Perils of a pen-pusher: punctuation and prolixity

Poor punctuation: the scourge of sign-writers - and authors

Writers have been getting a bit of stick recently. Trouble is, what they write gets (hopefully) seen by a lot of people, so they make mistakes at their peril. Since I pose as a pen-pusher nowadays, I’m aware of that need to avoid the frequently highlighted heffalump traps, and thought I’d devote space to them this week. 

The most obvious mistake is, naturally, poor punctuation. Social media abounds in hilarious errors seen on shop signs and transmitted across the Twittersphere. I caught the howler pictured above in Cornwall last weekend: yes, it appears the hapless sign-painter didn’t know how to write the plural of his/her county’s signature dish.

But there’s a bigger trap that many serious writers are apparently falling into. Called prolixity, generally defined as speaking or writing at great or tedious length, this pen-pusher’s disease appears to be spreading as fast as coronavirus

According to a recent edition of The Times, the National Theatre has been criticised by numerous playgoers because the new works it (rightly) commissions are getting too long. Loyal supporters are getting fed up with 7.30 performances not finishing till nearly 11pm, giving them a sore bum, and making them miss their last train or bus home.

The paper suggested that commissioners, producers and directors have lost their collective nerve. No one dares say to playwrights, “Love the piece: just cut it by an hour”. I guess they fear the creative luvvie throwing a wobbly about how it’s perfect as it is, and no one should mess with their baby.

But it isn’t and they should: yet they don’t. Popular novelists these days seem to suffer from the same malady. I admire JK Rowling and her Harry Potter series, wonderful creations whose inescapable flaws are outweighed by the richness of the world they create. But when the last two or three took on the dimensions of a house brick, someone needed to say, “Listen, JK. It’s great: but slash it by a third.” 

Even seriously “serious” novelist Hilary Mantel has fallen into the trap with her new book The Mirror and the Light, the last of her Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall) trilogy. The first two have been hailed as masterpieces, and probably are, though they’re heavy going to my mind. But the concluding tome weighs in, I’m told, at 950 pages. Hearing that, the writer of a Times letter dared to hope it would get them through the two-week self-isolation coronavirus will require.

OK, so it would call for nerves of steel for any editor to tell a writer of the stature of Rowling or Mantel to prune their work.  But someone should challenge the claims of lesser literary names that “it’s perfect as it is. I cannot cut a word!” 

David Banks: a hard man when it comes to editing text

It’s never true. Hard-bitten newspaper editors like Voice of the North’s own David Banks have spent a lifetime crafting text to a deadline and a space limit. They know extraneous elements can always be cut, and that the slimmed down version will be an improvement. In literature as in journalism, less is generally more.

When I was admitted to that hallowed circle of columnists for The Journal, joining Banksy, Keith Hann and Tom Gutteridge, I knew I must keep my contributions under 650 words: that was the space on the page.  Writing (printed) education pieces for the Times Educational Supplement, the limit was similar. 

With publishing’s almost universal move online, old physical word limits have disappeared. But there’s still much to be said for striving not to be, well, prolix. 650 remains a good length.

I was reminded of this by reading an obituary of, Larry Tesler, inventor of the computer cut-and-paste button. What a boon he gave to all pen-pushers! 

But maybe, after all, the cut is still more important than the paste. And, by the way, this piece creeps in at under 650 words. 


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