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No better than a common scold

Jonathan Krim, senior deputy managing editor of the online editon of The Wall Street Journal, does not find the strictures in my annual holiday cautions particularly helpful, and he has kindly granted me permission to publish his note about the deficiencies of that post. Your views, as always, are welcome.

Mr. Krim writes:

Forgive me since we don’t know each other, but your column brings to mind this question:

Is there anything more clichéd than the annual, threatening scold from the standards editor/writing coach/copy chief on the horrors of holiday clichés?

I agree with the underlying message, and I support the role you and yours play. (We want you on that wall; we *need* you on that wall – Jack Nicholson.)

But honestly, could we perhaps drink a little of this cod-liver oil ourselves and come up with a new way to help journalists find and tell great stories at this time of year? To try to (gasp) actually connect with our readers, who may or may not care how many times we invoke Virginia, but who care deeply about what this time of year means?

Could we point to great, or at least provocative, examples like this one? Could we refer them to Tool 16 in the best book on writing, from the best writing coach (Roy Peter Clark), on *how* to avoid clichés but make them work for you nonetheless?

Could we – in the spirit of the holidays -- give to our increasingly young staffs a more useful present in their newsroom stockings, instead of this lump of NO?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:20 PM | | Comments (18)
        

Comments

Hell, but the Al Martinez piece is not just cliché, it's self-indulgent self-glorifying sanctimonious sub-dickensian godawful slush. Great? Nonsense.

"LOL" @ "the best writing coach."

I just read the first few pages of Mr. Clark's book at Amazon.com. I'll pass.

Dear Editors of "The Joy of Cooking":

Really? MORE recipes about how to cook chicken, vegetables, and bread? How jejune.

I agree that people need to eat, but why doesn't "The Joy of Cooking" have more to say about the planting and harvesting of crops?

What you're doing is noble and worthwhile, but honestly, I don't think it should be done. Do something else instead.

I myself am an authority on the planting and harvesting of crops, but I can't be bothered. Why should I waste time lighting candles when there's so much darkness to be cursed? Come to think of it, I enjoy cursing the light too.

That was a kind letter. I know I'll take it in the neck, if silently, but I kind of feel the same way. Instead of defending a vacuum for readers, let's fill it with something good.


Picky,

With all due respect, old boy, such a pity that you had to use up one of your 20 monthly "You Don't Say" 'views' on your uncharacteristically caustic hatchet job of veteran L.A.-based newspaper scribe, Al Martinez. (Just my opinion, old lad.)

I just read 'Wall St. Journal' managing editor Krim's attached Al Martinez 1986 L.A. Times column, and admittedly found it a tad on the treacly, slightly maudlinly sentimental side. Yet if you had read columnist Martinez's slice-of-real-life-styled, mostly California-based, 'observational-styled', published pieces over the past 40-plus years, you would realize that his tug-at-the-heart-strings, personalized approach to chronicling everyday folks' actual life experiences is basically his column's stock-and-trade. (Now there's a tired cliche for you. HA!)

Having retired some years back from his regular long-running L.A. Times writing gig, Martinez resurfaced a year-or-so-ago, penning a column (two installments a week, I believe), for the L.A. Daily News; viewed as this town's more locally focused, San Fernando Valley-centric daily newspaper. (The little paper that could, if you will.)

Stylistically, his column hasn't changed one iota, even though he clearly doesn't have the demographic reach, or sheer volume of regular readership he entertained, and informed during his decades-long run at The Times.

Although this 1986 Martinez piece about the hospitalized terminally-ill kid and his dying wish for fresh peaches hardly qualitatively ranks as Dickensian, it nevertheless reflects his signature folksy, slightly schmaltzy, personalized approach to communicating w/ his readers, that still resonates w/ his ever-loyal Southern California audience (likely more middle-aged-to-senior in make-up) in these times of strum & drang, growing pessimism, hypocrisy, and just plain mean-spiritedness.

IMHO, somewhat "self-indulgent" ........YES. "Godawful slush" ........ not quite.
"Great" writing.......... far from it. Not everyone's cup of tea.......... most likely.

I would argue that intrinsic to this anecdote-based type of newspaper column writing is a more personal commitment to 'the story', reflecting the columnist's own philosophical bent, quirks, and subjective biases.

Al Martinez is just being Al Martinez. As familiar to many informed and literate Los Angelenos as a comfy pair of slippers, or a well-worn leather easy chair. Dare I say a Southland institution......... hackneyed cliches, and a superfluity of first-person "I"s, and all.

Picky, clearly old newspaper columnists never die......... they just switch papers........ or get their own blog. HA!

Picky, great to have you back in the fray. You always get the pot aboiling and roiling, and that's a good thing.

ALEX

P.S.: -----Picky, stop the bloomin' presses!

Today's gone-viral online headline reads "Queen Victoria's Undies Auctioned Off for 9,375 Pounds".

Yesterday, the esteemed auction house of Lyon & Turnbull sold a prized pair of Her Royal Highness Victoria's "bloomers", as well as a vintage oil painting depicting she and her loyal man-servant, John Brown. (What they were up to was not disclosed. HA!) The artwork garnered a whopping $230,000.00 U.S. (145, 250 pounds).

Yet, another timely Brit tidbit.

A new coffee-table-style tome titled "The History of the World in 100 Objects" has just been released for sale in America. It's a grand compilation of 100 significant art works, and artifacts from the vast permanent collection of treasured pieces from the British Museum. Apparently it is structured in a chronological format, homing in on key stages of man's evolving artistic, and technological abilities and inclinations, looking at what was going on at any particular point in time w/ concurrently developing civilizations around the globe.

