I love words. Whenever I encounter them, I try to imagine how they were born in the writers mind and how they took shape on paper. I attach a ridiculous amount of sentimentality to most things, but never more than the amount I attach to the written word. Seriously, when I read some of my favourite authors, I see behind the printed alphabet. I imagine manuscripts speckled with ink blots, maybe a scratched out word or two and I hear the clackety-clack of a typewriter. I think of Wodehouse in his study or out in the garden in an armchair. Dicken’s at a desk, the smell of workhouses and the London smog still in his hair and on his overcoat. Coleridge getting high, steady Charles Lamb, Austen pausing her pen to look out into a wintry garden. I imagine writers block, the smell of stale whisky, fists banged down hard on desks, and finally words that will be read for ever more. Words that bring immortality. It’s all very nostalgia-drenched and syrupy. Which is not to say I don’t think of contemporary writers, staring at their word processor documents, using track changes. It’s the same magic, not sepia toned, but fast and zipping and rushing and exhilarating. Words are so magnificent. Surely, every reader dreams of having the power to recreate the deep emotion she feels when she opens a book. Thats why every reader wants to be a writer. If I could only make someone feel the way I do right now.
I’ve been thinking lately of writers and writing as a craft. Where you begin, how you continue and how you struggle with it as you go along. It’s simple to write. You need basic grammar and you can slap words together to form a sentence. Sadly, most people take this to mean they can write well. Writing well is a different story. I can count the number of bylines I’ve read that are written, but not written well. Copy editors I’ve worked with have often spent the better half of a day, despairing over a writers piece and when they’re done with it, the byline still has tired phrases, dull sentences and barely any originality. What the copy desk does is tighten the language, smarten up the grammar and made the story coherent. Given the time frame that publications work on, you can hardly blame them. Time has swallowed up quality. Mediocrity is acceptable and then people wonder why the newspaper they read has such terrible language.
From the two years I’ve worked as a writer, I have come to only one conclusion. We don’t care anymore. A rookie writer earns her stripes by keeping deadlines, sticking to the word count and picking her battles with the copy desk, “You think abode is a better word for home? Sure. Just don’t make me change that sentence in the second column.” And it’s not anyone’s fault. The fresh out of college writer doesn’t love words, she doesn’t read anything tougher than Twilight (if that), she barely knows any byline outside her own publication and there is no one there to guide her. When we graduate from our fancy media courses, what we need are heroes. We don’t get a Will McAvoy from The Newsroom or a Matt Alby from Studio 60. There’s a scene in season five of The Wire, where Gus, the head of the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun, is editing a story. He mutters “That Mark Twain wannabe thinks he can get a phrase like that past me? No way,” before tapping a few keys eliminated the offending phrase. We need Gus. We need someone to say “”Revert back” is wrong but so is revert. To revert means to return to a former state. You cannot revert to someone’s email.” Instead we get the copy desk who is about as close to Gus as a crow is to a choir. So we’ll write our sad little stories and dream of working with the big bylines that we worship from afar. The righteous bylines. The brilliantly crafted ones. The witty, clever ones.
When I think about how powerful the written word can be it makes me sad about how I have settled. It makes me angry, because I try to tell myself that I’m one of the good ones. I read. I want something larger and stronger and bigger. I get high on good writing and I want to be better but the system is wearing me down. It’s a real shame.