I was editing the other night when I noticed something. Economy of language is everything. Extraneous adjectives are everywhere. So is errant, punctuation. (I struggle particularly with commas).
If I were a grumpy editor, I would lament the demise of language. “It started when they stopped teaching cursive. Then it went downhill when phones came and textspeak began. I h8 it.
“And don’t even get me started on what social media has done to our language!”
I am not that grumpy editor. Language is evolving. There are still good words, bad words and those that haven’t been invented yet. It hasn’t changed in my lifetime.
Remember when email was new? Who among us didn’t hit send a moment too soon, or hit “reply all” unintentionally? (It doesn’t happen as much as it used to). You can’t get those things back, but in time, we learned caution.
Remember when Facebook was new? Statuses had a 420 character limit. That was a good thing because it meant if we wanted to post something profound, we had to say it succinctly. Oh sure, some people went to text speak to eliminate character. I h8 that (see above). I am still catching on the acronyms like NSFW (not safe for work).
Computers have helped most people massively as writers because autocorrect fixes a lot of our typos and can even save an occasional grammatical error.
I remain in awe of David McCullough or the recently deceased Larry McMurtry for their ability to compose masterpieces on manual typewriters. McMurtry would pound out five pages, double-spaced daily. I will never be that guy. Even so, sometimes a worthy work arrives handwritten on notebook paper like John Kenedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Such quirks are to be celebrated.
In non-journalism writing to clients in my financial services practice, I prided myself on using proper professional format for letters to clients. That means an inside address, proper punctuation and full sentences. The only change I made from form appropriate 50 years ago is the 18-point type. Oh and always, one page. I don’t want to have someone need their cheaters or take longer than 60 seconds to comprehend what I wrote.
One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is "sorry what I wrote was so long. I didn't have time to write anything good."
That sort of thought process makes it into all sorts of written communication. It’s why we like bulleted lists. USA Today changed journalism forever because it was “McPaper.” A fast, easy read that lacked depth.
In papers like the Union, Sun & Journal and Gazette, we can still do longer-form reporting (when we have the time) but we also need to be cognizant of readers. That means long stories need breakpoints so it’s harder to lose your way. It also means quotes, sidebars, graphics and other elements that draw the eye or add interest. I recently got called out by Cheryl Phillips our operations director, for using "surfeit" in an editorial. It means excess.
If you haven’t caught on by now, I love language and to twist it.
People always seem to lust after a sarcasm font. The true challenge is to find a way to convey that without.
I’ve always loved Gary Larson’s cartoon Far Side “Dyslexics of the world untie!” Such thinking can bring us to fun places, for example, “LiveNation” had become “Evil Nation” long before it had Saudi Arabian investors, the bane of many a respectable musician.
Then there’s the matter of the gun obsessed. Long ago, I started using the phrase “ammosexual” for those with a Second Amendment obsession that could be described no other way.
Just the other day I saw a new term again, “conspirituality,” a phrase used to describe the strange mix of paganism/conspiracy theory that seems to proliferate among the Qanon types. Think about that dude on January 6 at the Capitol with his shamanic horns and Norse/tribal/Druidic tattoos.
And as I think about how the language evolves because of computers, the internet and social media, I consider our bookshelves.
I have probably 30 books on writing/language. The collection is consolidating in anticipation of a move. A couple documents have a permanent place “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White or my pocket-sized copy of the Constitution.
That’s the thing, even in these days where the Internet makes research, writing and publishing easier, a book like Strunk and White retains as much relevance as it did more than 100 years ago. The same goes with the timeless musings of our founders assembled into a living document perhaps overdue for amending.
Thanks for reading.
Joe Genco is the regional news editor for the Niagara Gazette and the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 282-2311, extension 2250.