Friday, January 09, 2009

Sunday Scribblings - "Organic"

"13. Architecture. noting or pertaining to any work of architecture regarded as analogous to plant or animal forms in having a structure and a plan that fulfill perfectly the functional requirements for the building and that form in themselves an intellectually lucid, integrated whole."

Uh... what?

This gobbledegook above is one of the definitions for the word “organic” – imagine looking up a word in a dictionary and discovering that you need to look up still more words just to understand the meaning of the meaning of the original word! (Does this sound like gobbledegook as well? heh)

Anyway, that was not what I was going to write originally, but I thought I would highlight the definition just for the heck of it.

So. Not to be unduly modest about my writing, I know that I write well. Not spectacularly well, just reasonably well. I also think I'm discerning enough to know the difference between average writing and really good writing, even in my own efforts. So I’ve always found it amazing the number of people who can’t string two sentences together without half a dozen grammatical and spelling errors – and yet they’re convinced that they should be published without the benefit of editing. All of them potential Pulitzer or Nobel prize winners - in their opinion.

A few times during my career in the newspaper industry, I’ve had friends/acquaintances pass on some samples of their (or their friend’s) writing to me, asking that it be published. I should mention here that I only worked in the editorial department. As a sub-editor, I was an unknown quantity to 99.99% of the newspaper readership – unlike reporters, who were much more visible because of their occasional bylines and because they met loads of people every day as part of their job profile. I’m sure they were inundated with hundreds of requests, but the only reason I got asked was because the people doing the asking knew me personally.

It was always embarrassing when this happened, because first of all I certainly wasn’t the person who made the final decision about accepting any articles. Not that telling them this made any difference – they always said “But you can pass this on to the editor, I’m sure he will listen”. There was some truth in that, I suppose… chances of being accepted were (and probably still are) always better when someone on the inside recommended something for publication.

The first time I was asked to look over a collection of stuff written by a friend’s cousin, I didn’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed. But the friend said that he loved her writing and that she “wrote so nicely about important topics”, and I took him at his word. I should have known better, but in my defence, I was not experienced in fobbing people off then.

So I took the bundle of papers home and read through them all, increasingly in despair because there seemed to be nothing worth printing. The essays/articles were painfully bad. They were incoherent, rambling, sometimes downright nonsensical, with bad grammar and worse syntax. Here and there might be a nugget of sense or - if it was meant to be a “humour piece” – something that at least raised a smile, however fleeting. But nothing short of drastic editing would make any of them printworthy.

I couldn't bring myself to try and edit any of the “humour pieces” (believe me, they were dire), so I chose an essay which seemed the best of the lot – it was about modern Indian women’s obsession with the West, in case anyone’s interested. As hard as I tried to keep the original wording, it proved really difficult. In the end I was left with a page of writing which was maybe about 30% as per the original. I told my friend which article I’d chosen, and he said his cousin wanted to see what I’d done with it. So I sent it back with him… and waited to see what would happen.

It was an unpleasant experience because I had not known how to tell my friend (and his cousin through him) that she had written a load of rubbish and there was no way anything of hers would ever get published without a total makeover - the flaws were too inherently organic for that. Since he had read her stuff and recommended it so highly to me, I was also worried that he would take my comments as a reflection on his judgment and taste.

I needn’t have worried quite so much. He eventually he called me and said sheepishly that his cousin wanted all her articles back as she thought I didn’t know how to edit and didn’t recognise good writing. Which was ok for two reasons: One, it solved my problem because I REALLY didn’t want to take even my edited version to Master (my mentor). Two, I thought she didn’t know the first thing about writing – so we were quits there.

The next time I got a similar request, I panicked a little – it was a friend’s father who’d written a heavily pedantic and very long article on something or other. I happened to mention this to a colleague, who gave me a diplomatic way out of such situations. She said to tell him – after a diplomatic few days for “consideration” – that the article, although very interesting, was too long to go in verbatim at that point and we would hold it until it could be printed. Or would he like it back? We could give him a call when we were in a position to use the article.

That worked like a dream. After that, I always had a handy excuse if I thought something would never see the light of publication – although I modified my spiel to say “We can’t use it right now but the editor said we could hold the article in reserve – would you like the original back? We’ve made a copy. Thanks”.

Saved me a lot of hassle, that did.


anthonynorth said...

This can be the kiss of death for a friend or family member. I steer well clear of reading anything like that.

Teesu (very very Indian, very very good) said...

Nice anecdote, Miz. 'reasonably' good Writer! :) Hope am not on the 'can't-string-two-sentences-together' list;)

floreta said...

ha, i looked up the definition for organic also when i saw the scribb topic... still stewing around in my head.

yes, you ARE a good writer!

Michelle said...

Funny! You're an interesting writer, for sure!
The thing with writing, is that it's personal... it's a tiny peek into the heart and mind of the writer. I guess that's why I find it difficult to critique, even if it is poorly written. I'd never make a good editor or sub-editor. :)

rebecca said...

I cannot say I envy your position. But as with all else, experience in sometimes professional/personal relationships teach you the fine art of tact and finesse. Good post.

Tumblewords: said...

Glad you found a way to deal with the weirdness of writers. Good points. And, yes, you write well!

brinda said...

Very nice :-) And you do know that they give bad writing an award, these days, no? It's called the Man Booker Prize...