Monday, February 19, 2007

Lazy writing

How much do you think the copy editors task is keeping the author honest?

When I reread my writing, I often find most of my time is spent revitalizing passages I slacked my way through on the first go. Lazy writing seems like a fairly subjective phenomenon. For example, John Gardener (author of Grendel and a number of books about writing) somewhere states that writing too many sentences starting with -ing verbs is lazy writing. He claims that overuse of -ing comes from a desire to vary sentence structure, but without effort. e.g. Walking down the street, Dave heard the jingle of a Mister Softee ice cream truck.

Some people may have no problem with an abundance of sentences that start with -ing verbs, but I agree that -ing verbs are a little lazy. Do you think the copy editor is, or should, be the person who makes the writer do the extra work that makes their writing good, even if its outside the scope of the copy editors task to correct the lazy writing? How do you break it to a writer that they are being lazy (I think one can tell if an author is being lazy)? What are some other examples of lazy writing? There are likely a few in this passage.


Pat said...

It is pretty easy to visualize the writer of this text. I imagine him being young, energetic, enthusiastic, persuasive in one-on-one conversations, and so forth. The fact that his personality shines through so strongly is both his strong point and his weak point.

If advised to change his writing, he would probably point out that, for the most part, he has been successful. If you told him that the poor response he received was related to the quality of his letter writing, he would likely become defensive and argue with you. It would be difficult for him to accept that something as well intentioned as an offer of help would need to be thought through so carefully. After all, he might say, who wouldn't accept an offer so generous and timely? There had to be another reason.

In this case, I would say that no amount of good copyediting will impress upon this writer the need to do multiple drafts of his letter. This is where the laziness you speak of lies, I think. It is a laziness coupled with the desire to write in an informal, personable way—to win friends, not so much to correspond with potential business partners.

If Steve and Dan had engaged you to copyedit their letter, you would have done your best to do the line editing, but the larger effort—the conceptualization of the working relationship between them and the recipients of their letter—would have had to be made by them. Or them in discussion with you, in which case your function would have changed.

Pat said...

The instances of lazy writing in the text begin with the first sentence. From there—to quote a New Yorker writer who was reviewing a book on grammar—it's a wild ride downhill.

Many a so-called lazy writer has been saved from humiliation by the efforts of a good copyeditor. Such is the nature of our calling: because we serve the work—and not the author—we do our best to salvage it, make it presentable. Some authors will realize how much we have helped them, and every so often, a copyeditor will be thanked in an author's acknowledgements.

Most of the time, we go unthanked and unrecognized. Here is a Buddhist saying shared with me by a close friend: you are entitled to the work, but not the reward. In my case, I hope for appreciation by my colleagues; that is reward enough for me :)

dkacz said...

My lazy writing has caused me confusion. In both of your responses you make reference to "the text." What is the text? The test? My post? Some third thing I may have inadvertently referenced? Is "text" the same in both of your comments?

Sorry, wasn't clear enough in my post.

Pat said...

Whoops; sorry, David! When I referred to the text, I meant the text of test 2. I certainly did not mean you; you, like Ryan, are a good writer, and if I should find fault with anything you wrote, I would let you know privately.