Can't wait to check out this book. Have never been to the British Museum, (or London, for that matter), although I cherish a book in my personal art library written by the late British sculptor/ printmaker Henry Moore, which focuses on various art objects in the British Museum collections that had influenced and informed his earliest years as a budding artist; from amazing, monumental Assyrian limestone base-reliefs, to ancient Mayan carved stone sculptures, to tribal African carved wood masks and ritual figures. Lots of cool B&W photos to go along w/ Moore's eloquent musings.

(A highly popular online version of 'the 100 Objects' project initiated this whole enterprise, and this new book is an offshoot of the earlier online series.)

I don't know Mr. Krim, but thank him for his generous words. Anyone interested in reading Writing Tools can acquire it from iBooks at the amazing Ronco price of $1.99, but only through November.

As a writer and teacher, I happen to love the holiday story, any holiday or anniversary. While others may run away, I see it as a chance to write your way onto page one.

Let's take the time change: I interviewed a minister who told about the family that came to church an hour early and found no one there and thought they had missed the Rapture.

Curiosity and brainstorming do the trick.

And Mr. Blanchard, I never take criticism that begins LOL. I fear it's coming from a ten-year-old. Cheers. And happy holidays.


Oops!

That should have read "sturm und drang" in my last post.

I unwittingly went and typed "strum & drang", transposing the "r" and "u".

Now 'strum and drank' might well apply to say guitar picker/ tunesmiths Merle Haggard, or Willie Nelson. Hmm........ on second thought, maybe old Willie's more of a 'strum and drag' kinda dude......... if you get my drift. Just sayin.

"On the road again............."

ALEX

Mr. McIntyre:

Thanks for reproducing my note in full and sparking this exchange.

Brian: I'm afraid you picked up the wrong version of Joy of Cooking. The one I was referring to has the following recipe for Chicken Kiev (also reproduced here in full):

-- Do not, under any circumstances, include fish;
-- Add a tablespoon of ice cream at your peril;
-- Stifle the urge to add Thai fish sauce;
-- Never, ever, never, use 6 cups of vinegar.


Roy Peter Clark,

I got a fond nostalgic kick out of your "amazing Ronco price of $1.99" for your self-penned writing guide book on iBooks.

That dean of TV pitchman, Ron Popeil, sure gets around; from his early hit gadget The Ronco Pocket Fisherman, to the revolutionary, game-changing Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler, to the mysterious GLH-9 Hair-In-a-Can Spray (never could get my head around that one), and finally the ultimate in no-fuss-n-muss mini-ovens-----the apparently hugely profitable Ronco Showtime Rotisserie.

I see on the Amazon.com site that Kindle is also offering your "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer", at the amazingly low price of $1.99, as well. My, oh my.......a dollar-ninety-nine.......... are they out of their mind? Such a deal!

@ Jonathan Krim. Hmm..... I could have sworn I saw that very same Chicken Kiev recipe you outlined in your post, in sexologist/ author Alex Comfort's second deluxe edition of his "Joy of Sex", in the provocatively suggestive chapter, "Getting Kinky in the Kitchen". Dig those wild illustrations.(Oh behave!)

Food for thought. HA!

ALEX

Keep defenestrating the holiday journalistic cliches, John, please. You provide a pleasantly astringent antidote to the maudlin, repetitive, heavy-handed stuff we're given to read in lieu of decently creative reflection at this time of year. I for one don't expect these journalists to take heed from any attempts at stylistic reeducation short of the Mao model, so don't bother. Just keep doing the anti-sentimental voodoo that you do so well.

Defenestration is a Czech pasttime. It doesn't play well in America.


Patricia,

Aside from those tossing-from-great-heights Czechs, (Who knew?), I guess the denizens of our medieval European capitals, Picky's London town included, prior to the advent of indoor plumbing and such, must have been experts at the fine art of defenestration of domestic 'waste' products............. what Dickens might have described as "the worst of times"------ particularly for the unfortunate passersby below. (SPLAT!)

And we think our modern-day acid rain is a raw deal.

ALEX

The Czechs throw people, although not, I believe, since the Commies were thrown out.They are about due I think.

The Commies were quite restrained in the numbers falling victim to their defenestrating, though. Mostly it's been quarrelling Christians who've been heaving eachother through the windows of Prague, I think.


Picky & Patricia,

Clearly the best, most pragmatic hedge again possible forced defenestration, Czech-style, or otherwise, would be renting either a basement, or first-floor flat. Most unlikely to experience a fatal, or even that injurious an 'accidental' fall from being flung from either a basement, or first-floor window. Just sayin'.

Picky, rather than bellicose Czech Commies, but as you contend, feuding Christians being defenestrated back in the day, was it an Eastern Orthodox/ Catholic-versus-Protestant Christian contentious scenario? I would guess most mid-twentieth-century Czechs were nominal Catholics (or Eastern Orthodox), not unlike practicing Christians Poles of that era.

Of course Prague's most famous literary native son was the relatively short-lived fiction writer, Franz Kafka, who was Jewish by birth----the Ashkenazi strain to be precise. He was actually of Austro-Hungarian nationality, w/ his first language being German. He wrote in German.With this Germanic strain in his make-up, he likely knew, spoke, and read Yiddish, as well. But, as usual, i digress.

Hmm.........Kafka should have thrown that humungous cockroach of his out the window. HA!

ALEX

Well, those music-loving Bohemians can get out of hand. Had there been this practice in the 18th Century, "Don Giovanni" would have taken on a different turn.

Either way it might be safest just not to answer the door. And you certainly might think twice about viening alla finestra.


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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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