Friday, January 16, 2009
the elephants of style.
Do you see what I see? I was in the supermarket the other day when I came across this ghastly cover. I don't care about the Britney story, I care about the headline: "What price fame?" At first I thought I was just daft and couldn't figure out its meaning. I tried to look at the three words from a variety of angles. It took me a few minutes before I realized the error was theirs, not mine -- it was simply lazy prose. Obviously, a magazine like OK! is not known for its quality of writing, but the lack of a coherent cover headline should be considered troublesome. If someone was fired for spelling dear Ashlee Simpson's name as "Ashley", surely someone deserves censure for forgetting the remainder of the sentence? Perhaps they meant, "What price for fame?", which isn't the nicest of sentences but at least conveys a shred of meaning. I guess I'm just bitter, but really? Every unemployed writer I know is better than this.
So I googled the phrase, and it's supposedly an idiom. Forbes used it to title a piece about Heath Ledger, it's the name of a book, and there's even a page about it on the Free Dictionary. I still don't like it. It's messy and unclear and not popular enough to fly, in my opinion. I know not every idiom makes sense, but this one is worthless.
I'm becoming very self-conscious about my writing. I've been reading "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. It's a great little book full of useful guidelines and stylistic advice, but it makes me nervous. Now, I question every comma and adverb I use. I realize I'm too "uncertain" in my writing, needlessly dropping in "sort of's" and "I think that's" when what people prefer is confidence. But scrutinizing every word makes me even less so. There are so many things I did not know, and I feel like every editor I have sent my resume to has cringed at its mistakes.
Did you realize, for example, that "hopefully" should not be interchangeable with "I hope", or "It is to be hoped"? I didn't. I still don't even fully grasp the difference between "lay" and "lie". I know writing isn't supposed to be easy, but I bog myself down with messy sentence structure that I'm unsure how to fix. Strunk and White make it seem so breathlessly easy. They do to writing what French women do to style. To them, it's effortless. To me, whether I'm writing an informal blog post or a professional-yet-creative cover letter, everything feels clumsy. I guess you could say I feel hopeless.