Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Shun the fashionable; always be in style."

My dear students,

Thank you for the overall response to my blog so far. Besides your usual praise that never fails to draw out gratitude from deep inside me, as an affectionate teacher or loving friend and colleague, I am happy to notice the points each of you have singled out for mention in your comments.

Most of you have, however, chosen to comment to me directly on my personal account. And so have, deliberately or unknowingly, deprived the others of listening to your voices! Where-ever possible, I have taken the liberty to cut and paste the relevant portions and posted them as your comments to my post, but under my name.

Henceforth, I have decided to post a regular column every week. I shall post it on Sunday, so that you may read it "araam-se" during the week.

Here is an outline of the contents that I propose to cover:

1. An element of editing. (This post has the long-delayed piece on cliches).
2. Comments in passing about what I have been reading and thinking.
3. Elaborating upon the title of the blog - Against the Tide.
4. Bits about books or blogs I've read or you ought to read.
5. A think-piece - listening to the blowing wind or falling rain.
6. A tail-piece, in the style of the old-fashioned column.

Why am I adopting this format? Because I have tired of having to alert you about my posts. I shall, however, persist in alerting each of you who are so kind to comment on my blog or email me.

So here goes.


Cliches: "Shun the fashionable; always be in style."

Cliches are over-used or stereo-typed or stock-in-trade fragments, expressions, phrases, idioms, or sometimes even entire sentences. Lately, examples of entire intros and paragraphs have also emerged as clichés. Video journalists, desperate to create an identity for themselves that is distinct from plain ordinary journalists, are particularly susceptible to cliches.

Five months ago, on 23 October 2008, Gauri Gharpure from the batch of 2007, Department of Journalism and Communication, University of Pune, was the first to ask me about “over-used cliches that can be done away with”.

To say over-used cliches is a redundancy, Gauri, like free gift or brutal murder. I’ll take up redundancy, another media affliction, in a later post. But here I will address the unrecognised need to avoid clichés “like the plague” (itself a cliché).

By the way, read Gauri in her thoughtful blog called “Life Rules”. I was inspired to start “Against the Tide” after I read her blog. I said to myself, “If Gauri can do it, why can’t I?” (cliché) So here I am blogging away “to glory” (cliché).

“At the outset” (cliché), I have unearthed the evergreen Eric Partridge for you, my dear students, because his book, “A Dictionary of Cliches” (first published by Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1940, the fifth edition came out in 1978) is a classic in the field of writing clearly.

Most of the authority with which we claim to speak on clichés can be traced to Eric Partridge (1894-1979), the New Zealand lexicographer who settled in England. I have also picked samples of cliches from my own careful reading of how we (journalists and readers) write daily in India.

By slipping or “sinning gracelessly” into a cliché, like Eric Partridge confesses, we mindlessly repeat the evidence that we are “slack and lazy” in our attitude to speech and writing and that we do not care to speak or write in a “fresh and vigorous” way.

This is THE crime writers and reporters commit when they use a cliché or sub-editors commit when they let a cliché escape their scrutiny as gate-keepers.


Some examples follow that I have culled from books and the papers.

“Generally speaking” (cliché) may be dropped from the start of a sentence, without loss. And “last but not the least” (cliché) may be omitted, as we reach the end of our say. Try it.

The ISRO journey of Chandrayaan-1 to the Moon had its “fair share” (cliché) of tired expressions. Each exploit of the moon spacecraft became the “defining moment”(cliche) in the Indian space programme. Where has the serviceable “milestone” gone?

The corporate world has borrowed “milestone” from the surveying, mapping and road engineers and used it to hype company profiles. But we, journalists, have abandoned “milestone” which is used and understood by ordinary people. Reclaim the milestone – like the pink chaddis are out to reclaim the night from male bullies.

The adverb “most arguably” (cliché) in its superlative form is one of the most abused. An expression like “the mother of all …” (cliché) has become the mother of all clichés. Widely used by western journalists to describe the war against Saddam’s Iraq: “the mother of all battles”, this mother cliché has caught on. All you have to do is fill in the blanks and, unlike the "motherless child" of Stevie Wonder, "lo and behold" (cliche) we have another still-born cliche.

Another all-time cliche from Partridge: “In this day and age” or “at this point in time” becomes simply “at present” or “nowadays” or “now”. A company has the catch-line, “Know. Now.” below their logo and another says, “Make the most of now”.

Cliches from Associated Press Guide to News Writing have also been collected by Rene J. Cappon. Click here. From this list pick out the cliches that you are most likely to abuse as youwrite. And then, "Avoid them, like the plague".


Robert M. Knight in his masterly “The Craft of Clarity: A Journalistic Approach to Good Writing” (Blackwell, U.K.; Surjeet Publications, First Indian Reprint, 2003, Rs. 150/-) calls an entire chapter, “On Being Original”. Fifteen pages with lots of examples, all from American English, but useful; and some exercises with suggested rewrites; also a list of seven reference books. Add Partridge to that list.

I reproduce a warning from Roscoe Born taken from “The Suspended Sentence: A Guide for Writers” (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1986):

“The cliché factory works around the clock. A writer with any pride – and there are no real writers without it – will brace himself constantly against some other writer’s trick phrase or odd use of a familiar word. A phrase that a writer admires may, indeed, be worthy, but he must resist the temptation to adopt it as his own, first because it would be a shameless theft, and second because a thousand other imitative writers are sure to do the same. That is the way to avoid clichés. And the writer who shuns the fashionable will always be in style."

Knight recommends a test to check if your words or phrases are tired: ask yourself if they have “potential comic value”. He cites an example from “When Words Collide” (see the twist in the title of the book taken from the clichéd “when worlds collide”) by Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald, who end their section on clichés thus:

“So, as the sun sinks slowly in the Western Sky, be your own best friend and bid a fond farewell to the tried and true expressions that seem to creep into writing like a thief in the night, robbing it blind of its force.”

