The mechanics of poor writing

Kevin Cowherd

June 12, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

Iwas getting ready to close for the night when a customer came by with a piece of correspondence that was giving him trouble.

"Don't know when I'll get to it," I told him. "I'm pretty backed up. Got an essay on Social Darwinism that needs body work, two columns that need polishing and a Bush satire that needs a complete overhaul."

He seemed disappointed. But this time of year, everyone's writing seems to break down at once.

"What's the matter with your letter?" I asked.

"It's hard to describe," he said. "It just sort of sits there. There's no zip to it, no pep. You get to the third or fourth paragraph and it just . . . dies."

From what he was telling me, it sure didn't sound good. Not that I was gonna make a snap diagnosis.

"Look," I said, "it could be something simple like a sentence or two that need tightening. Or it could be blown syntax and need a major re-structuring of theme and content. "There's no way to know for sure 'til I get it up on the word processor."

"When will that be?" he asked.

"Hard to tell," I said. "Some time tomorrow maybe. Gimme a call around noon."

The next morning found me up to my ears on an Arsenio Hall lampoon that kept cutting out on the author. In a lot of ways, he had nailed Arsenio perfectly: the skittish opening monologue, the fawning interview style, the way-past-cool posturing.

But the damn thing went on and on, 1,600 words by my count. 'Course, we can fix just about any prose that . . . well, OK. I don't fix poetry.

Alliteration, iambic pentameter, blank verse as opposed to free verse . . . no, thanks. I don't need those headaches, Jack.

You could probably make good money on the big jobs, long narrative poems on the scale of, oh, Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

But I leave that to the stuffy eggheads with their fancy master's of fine arts degrees and their tweedy sport coats and milk mustaches.

Fact is, the worst job I ever had in this business was tuning up a haiku.

Three lines of five, seven and five syllables each -- sounds simple, right? Traditional Japanese verse form -- what's the big deal?

Yeah, well, good luck. It nearly drove me crazy. Finally I said to hell with it and farmed it out to an outfit that specializes in foreign prose.

Anyway, it wasn't until mid-morning that I had a chance to get to that guy's letter.

Once I got it up on the IBM compatible 286, it was easy to spot the problem.

For one thing, the prose immediately after the salutation was worn and haggard and needed to be replaced.

The middle of the text looked OK -- he was telling his mom about a recent trip to Barbados with his girlfriend. But there were twisted metaphors all over the place and the tail end of his account was swollen and disjointed.

No wonder the damn thing was so sluggish. I was surprised it even made it to "Nancy sends her regards" before conking out.

Anyway, the guy with the letter called back promptly at noon.

I wiped the ink from my hands with an 8-by-11 sheet of bond paper and grabbed the phone.

"Bad news, Mr. Carlson. You're gonna have to leave it here for a few days. The 'lead' is shot and it needs a lotta new adjectives. I counted eight uses of 'sun-drenched island' alone. What kinda thesaurus you using these days?"

"Well, I . . ."

"Besides, I gotta order some parts."

"Parts?" Carlson squeaked.

"Mr. Carlson," I growled, "ever change the ribbon on that typewriter? You're supposed to change 'em every 3,000 words."

People like Carlson never cease to amaze me. They go out and buy a brand new Underwood or Smith-Corona. They don't care about the sticker price -- the thing is loaded with options like automatic carriage return, built-in dictionary, etc. Then they don't take care of it.

Now I was gonna have to track down an Olivetti dealer in Philly who owed me a favor -- just so we could match up ribbons.

Anyway, to tide him over for a few days, I gave Carlson a loaner -- an '82 note I had --ed off to my mom from Puerto Rico. It wasn't one of Hemingway's dispatches from Paris, but it would do in a pinch.

I had to charge the poor slob an arm and a leg, but what do you expect?

Parts, labor . . . it all adds up.

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