Being a Critical Reader

I worry I am too tough a critic when it comes to judging other people's writing. I'm hard on myself, to be sure, but it's easier to evaluate other people's writing, and so I do. Often. (I should specify that I mean edited writing: Unedited, who are any of us to judge or be judged?) If I had my way as a writer all the time, I would write something that's straightforward and competent before I overwrote or tried something clever for clevernesses sake. I hate purple prose, and I hate gilded lilies. Most of all, I hate adverbs. Is there anything more useless than an adverb? I recognize their basic function—modifying verbs. How many verbs need modifying, though? Most of the time, something either is or isn't. Better to choose a good verb.

Sampson's not impressed.

Sampson's not impressed.

I'm sure people wrote with too many adverbs before the rise of the Internet, but I wouldn't have had to see them. I'm aware that this makes me sound an incurable curmudgeon. So be it. I think, once you near a decade or so in a profession, you get to the point where you don't tolerate what you don't want to tolerate any longer.

If you were trained at newspapers as a young writer, like I was, you had these impulses scrubbed out of you. (Newspapers can chip away good stuff, too: don't stay at a small training newspaper too long.) I had a teacher in grad school say that you should think of your writing as an effort to stay in a tight budget. Every word costs you. Nouns and verbs are a penny. Pennies add up, but these words were cheap, so you learn to pour your creativity into them. I'm pretty sure articles, like "the" and "an," are free because it's hard to overuse them. The biggest expenses are adverbs and adjectives, at $1.25. I've come to a point in life where I search for "ly" in my articles and erase most of the words that bear them. If I had more than, say, four in a 700-word column, I'd erase them. I also have a tendency toward the words "always" and iterations of the verb "to get." I search for them, too. At a newspaper like The New York Times, where there are at least three layers of editing for all pieces before they go into the print edition, the final round is spent scrubbing out as many of these unnecessary words as possible. At least, that's how it used to be.

It's as true with longform as it is with newspaper writing. If you're writing an 8,000-word piece, if you're asking your readers to make that time commitment, the least you could do is not clutter up that piece with words that don't add anything. 

Slim writing is my goal for most of the big stories I care about. That's only accomplished after several drafts. Otherwise, who cares? No one but me. In the scheme of things, these are all minor crimes. Web editors are struggling to keep up. It's hard to read your own writing after you've lived with it for awhile, and editors don't have time to work over several drafts, so some things just get missed. Also, the Internet seems to love adverbs as much as I abhor them. Try to write something for the web without an adverb, and watch what happens. (You will be asked to liven your writing with that loathsome part of speech.)

As a reader, though, I'm finding these things grate on me. I don't know how much non-writers notice, but if there's a story that just isn't moving, this could be why. (There are, of course, other potential problems. Another big trend I've noticed is the long article about the cool thing we all remember from our childhoods, but there's no narrative tension driving the piece. It's also possible to just not like someone's writing.) 

It's why The New Yorker is so good. At a most basic level, its longform is efficient. Some of them are amazing, but they're never bad. I once overheard someone say that New Yorker writers couldn't write well if they didn't have six months to work on something and the world's best editors. Who cares if it takes six months? Sometimes you want a grill-out and sometimes you want a barbecue. They're two different kinds of sustenance, and the latter can't be rushed. Why not devote a team of editors? Hamilton Nolan, in his Gawker screed against editors, snarked that if you tried to pass off a New Yorker piece to your editors a draft of your own, that she or he would still find something wrong with it. Of course! Nothing's ever perfect.