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I am not holly jolly, nor am meant to be

I was proofreading the horoscope for the Sunday editions* and took particular note of my own:

Practice the spirit of the holiday season in the week to come by being friendly toward everyone.

At the moment, that leaves me less than an hour to discharge a large reservoir of spleen. And it is NOT HELPFUL that two people who are much nicer than I am have taken it upon themselves to suggest that my strictures against holiday cliches are too severe.

The eminent Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe, while conceding that some of the forbidden phrases land with a thud, suggests that “veteran editors can also become too cliche-aware. After years of exposure to journalistic prose, they’re bound to be tired of some phrases; it’s satisfying to put them on a blacklist and declare them dead and gone.” And that “an editor who imagines that readers despise “ ’tis the season” is an editor who needs to get out more.”

Of course, the reason that readers don’t despise the cliches more is that at least some of the more reprehensible efforts are gently suffocated on copy desks. I can—and am willing to make good on the threat—to go down the stairs to the crypt in this cold, damp, unsalubrious weather to fetch up some of the ghastly examples I use to frighten the children in my editing class to make them good. Trust me, you don’t want to see them.

Also today, at the Frederick News-Post Terence Walsh writes, “I'm all for a fresh take on the familiar rituals of the holiday season. If you can write a Christmas story that has truly never been done before, bring it on. But what would such a story even look like? While lists of don'ts provide valuable guidance, it is easier to say what not to do than to write an effective story that avoids these hazards. To put it another way, the line between cliché and tradition can sometimes get blurry.”

And further: “I do not defend tired, lazy or trite writing. But I humbly suggest that every Christmas-related news story may not be the place to, to use another cliché, reinvent the wheel.”

And yet, hmm, he could not resist quoting strictures against some of the riper excesses. And he does call You Don’t Say “an excellent blog,” which—oh God, is that seasonal friendliness seeping in?—suggests that his life should be spared.

What it comes down to is this: There is much more bad writing than good. As I commiserated with a colleague recently, our task as editors is often to take the execrable and render it merely mediocre. Someone who writes a “’Tis the season” lead for a publication that has already used it, more than once. and probably displays the phrase in at least a dozen advertisements throughout the publication, is a hack who imagines himself to be clever and original. Spare me.

Spare you.


*Here’s another useful British word, dogsbody, a person doing menial work, a drudge.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:34 PM | | Comments (7)


Hi John,
On the students, you're absolutely right. A friend teaching journalism tells me that half the class, assigned to report on a holiday event, led with "'Tis the season"; the other half chose "It's the most wonderful time." But in heds especially, I'm finding those cliches useful labels; true, mainly they say "no need to read on," but at least that's truth in advertising. Maybe it's not seasonal allusions we overdo so much as seasonal stories?

Do you check the horoscope for accuracy?

I've repaired the broken link to Jan Freeman's "Enough humbug" column.

Believe it or not, this blog posting and links to it constitute almost all the ghits for "I am not * nor am meant to be". You are outpulling T.S. Eliot. Pretty good for a curmudgeon from the paragraph factory, I say!

Pertinent, though, don't you think? The lines fit very nicely a certain sort of editor, don't you think? Not Mr McI, obviously, but a certain sort of editor ...?

Having laughed at each installment of the Christmas Dreck the Halls, I can no longer resist...

Yes, Virginia, There Are Limitations

Twas the night before deadline and all through the Sun,

The editor wandered, his work nearly done.

The Twelve Days of Christmas had been laid to rest,

And Scrooge had been banished (plus Fezziwig’s vest).

“Might Christmas come early? he thought to himself.

“It won’t if I locate that jolly old elf.

I’ll ask Old Man Winter to join in my plea,

Plus Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph (that’s three).

I’ll lay out the reasons to let Xmas idle,

Forget about Hanukkah, even the dreidel.

When we are done I am sure he’ll agree

To stop throwing partridges into my tree.

And then in a twinkle I’ll make sure he knows,

To forgo the white stuff, it’s “blizzard” or “snows”.

For “weather conditions” are not to be used;

It’s worse than assuming that "footwear" are shoes.

I’ll bribe him with turkey and all of the trimmings;

Taters and giblets with gravy all brimming.

Nick will be stuffed and his belt all uncinched.

(and I will abstain from a reference to “Grinched”)

Instead I will ring out this poem tonight,

I think I included each cliché so trite.

I’m sure you are glad that this poem is done -

As Tiny Tim quavers, “God bless us, the Sun!”

nice post

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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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