Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Sunday Re-Run: Ever the Pedant, Part II

The title is in reference to the post immediately below, where I take issue with Verizon taking liberties with the language.  Which, of course, brought to mind this old chestnut from my blogging way-back.  This is the third time I've put this post up, the second being back in 2009.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Lessons in Writing Humility

(OK… I was saving this post for tomorrow. But My Bud Dan’s comment to the post immediately below cut me to the quick. He’s right. I’ve been phoning it in of late. So here’s something that contains a lil bit more “substance.” Not a lot, mind you…just some.)

Apropos of not much…but, by way of introduction, this: I’m often struck by the quality of writing I encounter in my wanderings around these here inter-tubes. Or, more better, the absolute dismal state of most of the writing I encounter. Present company excepted, of course. All y’all write well, for the most part. There are exceptions…and all I can offer is: “if the shoe fits…” But in most cases it won’t fit. Mainly coz I have little or no tolerance for poor writing, there being some exceptions. I’ll leave it at that… criticizing others is not what we’re on about in this post.

The Second Mrs. Pennington and I, the both of us being professional writers (of a sort) and more to the point… she being an English teacher (of a sort)… used to have this on-going argument discussion as to whether good writing can be taught, or not. My position has changed back and forth over the years and still isn’t firmed up to this very day. On the one hand, the mechanics of writing most certainly can be taught… which is to say grammar, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, and the like. Anyone with half a brain can go out and buy a copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” study it intently, absorb all the lessons therein, and call himself a writer. And a lot of people do just that. On the Other Hand… good grammar and punctuation doesn’t begin to make what we know as “good” writing. It’s a start, but only a start.

Once upon a time I considered myself a “good” writer. I’d taken several undergrad courses in English and composition, I had a fairly extensive writing background acquired as an additional-duty Public Affairs Officer (NCO, actually, but the title was “PAO”), and was recognized by various and sundry Air Force supervisors and such as a “go-to” guy when it came to putting words on paper. So, it came to pass (in my post-USAF career) I was assigned to a proposal writing team sometime in 1986 or thereabouts. And here for your illumination, Gentle Reader, is my very first effort in this space, as returned “for corrections” by my proposal editor:

(click for larger, if you have the inclination)
Bloody. Literally dripping with blood, in the form of the dread red editor’s pen, and this is but four of 14 pages, all similarly deeply scarred and dripping red. Including all 14 pages in this post would be overkill, not to mention boring beyond belief. My draft was returned with a post-it attached that said “Good Work!” (the post-it has gone missing after all these years). I scanned my draft, bloody as it was, and immediately went to my proposal manager/editor and said words to the effect of “You think this is Good?”… to which she replied “Yeah. I didn’t tell you to re-write it, did I?” Well, OK, then.
So... I returned to my desk, made the corrections and re-submitted my draft, which was accepted without further edits. Things got progressively better for me (and my editor) as time went on. At the end of the six-month pursuit cycle I came out a much better writer than when I went in. My first proposal was a learning experience of the first order.
I became very, very close to my editor… a woman by the name of Mary who later went on to become an EDS corporate VP, and I had the delightful opportunity to work with her on a couple of other proposals while she was still doing that particular gig. I learned nearly everything I know about writing today from that woman… lessons that are much too detailed to repeat here but had a lot… nay, everything… to do with word-choice, economy of language, what to leave in your writing, and… much more importantly… what to take out. Another thing Mary emphasized is one needs to recognize good writing before one can even begin to emulate it. In other words: good writers are voracious readers. Mary was also of the opinion that the best writers read a wide variety of “stuff…” fiction, non-fiction, op-eds, soup cans, cereal boxes, and (she emphasized) poetry. Mary maintained poets are all about economy of language, which, to her way of thinking, is the very essence of communication.
Mary was a wise woman indeed. My only regret is I failed to keep in touch with her. So... take what you will from this, and leave the rest. Such as it is.

Committed to The Inter-tubes by Buck on 4/25/2008 07:19:00 PM 17 Astute Observations
So... one point I didn't make in the post above is any tendency towards flowery, "poetic" language I may have had in the past was bred out of me during my brief career as a technical writer.  We're mostly about "short and to the point" these days, and that serves me well.  And you, Gentle Reader?  Mebbe not so much.
So there's that.  And then there's this:
"The term, then, is obviously a relative one: my pedantry is your scholarship, his reasonable accuracy, her irreducible minimum of education and someone else’s ignorance."—H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage


  1. I have long espoused the notion that one's own writing skills improve as one edits the work of others. I'm forever grateful for my tenure on the UALR Law Journal editorial team.

    And, egad! I despise autocorrect!

    1. I can see where editing a law journal would definitely improve one's writing. But answer me this: why is legalese THE most impenetrable writing in all of English? Thoughts?

  2. To be ou ne pas être23 March, 2014 17:35

    I did a five year stint as a technical writer. This is more technical expert than writer though, as you are issued a professional editor to send your copy to. Speed is everything, as you get payed by the piece. There was no reward for crap. P.S. I hope all my commas don't drive you crazy! coma, coma, coma chameleon! Hey, possible whisky hour song - hee

    1. I did both writing and editing during my technical writing stint; I liked the editing best coz that was definitely easier.

      In re: your PS. That Boy George is SO cute! :-/


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