I hope this piece meets your expectations, Gauri. Cliches are tired, thread-bare, worn-out words -- better left unsaid.


Restore the editing desk

The description of the title of my blog "Against the Tide" does not and can not adequately express, in such summary jargon, what I mean. In these columns, therefore, I shall take up some aspect of my struggle - against the tide.

Let us discuss how sub-editing is currently being devalued.

Since publishers forcibly eloped with computers, (for it is an unholy alliance), I have chronicled how sub-editing is being devalued. Some big newspapers In India started stealthily by discontinuing the standard practice of having a separate desk that edited copy after the reporters had typed their stories: a chief sub at the head of the U-shaped horseshoe desk is today an endangered species.

The owners of daily newspapers cut the desk, NOT because they wanted to devalue editing but because, like mean Scrooges, they wanted an excuse to save money by reducing the number of subs and "encouraging" reporters to sub their own copy!

(Reporters, in any case, have this "war" going with subs. Because reporters have always felt they know how to write and resent the well-meaning efforts of subs to rewrite their copy, they jumped at this chance of getting their creations into print -- without submitting to the mid-wifery of the sub.)

The result is the suffocation of the desk. Clear writing is dying. Readers have begun to notice spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. This is happening not only because the quality of writing has deteriorated in general, but also because owners, owner-editors (a new breed) and managing editors (as opposed to working or writing editors) have conspired to lay down such un-professional rules in printed commodities that are brands, having ceased to be newspapers.

That is why I stand, and I urge my students, colleagues, friends and well-wishers to speak out and stand up "against the tide" that devalues editing. The best reporters and feature-writers will also stand hand-in-hand with the best subs in this struggle to restore the editing desk.


My last post referred indirectly to "retirement". Could I have known that a passionate lover of books had actually retired? Please refer to the column "Past and Present" in the Hindu Sunday Magazine dated 15 March 2009, where Ramchandra Guha writes about the decision of Mr. T.S. Shanbhag, "How to retire" to close the Premier Bookshop after four decades of serving the book-lovers of Bangalore.


The first of these weekly columns has become over-long. I promise to stick to my self-imposed 800-word limit in the next column. Would you like to suggest a name for this weekly column? And maybe design a logo for me? Or suggest topics for the think piece? And questions for me to cogitate?

Please comment here itself on the post, so that all can see what you have to say. Remember: I shall alert only those of you to my posts, who comment here. Even a word or a line will suffice to be eligible.

Your support is my strength.
- Joe.

Pune, Sunday, 22 March 2009.


Vinita Deshmukh said...

Brilliant and so very useful- not only to a budding journalist but a seasoned journalist as well. cutting and pasting and sending it to my Intelligent Pune staff as a valuable lesson in journalism. You have written it so lucidly and convincingly that now I am going to be on guard.
By the way, your presence at Intelligent Pune on Saturday was the most inspiring. I salute you for the interest you showed and the valuable time you spent in advicng the desk on how to improve the layout of Intelligent Pune. I also deeply appreciate for some of your valuable tips for content nhancement. Thank you so much. Deeply grateful.

Mohan said...

Nice article! Have you got the one term that's been flogged to death: 'paradigm shift' I've heard it so often in marketing that I could throw up!

feddabonn said...

dear joe,

would be nice if you could chop up your articles into seperate posts, even if they are on the same day. makes it easier to read, think and intelligently comment on each/or.

what is the lifetime of a cliche? and is it safe to recycle unused ones? interesting piece.

i'd thought against the tide' was a manifesto for resistance in general, and feel a little dissapointed, somehow, that it has such a specific and technically journalism root.

@mohan: quite agree! and in my circle, found out a while ago that most of us who used it didn't know what a paradigm was! lol.

Gauri Gharpure said...

a very useful article.. Restoring the editorial desk filled with a lot of good advice.. I also agree with baruk.. separate posts on each topic will help us discuss things in detail.
the piece of cliche with the examples ingrained in it reminds me of paragraphs from Maugham's Mrs Craddock and in The Razor's Edge. He has detailed how the characters punched their talks with an overdose of idioms and cliches... :)

Joe Pinto said...

Vinita - thanks for the kind words. Anyday, anything, for iPune.

Mohan - Yes, "paradigm shift" flogged to death, like the whole brood of "quotients" prefixed by emotional, intelligence, etc.

Baruk - "against the tide" is and will always be about resistance. You are right there. And don't be disappointed that it has "a" specific and technically journalism root. Wait till you see another of the other roots - Boycott the Nano!

Gauri - thanks for your support and gentle prodding.

I'm going to try out this style for a few weeks, but not more than 800 words.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Princess said...

A good article Joe and useful not only for journalists but also for language teachers.
I think I have become like other internet junkies.Like my fixes to be that I can absorb them better.I think I have developed ADD after being online for 10 hours in a day ;)
And I must agree with Mohan there...I used to use 'paradigm shift' a lot myself, 10 years ago. Now, I barf when I hear it.:P

Looking forward to more from you.

abd said...

Dear Sir,
Thanks for one more useful post.
I think 'My desk' can be a proposed title for your weekly column.
I have uploaded some photos on my blog.

Dr. Thanawala said...

I appreciate all your efforts for the tailend. I am now more knowledgeable about cliches!!

Anonymous said...

Dear Joe,
Reading your father in law's obituary was deeply moving even though I knew him only a little through you and Kalpana.I remember meeting him once briefly.Reading your posting also reminded me of Busybee and the nostalgia that it entails.My heartfelt good wishes are with you,Kalpana,Pallavi and others.