For this month’s issue, I have asked, once again, my great friend and fellow logophile, Professor Herr Doktor Andreas Maslenski, to don the Editor’s green eyeshade.
Andreas has moved on from his former position as Professor of Verbal Diseases and Lexical Disabilities at the Syntactical Institute of Vienna.
He is now Emeritus Chairman of The Huh? Institute – a US-based, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to rooting out the ambiguous, the obvious and mind-numbingly tedious in all forms of business writing.
Thank you, Andy. And hello to you, dear reader.
Has it really been over a year since I last shared my files with you? Today, I have in front of me three new cases for you. They relate to common complaints experienced at one time or another by many writers. Let’s begin.
Jonathan B was a promising copywriter. He could uncover benefits quickly. He could identify with his reader easily. He could write short sentences often and well. But after an ill-advised job writing copy for his local dry-cleaners, he caught a nasty case of the screamers.
These pernicious little fellows appear at the end of sentences. They have an odd appearance, like a baseball bat atop a ball. You know:
I have heard that your English newspaper sub-editors refer to them as, and I blush, ‘dogs’ dicks’.
The symptoms include breathlessness. A genuine but misplaced belief that writing “Now in blue!” will somehow excite the reader. And, perhaps most tragically of all, a disfiguring rash all over your copy.
The treatment is simple. Deletion. Some swear that a mild case of the screamers is benign and best ignored. Believe me, I have seen these things metastasize faster than you can say “full stop.” (Which, incidentally, is a far more useful alternative.)
She was young. She was beautiful. She was lazy. Catherine F started well enough, but the lure of the next project was too tempting. Trying to save time by ‘borrowing’ copy from other documents to complete her own, she contracted cutandpastistis. One of the worst infections I have ever treated.
Here is an example. It’s from a sales letter Catherine wrote for a legal newsletter.
Dear Mr Sample,
If you are anything like the thousands of barristers who have come to rely on The Jarndyce Files, you prize timeliness, insight and case law examples highly. And that’s why I am writing to you today.
[A good start, and one Catherine should have persevered with. But read on.]
Recent years have witnessed an explosion in class actions. Widely misunderstood yet often pursued by unscrupulous law firms, class actions have three defining features…
[Here, we see the telltale signs of the infection: a lurch in tone, a baffling digression into the reader’s profession and, clearly, another writer’s style.]
My treatment was more complex than for Jonathan B.
First, education. I explained to Catherine the dangers of sharing documents. Then we examined her time management and planned enough time in her day to allow her to relax and complete each document herself.
Finally, we tested a new-style letter against the infected version and measured the results. She never caught it again.
Some writers will, if asked (and plied sufficiently with alcohol), admit to having suffered from some of the more, shall we say, glamorous ailments of the profession.
Puffyria, Nounitis, Multiple Personality Disorder by Proxy.
They will hold court in the Nib and Quill, the Cursor or the Wordsmith’s Arms and regale their listeners with tales of struggle, redemption and ultimate cure.
Few, though, will ever own up to wind. [Though actually, this is one of the most common health issues for writers, particularly those in the corporate communications arena.]
For Greg C, wind was an ever-present problem. Though, owing to a related condition, he was unable to detect his own effusions. Greg would regularly churn out sentences like this one:
“It is our intention to contribute on a quarterly basis to the facilitation and development of understanding, greater awareness, and utilisation of primary and secondary segmentation methodologies.”
No, I don’t know what he meant either. And nor, I fear, did Greg’s readers, on whose response Greg depended for his job.
The symptoms are visible to the naked eye: long trailing sentences, slab-like paragraphs and bloated documents.
In Greg’s case, surgery was the only option. I cut out redundant adjectives, repetitions, clichés, tautologies, fatuities, abstract nouns, superlatives and waffle. After a few refreshing redrafts, Greg’s copy was able to stand on its own two feet.
Well, there you have it. Three writers, three conditions. And one lesson: guard your health as a writer – once lost, it is hard to regain.
I hope one day to welcome you to The Huh? Institute, though only as a visitor and not a patient, yes?
Now I must go. There is a blonde standing outside my office clutching a dangling participle. She needs help.