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Over-ripeness is all

William Blake advised, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

Excellent advice for writers: Try anything and everything that rises from your imagination and inventiveness. Then take a cold look at it — or get a competent editor to take a cold look at it — and decide whether it actually works.

Posting yesterday on Facebook, Bruce DeSilva, veteran writing coach at the Associated Press, held up for examination some passages from Robin Finn’s profile of Harlan Coben in The New York Times.

From the profile: Home base is a stunning Victorian mansion, circa 1865, where a replica Maltese Falcon (Raymond Chandler is Mr. Coben's hero) guards the library's built-in bookcases and that validator of mystery writers, a 1997 Edgar Award -- the bust's resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe is iffy -- glowers disconsolately on the mantel in the parlor.

Mr. DeSilva’s comment: That's a 52-word sentence punctuated by a set of parentheses, two dashes, and three commas. And you have to read it at least twice to figure out what the hell it means. By the way, if you are going to imply that Raymond Chandler wrote "The Maltese Falcon," you might want to look it up first. He didn't.

There’s more. Much more.

This sort of thing, free-associative piling up of details that are sort of related in long, slack sentences, is tempting to try — viz., Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, David Foster Wallace — and surrender to the temptation commonly leads to silliness of a very high concentration. One would like to think that somewhere along the line an editor at The Times or a copy editor said, “No. This won’t do,” before being overridden by someone of greater authority and lesser judgment.

You Don’t Say will be devoting some attention this week to writing of ill-advised excess. Should you harbor some favorite examples, do send them along.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:46 AM | | Comments (11)


I'm not a writing coach, but I understood it the first time. And that includes catching the Hammett mistake. Not to say that it couldn't be simplified, but I think it's exaggeration to say it isn't understandable on the first reading.

I think the point is, you don't want to make your readers work so hard. That is not to say that you must assume that your readers are lazy (but it might not hurt), but you want your point to come across clearly and cleanly with no chance for misreading or, as they say, obfuscation.

You should see the current tech manual I am editing. I work in defense contracting, and am tasked with creating a Marine Corps tech manual for the AK-47 automatic rifle.

What I have been given is a text that has been roughly translated from its original Russian, probably through an engine like babelfish. It hurts my head to read it. Plus, since I know nothing about the AK-47 automatic assault rifle, it is doubly difficult.

I'm supposed to edit it so the subject matter experts at Quantico can read it and make changes to suit their needs. Its a tough task, since I don't want to omit vital information, but to say the original translation is turgid would be kind.

My head hurts when I leave the office. Mr. McI, does this happen to you?

I got it the first time, too, and didn't have to work very hard, either, thanks to the clear punctuation. I didn't catch the Chandler/Hammett mistake, though. On the whole, I think editors, writers, and copy-editors should be just as concerned about underestimating their readers as they are about "making them work so hard."

I thought it was a candidate for the Bulwer-Lytton Prize.

I'm with Denise. I'm less concerned about the reader's being baffled than with the reader's understanding all too clearly when writers make asses of themselves.

Eschew obfuscation.

Okay, it's over the top ... but I seen (and edited, and gulp, written) worse.

Truth is (admit it, come on, it'll do you good) we just like to bash writers when we're editing, and editors when we're writing.

"In other words, the work is among those that most openly manifest, in its almost exaggerated monumentality (certainly inappropriate for liturgical use) and its unfathomable many-sidedness, the concord of ideas, the harmony of gestures and the rational pact of alliance that composes every internal contradiction, every external dissension."

Quoted in, an economics blog. From an article on Bach's Mass in B Minor

The problem isn't that the sentence is long, it's that the sentence needs yet another comma, after "bookcases". As written, it sounds like the replica Falcon is guarding the Edgar Award as well as the bookcases, and we don't find out otherwise until the end of the sentence. Not good writing!


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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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