Thursday, August 25, 2022

Take it out: in the wake of

Journalism operates on conventions (write one obituary or one police story, and you can write a thousand), and the pressure of time leads reporters to reach for prefabricated phrases. The best writers try to break free of formula. Here's a hint. 

Nearly every day I see an account that some event has occurred or circumstance developed in the wake of another event or circumstance. This is, first, a dead or at least moribund metaphor, like free rein. Unless the reader is a sailor, it's unlikely that the expression conveys an image of the disturbance in water from the passage of a ship. 

Apart from the loss of the visual image, the expression has lost much of its original sense. When a large vessel moves through the water, its wake has the potential to endanger smaller craft. But in most contexts in newspapers, in the wake of does not mean "complicates" or "makes more difficult." It often means that one event is a consequence of another, or even simply came after another. 

Change in the wake of to following, and the reader will readily understand your meaning. And you will have omitted three words you can well do without.  

Start here

 When I posted photos of the shelves on which I keep my books on language and writing, Ben Yagoda noticed some gaps and kindly sent me copies of two of his books. Today I commend to you How to Not Write Bad (Riverhead Books, 177 pages, $15 and cheap at the price). 

It is not what you would call an ambitious book; he makes it clear from the start that you should look elsewhere if you have ambitions for belles lettres. He wants to make the student writing papers and the person writing memos for colleagues adequate and free of embarrassment at the task. 

His method is to identify four dozen or so basic lapses in grammar, usage, and writing that he has identified over the years as a teacher of writing at the University of Delaware. Subject-verb disagreement, punctuation, confusion of homonyms, reliance on cliches, and more. I can attest to the accuracy of his catalogue; these are the same deficiencies I identified in student work over twenty-five years at Loyola University Maryland and over forty years in the work of professional journalists. These are the mistakes that everyone makes all the time. 

He urges the writer to keep current with how the language is being used by wide reading. There is no substitute. How to Not Write Bad was published in 2013, and in it he predicts that singular they, widely deplored at the time, was likely to become standard in a decade. So he was prescient. Some of the cliches he lists have faded, but a substantial number of them continue to deaden writing. You have to pay attention. 

His examples, many from student or business work, are apt and his explanations concise. He shows how to excise extraneous language. And he continually stresses that you must clean up after yourself

If your ambition is to become a great writer, have at it. But to become a great writer, you must first become a good enough writer. This is a place to start.