When Words Are Too Much Of A Good Thing

Words. We can’t live with them, but we can’t live without them.

By which I mean that words are absolutely necessary for human interaction on all levels, even unspoken ones—human perception and behavior are so thoroughly intertwined with language that we don’t even experience thought or emotion without using language in our internal monologues and dialogues (try it some time and see how long you can go without processing things into language).

Yet we frequently overuse words, spewing them out when we don’t need to, with the effect that each additional word doesn’t provide new information and clarity, but instead takes away from the meaning already stated. If words were paint in this sense, then more words are unneeded additional coats, applied sloppily and haphazardly and ruining the job already done; if words were woodworker’s chisels skillfully carving a thing of beauty from an ordinary block of wood, then extra words awkwardly and carelessly chop away at the fine work already executed, reducing it to a crude parody.

Omit Needless Clicks

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Times Less and Times Fewer? Bad Choices.

What’s wrong with the following two sentences?

“At its closest approach, New Horizons swooped to within 3,500 kilometers of MU69, more than three times as close as the probe got to Pluto.” Science News, February 2, 2019.

“That’s about twice as close as the previous closest spacecraft, the Helios 2 spacecraft in the 1970s.” Science News,  January 19, 2019.

(My apologies if either of these links are paywalled.)

You might immediately see the issue with those two sentences, but if not: it’s the logical problem caused by the use of “three times as close” and “twice as close.” These constructions are part of a family of problematic statements that follow a similar pattern in both phrasing and innumeracy: times smaller/twice as small, times fewer/three times as few, times closer/50 times as close, times thinner/100 times as thin, and so on.

Click here. Only one time, no more no less.

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Irregular verbs are dying out. But they’ll outlive you!

What are regular and irregular verbs? Why do they exist? How do you spot them? How do you use them? When will we be rid of them?

A brief, recent discussion online reminded me of some interesting research a few years back that looked at irregular verbs in English and attempted to provide answers to some of these questions. I’ll get to that thought-provoking work in a few paragraphs, but first a very short (and sweet) introduction to regular and irregular verbs.

Click is a regular verb. Do it here to keep reading.

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Zombie Nouns—Undead Words Begging For A Head Shot?

As an editing professional I spend a lot of time making writing better, and that usually includes “tightening it up”—a polite way of saying that you cut things. You go after unneeded words and phrases, sentences that are misplaced or simply extraneous, even paragraphs that don’t belong or else can be deleted without meaningful effect on the text. If you’re doing work on the developmental side—when a manuscript is still taking shape—you’ll help an author recognize that whole passages, sometimes entire chapters, can or should be moved…or ‘gently sent into that good night.’

Cutting large passages early might be visibly dramatic, but later in the editing process cutting a few letters here or there can be even more important and effective. This cutting is done in a number of ways: simple deletion, of course, but also by changing word order (which might let you hack away an article or preposition), or perhaps by changing the form of a word. Verbs, for instance, often volunteer themselves for trimming: you usually want active over passive, simple forms over complex, conjugated forms over infinitives and gerunds. This hierarchy is far from absolute, but it’s good general advice.

Nouns can also have forms that grow weedy and overlong. It’s not that an individual word causes a problem, but by choosing a particular word form a writer often backs herself into a sort of syntactical corner that forces her to write a wordier sentence anchored by that weedy noun. A term that’s come to be used for one category of this problem is “zombie noun.”

zombie nouns? vampire adverbs? cannibal conjunctions? I’m terrified!

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Critical of the Critics: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

When a book is touted as extraordinary, but it’s merely “pretty good,” are readers and reviewers (and other writers) justified in pointing this out? Is a difference of opinion still tolerated? If we strongly disagree on the criteria used to determine a work’s quality, do we, collectively or individually, have a duty to hold each other to a higher standard—a more rigorous professional standard of care, as it were—even if the only things at risk of harm are egos and intellects?

That’s what I wondered during and after reading this book. But I don’t really want to single it out, because Homegoing by itself is just fine (but not spectacular). The problem is that I’ve gotten tired of this kind of thing, the sickly-sweet cloud of unjustified praise that seems to be attached to books like Homegoing, the open conspiracy between established authors and publishers that ultimately puts books like this into my hands. Just as we were warned decades ago about the military-industrial complex, we’re now living with a twisted literary-industrial complex 1: it sucks in young authors and their works at one end, expends inordinate energy on marketing and promotion, and spits out extravagant accolades at the other—regardless of the actual quality of the product.

I want to stress something again, before I dive too deeply: this book, Homegoing, isn’t bad. It’s a solid, but not particularly noteworthy effort. But it is a representative example of a work receiving over-effusive praise for, in the end, not achieving anything truly special.

If you read a lot, or even if you only read selectively (following, for example, excerpts in The New Yorker), you’ve seen this kind of story literally dozens of times before: hyphenated-American author produces heart-string-tugging tale highlighting the injustices lavished upon previous generations of hyphenated-Americans, often following multiple generations, to arrive at personal and moral (if not social and economic) redemption in the current generation. In order to rise above the plethora—and it truly is a plethora—of such tales, both the story and the quality of the writing have to be clearly outstanding. In the case of Homegoing, neither clears that bar. The writing, or combination of writing and editing, is technically quite good, even at times excellent (I noticed only one silly error that author and editor should be embarrassed to have let slip by). But it’s never “put-this-book-in-your-best-friend’s-hands-and-insist-they-read-it” amazing.

