I always knew I wanted to be a writer — although it took me long enough to, y’know, do it — but over time I’ve really come to love being an editor. The duty, as I’ve come to see it, is to make a writer’s work shine as brightly as possible, and then get as many eyes in front of it as you can. But feedback is scary — horrifying, even. When 99 percent of a relationship is by email, it’s also crucial to make writers — who tend to be anxious and insecure — feel like their hard work means something, and to offer constructive pointers in a way that doesn’t crush their spirits. (We’ve all been there.) It brings me joy to move around a few paragraphs in a 3,000-word story to make the whole thing flow better, or slap a wordplay-filled headline on something after a writer got stuck. And I love making little fixes: farmer’s market to farmers market, Veterans’ Day to Veterans Day, Grant Street to Grant Avenue, Alanis Morrisette to Alanis Morissette, crepe myrtle to crape myrtle, Mens Warehouse to Men’s Wearhouse. I feel prouder when people win prizes and recognition for stories I’ve edited than I do for stories I wrote.
With that said, I sometimes feel like the world’s most splenetic grammar-grandpa making a futile last stand against the conquest of English by marketing-speak, the deadening rot that devastates copy like sap-sucking Phylloxera nymphs attacking old-growth grapes’ rootstock. To be clear: Language evolves, and it’s better to change with the times than not. But organic developments like teen slang are very different from top-down impositions by people who routinely refer to cities as “markets.”
This is not about enforcing a slavish devotion to the rules of usage, many of which feel suspiciously elitist, or like holdovers from 19th-century Bostonian diction. I don’t get bent out of shape about split infinitives or sentences that end in a preposition — especially if “fixing” them would lead to awkward syntax — and I think we can all relax and stop capitalizing “dumpster” and “realtor.” But a certain type of banal puffery is gaining purchase in the general culture. There’s nothing more important for a writer than to find their voice, and that’s not going to happen if you say “utilize” for “use” or “uptick” for “increase.”
Everyone has pet peeves, and at some point they become subjective. I have my ever-growing list of specific words and phrases, but the underlying phenomenon of self-imposed mediocrity is what must be rooted out. It’s not even that cliches are bad, necessarily. (If you can use “cool as a cucumber” in a sentence and get away with it, good for you.) Instead, it’s tics, the words we write when we don’t realize we’ve turned our brains off for a second and started mindlessly regurgitating stuff we heard elsewhere.
They are legion. Every single story about ramen seems to use the word “slurp,” slightly unpleasant onomatopoeia and all, in order to gin up faux excitement about the act of eating soup. Every article about earthquakes will inevitably use the ugly, never-uttered-once-in-spoken-English, non-word word “temblor.” Of course, the worst non-word in all of non-English is “impactful,” which I loathe so intensely that it’s hard to take someone seriously after they’ve said it. Still, I’m optimistic, since there was a time when “irregardless” looked like it might become an acceptable term, but our collective willpower and snobbery won that battle.
Endemic among many writers is an occasional inability to differentiate good writing from bloodless public-relations nonsense — or, worse, to equate it with savvy. Since the line between news and infotainment gets blurrier and blurrier, many people who’ve been exposed from birth to gross, self-serving corporate-speak think that that’s the way you must write in order to be considered a professional in good standing. Everything is marketing now, and most of it is extremely humorless, lacking a pulse. So writing turns into “content.” It neuters itself. It brims with colorless verbs like “bolster” or “foster” — or that un-slayable dragon, the passive voice.
Did you ever notice that everyone must now be “-based” somewhere, even if they really only live and work in one city? That suffix, which crowns the Instagram bio of everyone who desperately wishes to be taken seriously, is as pretentious as it is overused — implying that we’re all bicoastal, transoceanic citizens of the world who keep a small apartment somewhere to get our mail twice a year before resuming our fabulous jet-set lives. A company can be based somewhere if, like Starbucks, it has a bunch of locations and you’re referring to its HQ. But in almost every circumstance, people cannot. I am a San Francisco writer. I am not a San Francisco-based writer.
Unnecessary wordiness is where bullshit thrives. We’ve all been in a meeting where an underprepared person retreated into the nutrient-free cocoon of pointless verbosity, hoping to distract everyone from the fact that they had no idea what they were talking about. When people say “is supportive of” instead of “supports,” or “I’m appreciative of” instead of “I appreciate,” it can theoretically sound slightly more important, but it’s actually kind of dumb. I’m supportive of the idea that brevity is suggestive of the soul of wit and I hope we’re all in agreement on that. And while I see nothing good about the alt-right whatsoever, I do see their point that the language of contemporary liberalism can often sound less like fire in the belly and more like a condescending HR manager “expressing concerns.”
Political writing invites hackishness on a grand scale, mostly owing to the pernicious View from Nowhere school of journalism, wherein reporters prioritize false balance over factual accuracy. But it crops up everywhere. Music writing languishes when everything pretty is “ethereal” and everything uptempo is “rollicking.” (Each of those words is hazy and ill-defined, a petri dish full of agar for mediocrity to flourish.) Meanwhile, every musician you’ve ever heard of is either “legendary” and/or an “icon.” Steve Miller is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so I guess we’ve done it to ourselves. In the realm of food, certain things are just straight-up repulsive. Referring to rustic dishes as “peasant food” or to tasty and nutrition-less sweets as “crack” is not a good look for 21st-century cosmopolitans with money to burn. The hideous cliche “drool-worthy” is infuriating, given how utterly unappetizing drool really is. If you saw someone drool in a restaurant, you’d run away and rip off your whole skin.
I recognize that a lot of these are a little arbitrary and that some of my biases might become un-winnable fights. As time goes by, I’m either going to have to become an increasingly embattled minority of one or simply forfeit, the way I gave up my opposition to including multiple exclamation points per email. (I use them all the time now, deliberately and without apology.) Further, I’m open to changing my mind. I used to hate the word “gift” as a verb until it dawned on me that “Jim gave Mary a massage” and “Jim gifted Mary a massage” mean very different things.
Still, I’m holding the line on a few of these petty massacres. For example, “ask” is not a noun, and “better” is not a verb — or, at least, they’re a very ungainly noun and verb, and good writers should aspire to exceed that low threshold in their copy or prose. I don’t think my querulous obstinacy is ever going to plug up the leaking dike on either one, though. But hopefully, at the very least, we can all agree that “meteoric rise” is simultaneously a tired cliche and total nonsense when used as praise. Meteors don’t “rise.” They plummet to the earth in a fireball.
Read more from SF Weekly’s Thanksgiving-Week ‘Unpopular Opinions’ issue:
Unpopular Opinions: All Hail Pigeons
These misunderstood, resilient creatures simply reflect humanity’s creation of poverty and waste — and disgust for them says a lot about us.
Pickles Are Disgusting
Shoving vegetables into jars filled with vinegar became unnecessary with the introduction of the refrigerator, yet the outdated practice remains prevalent today.
Five Words I’m Trying Not to Use
When I realized the r-word had somehow crept back into my working vocabulary, I had to work hard to stop. Here are some others I’ve tried to move beyond.