Novelist

Another Page: ‘Lapsing Into a Comma’

Today, I conclude my two-part series on books that can help you improve your writing and self-editing. For Part One, go here.

My opinion: If you aim to write in a cogent, conversational style while still employing careful usage and grammar, your best bet is to get this book by Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh (a friend of the blog, by the way, but one who doesn’t know this post is coming).

I’m going to deviate just a bit into a personal story before I get back to the book at hand. When I broke into the newspaper business in–holy crap!–1988, all I wanted to be was a sportswriter. (Wait, that’s not entirely true: I really wanted to be an editorial columnist, a truly laughable proposition then and even more so now.) But after a few years of that, I stumbled into the notion that my skill set and sensibility were better suited for an inside-the-office job, as an editor who helped pull the newspaper together. In 1992, I made the full-on switch, decamping for the copy desk at the Texarkana Gazette. There, I was mostly a design guy, building pretty pages and making a cursory attempt to be a decent copy editor. I was aided by the fact that I had an instinct for language and sentence structure, but my grounding in the conventions of copy editing and in Associated Press style was not impressive.

As my career continued, I began to realize that I was nowhere near a top-flight designer nor a particularly strong copy editor, and I made a concerted effort to shore up my game across the board. My talent, such as it is, lay not in any one skill but in many of them: I became a serviceable, eventually good copy editor. I honed my design skills and became decent, even good, at that. I even went back to sportswriting, for a single, really bad Oakland Raiders season. Cathy Henkel, a friend and the former sports editor at the Seattle Times, once called me a “glue guy,” and I took it as the compliment she intended. I tried to make myself as close to indispensable as possible by being a capable hand at almost anything. (I should point out here that this happened largely in the days when one could actually be indispensable at a newspaper; the economy in general and the newspaper economy in particular have cast that era in sepia tone.)

To whatever extent I became a good copy editor, I owe it in large part to Bill Walsh. (See, I told you I’d get back to him and his book.) Long before he wrote his “curmudgeon’s guide to the many things that can go wrong in print,” he was constructing the bulk of the book at his website, The Slot, and I was reading it voraciously, along with almost every other newspaper copy editor I know. If you’ve never seen someone swoon over a copy editor, you haven’t been with Bill at a gathering of them. It’s pretty damned funny.

His success, with his site and with the book, lies first in the fact that he knows his stuff cold. But, look, grammar and usage points are medicine to most people, and Bill has a wonderful way of making the dosage enjoyable. He riffs on pop culture. He chooses memorable ways to get a point across. As an example of this, check out this entry from the Sharp Points section of his website:

“Welcome to The Gazette staff,” began a very welcome letter I received late in my senior year of college. It wasn’t the time or place to get nitpicky, but that sentence contained one of my many pet peeves.

“The” goes with “staff,” not “Gazette.” So, regardless of whether The Phoenix Gazette’s style is to cap its The, that particular capitalized “the” was just plain wrong.

To use yet another of my¬†reductio ad absurdum¬†analogies (I didn’t minor in philosophy for nothing), I submit the following:

If the president owed you money and you intended to collect, would you capitalize the “bill” in “I’m going to bill Clinton”?

If you love words and love contemplating how they fit together, you have to love an entry like that.

Get the book.

2 Responses

  1. I like your phrase “cast that era in sepia tone.” That’s a metaphor worth stealing.

    Also, I’ll order a copy of Walsh’s book.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:52 am

  2. Lancaster

    You’ll love it, Mark.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:30 pm