March 1st, 2008

Failure to Communicate

You know that most egregious of writers’ pet peeves—when people who are not writers make remarks like, “When I have some time, I’m going to write a book, too?” As though their ability to write a grocery list makes them a veritable Faulkner-in-training?

I confess: I tend to believe that other people should be able to write. If I can do it, I tend to think, surely that person can do it too.

How wrong am I? So, so wrong!

This week I started editing one piece that was, admittedly, on a fluff subject. Unfortunately, the writing was fluff, too. At one point, I found myself reading a paragraph of so many sentences that merely paraphrased each other that when I at last came across a sentence saying something—and something different from its eight companions—I struck it out, a reflex leftover from when I was a kid taking standardized tests that asked, “Which sentence does not belong in the following paragraph?”

Then there was the piece written by a non-native English speaker. That wasn’t the big problem—the grammar was very solid. The big problem was that the writer first referred to a figure in the story as, for instance, “Dr. Peter John.” It was unclear whether “John” really was the surname. Especially later, when the figure was referred to as “Dr. Peter.” He was later—I’m not kidding—referred to as “Dr. John.” And then there was a figure called “Dr. Smith,” who I originally took to be a completely different person.

Guess what? He wasn’t. There was just one guy—Dr. Peter John Smith. Why, I ask you—why?

It must be admitted that this writer does not consider himself a writer (his professional expertise is elsewhere); still, he wanted to take on the piece, and I zanily thought he could do it. There are other people, though, who do consider themselves writers—and they really, truly, simply cannot write well. I’m thinking of one right now; when I read stuff by this colleague of mine, not only are there words that are clear typos (“train” instead of “chain,” for instance), but there are misspellings as well. How much effort does it take to click “spell check?” (And that's not even getting into the sentences that say nothing at all--of which there are plenty. Oh--and then there's the apostrophe issue! Good grief--let's change the subject.)

Another colleague brought me an essay that she found fascinating, along with a suggestion that I commission a similar piece. The topic was indeed fascinating—but the piece was downright depressing: it started with a lengthy anecdote featuring people named “Dr. Wilson,” “Mrs. Jefferson,” and “the intern.” Who are these people? Did the writer whip them up? Are they real? If they’re real, which of them provided the writer with the information about the anecdote? How did this bit of non-journalism end up published in a medical journal? How could anyone suggest I commission something similar for a nonfiction publication?

In a week that has not included much revision on my finalfinalREALLYfinal draft of my middle-grade (unless it’s YA) fantasy novel, because I’ve gotten to a sticky point and am fairly immersed in that wearying feeling that I only have two ways to describe emotional upheaval (“her stomach churned” or “her stomach turned”), I am left with the satisfying (if simultaneously terrifying) revelation that it is something of a gift to be able to string a coherent sentence together, to build a logical paragraph, to take decent notes from which juicy quotes are selected. If you can do any or all of those things, recognize yourself for the writer you are, and remember: not everyone can do what you do. 

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