anything. When everyone around you is nodding, and saying how reasonable and well thought out a statement is, you feel like a madman wanting to criticize it as an empty box made of dog shit.

If we kind of reverse corporate speak, what would good prose look like? If we take corporate speak as a negative image of true writing, where do we end up?

Rather than numbing or boring the reader, excite them. Make them feel. Given the workings of human psychology, the easiest way to excite a reader is to say something that they already believe or describe something they have already experienced in a new or interesting way – especially if the resulting prose is laconic, and easily quotable. Most readers come to books looking for mirrors.

The more complicated way to excite a reader is to confront them in some way. This tends to be polarizing – some will love the fight, while others will hate to be pushed – but structuring your sentences in a confrontational way, or using confrontational words, or working with confrontational ideas is often successful in arousing the reader's passions. And if your goal is attention, and if all attention is good attention, then this is your quickest ticket to what you want.

The even more complicated way, the most difficult way, is to structure your sentences and ideas so that they are naturally exciting. This is where copyediting really comes in.

Next, rather than confusing the reader, or obfuscating responsibility, declare your intent: clearly, concisely, and right at the start. Of course, when done poorly, this comes across as didacticism – but when done well, clarity is the defining characteristic of well-written prose. I feel like most of the best novels I've read are basically multi-hundred-page elaborations on and footnotes to their opening sentences. Indeed, this technique goes right back to some of the oldest literature in the so-called Western Canon: "Rage, muses – sing of the rage of Peleus' son, that brought such ruin to the Achaeans…" There are like fourteen different ways that that sentence defines the book, either literally or ironically. The rage of Achilles is both the cause of nearly losing the war, but also the means by which the Greeks felled Troy's greatest offender; the rage of Achilles, as a stand-in for the rage of the Achaeans and especially Menelaus, both destroys Troy and themselves in the end; the rage of Achilles, ended at last not by revenge, but by the human gesture of giving back to the king of Troy Hector's body. The only way to change a person's mind – not simply enforce compliance – is to help them have the idea for themselves. Lead your reader to the idea you want them to notice.

Finally, rather than writing to assure the reader that you are a consummate professional, and authority to be obeyed, or giving the reader the image severity or perfection – try to bleed on the page. People are not perfect. Most of the time people can't even find it in themselves to be professional. Everyone you've ever met who is "severe" or a perfectionist or serious – it's all a lie to cover fear. Fear of inadequacy, fear of weakness, fear of loss – whatever. Fear is the overriding emotion of corporate speak, and the people who make brands of themselves.

Expose your humanity. Have flaws. Abhor perfection. And don't demand perfection from others. To paraphrase myself from a thing I wrote long ago: what other people call style is nothing but the ways you and your work deviate from some norm.

This may seem at odds with the apparent goal of copyediting. When you talk about copyediting, people picture a scowling old man or a frazzled old woman picking apart "bad grammar" and fixing typos and arguing with you about word choice. The idea being, they are imposing on you and your writing, from the outside, a set of rules and norms that all writing must adhere to.

Instead, copyediting is the art of making any given piece the best possible version of itself. Copyediting a poem is not about fixing grammar, or rhyme – unless those are somehow important to the poem itself. A great copy editor has the ability to understand at a deep level what a piece of writing is trying to be, and can therefore see the flaws preventing the writer from pushing the piece where it wants to go. Sometimes this does come down to grammar, word choice, and other picky details – but it's also about the rhetoric of structuring an idea or an argument; it's about the clarity and concision of a piece of writing; it's about the tone and vibe.

And it's this kind of copyediting that I have been lazy about.

I tend to take a "first thought, best thought" approach to my writing. Writing quickly, for me, is the most honest way to get a first draft down. I don't censor, or rethink, or calculate – things that can absolutely kill your ability to finish stories. So, on the one hand, "first thought, best thought" lets me say what I actually think. But, on the other hand, writing quickly like that exposes a lot of habits of mind and tics of speech. The thing is, having habits of mind and tics of speech isn't inherently negative – as long as you are doing the work of copyediting to determine whether those little flaws or idiosyncrasies add to or detract from the writing itself.

This has now gone on too long, so I'm going to stop.