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Colossal! Epic! Glorious!

One of my readers cringes at the casual use of epic. “In my opinion, if it isn't the universe, the ocean, or a heroic character—it's not epic."

Journalism and advertising alike have an inherent weakness for exaggeration. To sell your product, you exaggerate its merits; to sell your story to the reader, you reach for exaggerated language. So every sword-and-sandal drama becomes an epic in the advertisements, and every squabble between suburban property owners and developers becomes an epic battle.

Crisis, narrowly a term in medicine or drama for the decisive point, has come in political discourse to mean merely a big problem. Tragedy, an account of the fall of a great person (not necessarily a good one) because of a flaw in his or her character, has been domesticated to refer to any terribly sad event.

Journalists in particular are given to violating the “show, don’t tell” rule with adjectival inflation. Writers will call something dramatic, even though it is devoid of any visible drama, in a vain effort to make it look more important. They will call some award or position no one has ever heard of prestigious, and then they will tell you that the person holding it is prominent. (Hint: When someone wins a Nobel Prize, it’s not necessary to tell the reader that it’s prestigious, right?) They will casually label something the first, the only, the biggest, the oldest, when five minutes’ research will establish that the thing is far from distinctive.*

The one-sentence advisers you encounter in books and on Twitter—“Omit needless words!” “When you meet an adverb, kill it!”—will not be of much help to you. You will of course find it necessary to lance and drain the copy, but indiscriminate bloodletting is not good for the patient.

You can delete every dramatic and prestigious—I’ve been doing so for years—but you will better serve the reader if you take additional steps by asking questions, as editors do. What makes the situation dramatic? From what does the prestige emanate? Explanation is what readers look for, with specifics.

It does not end, that lonely epic battle of the solitary warrior, the copy editor, armed only with pencil or “delete” key, his back to the cubicle, as colossal looming forces of puffery, leviathans of cant, brigades of Brobdingnagian mendacity swarm and threaten to overpower him. Hard-pressed as the Spartans at Thermopylae, he dare not surrender, but must struggle to the end.

 

*Not, unfortunately, just the writers. Sometimes their editors will connive at exaggeration they try to “sell” the story for bigger play. This is one more reason to engage copy editors, who are not lobbyists for the texts they edit.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:19 AM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

It's another Friday afternoon in Annapolis, and I'm winding it down here so I can stop on the way home to buy some milk, bread, salt, and shovels for Hallowe'en. Maybe I'll even stop at Sears, who are offering the lowest prices of the season.*

Gratified that you agree, Prof. M. Great minds, etc. etc. I forget who it was, exactly, but I think it was George Orwell who advised against reeling into extreme language, which I have long felt shows laziness, even a sort of stupidity, which bores the reader. Reserve. Restraint. Less is more. Indoor voice. Muted colors.

Also: Isn't Eric Blair a way cooler name? Like CX-9, a top CUV now available at your Baltimore area Mazda dealer for 9% APR, for 60 months, for qualified buyers.*

Have a good weekend!

Lawrence

* Until I actually commit to subscribing, I thought I would try to compensate the newspaper by lacing my blog-comments with endorsements of The Sun's advertisers.

And yet it did end, and the Spartans lost.

To your list, i would add the word firestorm, which comes hot from the hands of numerous political critics when a hue and cry breaks out across the Internet and they seek a word to describe the chatter about the newest scapegoat.

All "firestorms of criticism" should be put out with judicious editing.

Hi, Picky!


Picky,

Great to 'hear' your voice on this 'glorious' All Hallow's Eve. We've really missed your regular input, and savour even a snippet of your wit, or erudition you can share.

Here in L.A. the highly acclaimed Tim Burton retrospective exhibition wraps up at our Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA), tomorrow evening, w/ a members-only gala Halloween bash, hopefully attended by the eminent director/ auteur of the macabre, himself, and of course his comely better half, actress Helena Bonham Carter.

As the creator of the now classic Halloween stop-motion animated film, "The Nightmare Before Christmas", Edward Scissorhands, and other eerie filmic fare, what a truly superb occasion, the ultimate fright-night finale, to punctuate the climax of this long-running, hugely successful Burton exhibit. (The show debuted w/ a long run at the MOMA in New York City.)

Our local L.A. Zoo is also throwing their annual big Halloween evening affair; mostly w/ the kiddies in mind. They call it "BOO at the ZOO". Very clever, no?

Hope to hear from you again soon, Picky. But I know you have to ration out your online visits due to the new pay-wall policy. DRATS!

Cherrio old lad, and be well,

ALEX

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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