Wednesday, April 29
My old friend Dick Anderson had enough.
I had already canned his lead, and had evicted both Shakespeare and Thoreau from his dog-survival piece. He wasn’t about to let me further bastardize both the story and the English language by getting rid of that now-endangered species – the adverb.
I had changed “walking too closely” to “walking too close” in Dick’s wonderful tale of finding Cali after the Lab mix survived a harrowing, Murphys-area flume ride (Union Democrat, April 24).
But the author would have nothing to do with my seemingly harmless edit.
“You’re part of the problem,” Dick scolded me over the phone. “More and more people are using adjectives where there should be adverbs, and now you’re one of them.”
I overheard his wife, Mary, laughing uproariously in the background – and this time she was in Dick’s corner. So I tucked my grammatical tail between my legs, surrendered, and added the “ly” to “close.”
Copy editing by phone, it turns out, is one of the safer things you can do while in Covid confinement. Not only that, but my friendship with Dick somehow survived the process.
“Hearing you two Stanford English majors go at it was highly entertaining,” said Mary after the journalistic dust had settled.
But it wasn’t easy: Although we both had the same major at the same school, Richard is a writer and raconteur who once pledged “never to let facts get in the way of a good story.”
I, on the other hand, am a hard-core, “Front Page”-style reporter who cut my teeth in The Union Democrat’s then smoke-filled newsroom in the 1970s. Over the years, however, I have been more willing to bend facts a hair to shape some preconceived narrative.
So I reckoned Dick and I could find common ground. And, after I emailed him the edited version of “Cali’s Story,” he called back happy.
“You really used restraint, a very light touch,” he told me. “In fact, it was hard for me to see what edits you did make.”
“Hold on,” I thought to myself. “I trash-canned his story’s first sentence. How’s he going to be happy about that?”
“So you liked the new lead?” I asked. “New lead??” he answered. “I didn’t see any new lead.”
The problem became clear: I had mistakenly sent Dick the story’s original, untouched version. No wonder he was happy.
“You’re not going to like this one nearly as much,” I warned him before sending him the tampered copy.
Dick’s original lead – which had somehow managed to rope in Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, the Coronavirus and the Ides of March being “upon us” – did not survive.
“The Ides of March was more than a month ago,” I told him. “It was March 15. How can it be ‘upon us’?”
“Well, the next Ides is getting closer,” he ventured.
Dick also evoked Thoreau in a description of a water-treatment plant’s grounds: “A bona fide Henry David Thoreau tour of the Sierra piedmont,” is how he described a walk around the plant.
First off, Thoreau never travelled any farther west than Minnesota. And second, when you bring up him in a newspaper story you could lose readers who have a low tolerance for perfumed BS.
It was a lesson I learned many years ago. One of my editors questioned the multi-syllabic, 50-cent words I occasionally threw into my columns.
Merriam-Webster defines these 50-centers as “obscure words used to describe a simple idea, thus making the user self-important.”
My defense at the time: “It’s good to send readers to the dictionary once in a while.” But after I reading the dictionary definition above, I decided that “Keep it Simple, Stupid” are better words to write by.
Next, Dick and I moved on to commas – with which I had apparently carpet-bombed his copy. “You don’t need them,” he complained. “It just slows the reader.”
And he was not the first writer to do so:
Award-willing adult and children’s writer Roald Dahl was once outraged by the liberties a “New Yorker” editor had taken with a story: “It’s like you came up with a great comma shaker and sprinkled them randomly throughout my piece,” he griped.
Dick’s thoughts exactly. And, although I would not describe it as “radical commatectomy,” the resulting removal surgery was significant.
Yet I somehow endured it without anesthesia.
Finally, there was the missing-dog poster Dick and Mary put up the morning after Cali was washed down flume. “Swept Away,” it proclaimed, under a photo of Cali.
“Now there’s your lead,” I later said of Dick’s poster headline. But, alas, we had missed the UD deadline by days.
Thus you have journalism’s answer to “Inside Baseball.” You didn’t want it, you didn’t ask for it, but you got it anyway.
Consumer alert: The piece above contains more than 50 commas.