Had I not read in the closing acknowledgements that this book was the product of multiple graduate writing fellowships, I could have made that guess: it simply reads and feels as so many graduate projects do, with laudable technical merit—perhaps too much attention to certain literary details—but not enough sparkle, imagination, or the je ne sais quoi that separates truly spectacular writing from the merely very good. The plot, on the other hand—such as it is—suggests that the author took too seriously certain axioms perpetually regurgitated in graduate writing programs: write what you know, write where you come from, write of the collective experience of your people. That is all well and good, and I have little quarrel with the writing of such books. My quarrel is with praising them as unique and extraordinary achievements, when objective reality shows them to be anything but.

Without wasting time on explicit detail, the book is in the end repetitive and predictable. While it starts off reasonably fresh, after the first two chapters the rest of the story is a series of calls and responses echoing across close to 250 years of West African and American history. Labeling this book a novel, actually, is misleading: it’s really a collection of 16 loosely-related short stories, tied together by the fact that the subjects of the first two stories are half-sisters (unknown to each other), with each following chapter touching on the life of a descendant in the next generation, alternating down these two branches of the family tree to the present. This pattern, with the foreseeable jumps in time, becomes so monotonous that the story seemed destined from early on to stumble into a cliché ending: with six or eight chapters and the better part of a century to go, I predicted to myself that the two branches of the family—separated by eight generations—would reunite in L.A. in the final chapter. SPOILER ALERT: The correct answer was “San Francisco.” Yes…San Francisco. If that doesn’t sum up the problem here, I don’t know what will.

The content of each story is in many ways equally predictable. There is violence, there is oppression, there is suffering. Oh, the injustice of it all. There is a raised, then forgotten, then over-emphasized, extended metaphor clumsily stamped upon the stories to give them a unifying image. There is love and sex. In fact, there are few chapters in which sex is not brought to the fore, at least for a time. This is gratuitous, as even in a book that depends on each generation procreating to keep up its momentum, delving into the details of the act is unnecessary.

While I have never heard of it being applied to a work of literary fiction, in science fiction there exists the concept of the “Mary Sue.” This is a class of fan fiction that relies on the author, often overtly, writing themselves into the story as a vital element. They are perhaps not a lead character, but they are a supporting character without which the hero cannot succeed. Homegoing too often reads like an extended literary “Mary Sue by proxy“: the men of each generation are always handsome, strong, intelligent, the finest in the village; the women, as you might expect, are always the most beautiful, the most clever, the strongest-willed. Had this trope not been relied on quite so heavily, especially in the earlier parts, the book would have made better reading. For that matter, this book might serve as something of a warning to other writers: adhering too closely to a formula (or an outline, or a graduate proposal) is not necessarily a good thing. Giving equal time to each generation hurts the greater story of Homegoing—some individuals deserve much more than the roughly 20 pages each receives, while the space given to other descendants could have been reduced (or skipped entirely). Consistency might be the hobgoblin of little minds; too rigid adherence to a predetermined form can be the vampire that sucks the life blood from an otherwise promising story.

I would take to task some of those who supplied blurbs for the cover of this book (there are 11 on the back of the edition I read, 10 with names attached). Words like “magical,” “hypnotic,” “haunting,” “stunning”—the list goes on—have little business being associated with this work. They might apply convincingly to some of the individual chapters, had those chapters been left alone as short stories. As a complete book? No. Some of these blurbs, of course, have been selectively edited: Michiko Kakutani’s words, for instance, are presented in such a way that one might easily be led to believe that she loved the book; in context, her review is tepid. Having her words twisted is an occupational hazard.  The praise of some others, however, is less manipulated and less restrained.

I want to be very clear: I did not dislike this book. It was “an okay read” and I don’t regret the time put into it. But I did not, by any stretch, love this book, nor did I find it particularly compelling. I could have put it down at any point, and would not feel that I had missed out. I stuck with it to the end because reading every word of a book before publicly expressing an opinion of it is tantamount to a professional obligation; to do otherwise would be the equivalent of critical malpractice.

That’s where my thoughts are as I write this: What are these reviewers up to when they produce blurbs like this, and what are their motives? And, if they are genuine in their praise, then what are the standards by which they judge a work of literature to be great? What is the line they use to separate the great from the merely good? What are their criteria for deeming a work original, and how do they justify the liberal scattering of glowing modifiers and breathless superlatives? I’m not going to attempt to answer those questions. I’ll only say that these and similar questions need to be asked by all readers—and by all reviewers before they begin each critique.

My advice to readers on whether or not to pick up Homegoing is to decide for yourselves: poke around among the many reviews available and see if something in them steers you toward or away from this book. What did the reviewers who have earned your trust think? For myself, with all the great books out there (and the so, so many very good ones), I could have done better. It’s my hope that Yaa Gyasi, after the hints of what she might be able to do found in this first novel, has a great book in her—and that in the future we’ll get to read it.

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1 I thought I might have been the first to coin this phrase, but it’s been around for at least several years.

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