The Writing Life

James Ralph was an 18th-century content creator, scratching out a living in England’s New Economy. In an age of political, social and technological upheaval, life could be precarious for those who kept the printing presses stoked with words.

Writing in 1758, Ralph said “there is no Difference between the Writer in his Garret, and the Slave in the Mines; but that the former has his Situation in the Air, and the latter in the Bowels of the Earth: Both have their Tasks assigned them alike: Both must drudge and starve; and neither can hope for Deliverance.”

The quote comes from The Age of Authors: An Anthology of Eighteenth-Century Print Culture, a remarkable collection of writing about writing and the plight of writers. Editor Paul Keen writes that Ralph was “often dismissed as a Grub Street hack writer,” but managed to produce some important work, including the essay quoted above.

The Distrest Poet, by William Hogarth.
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The essay, The Case of Authors By Profession or Trade, Stated, marks the decline of the era when writers relied on patrons. The new commercial model of publishing was generating profits that were being denied to those slaves in the garrets, Ralph argued.

In the new world of letters, anyone, it seemed, could be an author – even women. (Anyone, that is, who belonged to the educated classes. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the literacy rate in Great Britain rose above 60 per cent.) Continue reading

Cause for hope

Thomas Vinciguerra has written a hopeful piece for the Columbia Journalism Review that looks at the unlikely Internet stardom of copy editors.

The piece features the always-sensible John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun, who got more than a million views for a video outlining his practical and progressive views on the singular “they.”

Says Mark Allen, of the American Copy Editors Society:

People are getting more information than they ever have, whether it’s in ink or electronically. People want to read, and they want to read without stumbling. And that’s where the copy editor comes in. The copy editor is the bridge who keeps the writer from tripping up.

You can find most anything online, including a million reasons to believe that most folks these days think clear writing went out with the Lindy Hop. But here – on the Internet! – is proof you don’t have to leave your readers stumbling around like a pub full of drunks in a three-legged race.

Shitgibbon: the saga continues

My campaign to have “shitgibbon” declared the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2017 is gaining momentum with a ground-breaking revelation in the search for the term’s origin.

Ben Zimmer reports that this delightful word was coined by the British writer David Quantick.

“I’m surprised and delighted that a word I made up in the 1980s to insult British indie rock stars has resurfaced in the context of 21st century US politics and the shitgibbon in the White House,” Quantick told Zimmer. “It’s bizarre and a very odd journey for a very silly word.”

From the irksome Mark E. Smith to a strange-haired delusionist strongman is indeed an odd journey. Let’s hope the Oxford folks are listening.

(By the way, I’m following Zimmer’s practice and dropping the hyphen from “shitgibbon.” As the Canadian Press Stylebook notes, “in North America, the tendency is to drop the hyphen as soon as a new compound becomes familiar.” I say it’s time we all got familiar with this exemplary bit of invective.)

‘Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit…’

My favourite writing coach, Roy Peter Clark, has written a splendid tribute to William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well.

Zinsser’s best-known book is now in its 30th anniversary edition, having sold more than a million copies. Seeing as it’s probably the best book on writing nonfiction, that’s nice to know.

Writing on Poynter.org, Clark celebrates two pages of On Writing Well that reproduce a marked-up draft of the book.

For the record, they are pages 10 and 11 in my edition. I’ve studied them until my eyes bleed. I’ve shared them with countless aspiring writers, young and old. There have never — I say never! — been two pages in a writing text as practical, persuasive and revealing as pages 10 and 11. Like the music ethos articulated by the likes of Miles Davis and Tony Bennett, Zinsser demonstrates in writing that there are notes in a composition (words in his case) that the artist should leave out.

Pages 10 and 11 show how Zinsser slashed words and phrases that most of us would lazily let stand. The result is tighter, clearer and more powerful. “Faced with such a variety of obstacles” becomes “faced with these obstacles.” “He tends to blame himself” becomes “He blames himself.” “Two or three different” becomes “several.”

As Zinsser says, “rewriting is the essence of writing.”

The man with no name meets the chair with no man

The great thing about being a pundit is you get to have it both ways. As the Republican National Convention geared up a few days ago, the media were grousing that the show would be a “hyper-scripted” and pre-packaged ritual that would offer nothing in the way of spontaneity.

Then Clint Eastwood had his Howard Beale moment with the vacant chair. And the media got all grumpy, complaining just because his unscripted kook-out was “bizarre,” “weird” and “rambling and off-color.”

It was, of course, all of those things. That’s what happens when you throw away the script. Savour it. Thanks to Clint, that kind of political improv probably won’t ever be seen again.

A tragedy misreported and misremembered: Why ‘the killer is rarely who he seems’

Dave Cullen was one of the reporters who descended on Columbine High School in 1999 when two teenage boys began murdering their classmates. Like the rest of the media pack, he reported a lot of things that simply weren’t true.

Unlike the other reporters, Dave Cullen kept going back to the Columbine story until, a decade later, he had learned what really happened.

On Sunday, as another pack of reporters swarmed the scene of another Colorado shooting, Cullen wrote in the New York Times about the myths that he and his colleagues created more than a decade ago. We think we know the Columbine story:  two teenage loners, bullied by jocks until they sought revenge.

“Not one bit of that turned out to be true,” Cullen wrote in the Times.

The media created myths about Columbine and “we created those myths for one reason,” Cullen writes. “We were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon.”

What is really disturbing for the media, and for anyone who relies on the media to understand the world, is the way those myths were created. As Cullen makes clear in his excellent book, Columbine, the early media reports were part of a feedback loop that started with media speculation.

When the reporters arrived at Columbine High, witnesses told them what they wanted to hear: stories about loners and bullying jocks. It wasn’t because the witnesses had first-hand experience with these “facts.” They were just passing on what they’d heard in the very first radio reports, which had been based on speculation, based on myths and stereotypes.

The front page of my Globe and Mail today has an indication of how powerful these loner myths are. A Top Student, a ‘Weird’ Loner, reads the headline on my print copy of the paper today. No matter that no one in the story calls him a loner; in fact, the story has a line from the AP quoting an acquaintance of the Aurora killer, who says that “describing Mr. Holmes as a ‘loner’ would be unfair.” (The online version has a more accurate head that still plays into our need for stereotypes about killers: Colorado Suspect a Top Student, but Too ‘Weird’ to Be Allowed on Shooting Range”)

Cullen urges his readers in the Times to be wary of news accounts about Aurora.

“Over the next several days, you will be hit with all sorts of evidence fragments suggesting one motive or another. Don’t believe any one detail. Mr. Holmes has already been described as a loner. Proceed with caution on that. Nearly every shooter gets tagged with that label, because the public is convinced that that’s the profile, and people barely acquainted with the gunman parrot it back to every journalist they encounter.”

The sad thing is that, despite Cullen’s excellent reporting, our impression of what happened at Columbine is still largely wrong. The myths of Columbine made sense and they made us feel better. So when Cullen came along with the truth – more complicated and more unsettling than the myth – we weren’t listening.