Taglines from Hell

Because I am a masochist at heart, I sometimes spend my lunch break eating at my desk and reading discussion threads on Linked In. In a recent thread, some poor sap was asking for help coming up with a promotional tagline that connected the idea of volunteering with the concept of “winners” or “winning.”

Having been charged with creating taglines in a previous job, I have a special appreciation for the challenges involved. It’s way harder to come up with a good one than you might think, and one of the biggest hurdles is deflecting the tin-eared suggestions that come from your co-workers and colleagues. It’s an especially big hurdle if the sour notes come from your boss (or client, if you’re a freelancer).

I knew what to expect when I saw that person asking for help in a Linked In discussion. I knew it would be bad, but the part of me that loves a good train wreck had to click through and read the suggestions.

Below are a few of them, verbatim. Imagine any of these painted on a tall banner at a flashy trade show, presented as the cornerstone to a volunteer recruitment campaign:

  • You can’t win, if you don’t volunteer to do so!
  • Winners say no to drags
  • Winners join us because here is where cream always rises to the top!
  • There aren’t any winners without losers. Choose your side. (Ed. note: the guy who came up with that one is a CEO.)
  • Winners have volunteers on their team
  • Premiere as a Volunteer – Begin and Win
  • Oh I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Winner, that is what I’d truly like to volunteer!
  • Let the other person win, volunteer.
  • Winners…..get up one more time than they fall down!

And the Pièce de résistance:

  • Winners do not compromise the position, Leaders fo not compromise the goals adn Volunterrs do not compromise the causes. (sic)

Cleaning Up J.D. Salinger

The subtitle of this post, if there were one, would be “Why I’ll Never Write that Novel, # 132.”

A few weeks ago, Hollywood screenwriter Shane Salerno, who is working on a documentary about J.D. Salinger, released a low resolution image of what he called a “never seen before” photograph of the famously reclusive late writer. The fact that the released version was low resolution (the one making the rounds on the web was roughly 580 x 590 pixels) was perfectly understandable. After all, if it’s such a rare image, you don’t necessarily want to release it to the digital wolves. What bugged me is that Salerno released a scan of the crappy, unrestored image.

Naturally, my impulse was to fix it. So I did. I spent a bit of time (not nearly as much as you’d think, given the low resolution) restoring the image. OK, let’s be up-front; I spent about 20 minutes on this restoration. If I had a high-resolution version I would have probably spent a day or two on it, and wouldn’t have done nearly as good a job as a master like Ctein would have done. But that’s not the point. The point is that if you find an old “never seen” photograph of a famously reclusive famous person, the least you could do is clean it up before you show it off. Showing the dirty version is like coming down to dinner in yesterday’s underwear.

So I cleaned it up. I’ll present to you an even lower resolution version below, as proof. I will say here and now that I have no intention of doing anything with this cleaned up picture except maybe looking at it now and then and feeling smug. If you happen to be Shane Salerno, or Shane Salerno’s lawyer, then bugger off, there’s nothing to see here. This tiny image constitutes fair usage, and I have no intention of usurping your right to show us the shitty version, nor of making any money off of my improved one.

Left: shitty. Right: Blorky.

That was last week’s procrastination. Today I made BBQ chicken & ribs with two different sauces, and reduced half a bushel of Roma tomatoes down to a medium-sized pot of pomodoro sauce for tomorrow’s dinner. When I retire, have my stomach removed, and divorce myself from the Internet, then maybe I’ll write that novel.

Martin Amis and the Decline of Print Media

Forgive me while I carve a rather meandering path to my point, but it begins last spring when I received in the mail a flyer from the Humber School for Writers. It indicated that Martin Amis would be the headliner, the star instructor, at Humber’s summer workshops for 2009. Martine and I both wondered what exactly that would entail; after all, the Humber School has an impressive curriculum and engages writers of very high calibre as instructors, but the instructors are drawn almost entirely from the pools of Canadian literature. Martin Amis is a big, big gun, but he’s from across the pond. We were both of the opinion that he’d probably fly in for one 90 minute lecture and be done with it.

But no! Mark Medley, a writer for The National Post, was hot on the Martin Amis trail, and he reported in a National Post article dated July 17, 2009 [Update: see Mark’s correction in the comments.] that Amis was there all week, conducting classes like any other instructor. Medley also reported that Amis was quite approachable (when you could find him) and was rather nice.

Now hang a left as we begin to meander. (Or perhaps we’re now coming back to the main trail — I was always bad at orienteering.) Loyal readers of this blog know that I’ve been messing with the blogging media for almost a decade. This blog alone (one of several I have on the go at the moment) has almost 600,000 words scribed into more than 1600 posts. With a blog resumé like that, I could be categorized as very much a fan of all things blog.

So you might think, and if so you wouldn’t be far off the mark. I like blogs for many reasons, including all the standard stuff about democratization of the public blah blah blah, plus it’s nice to see what my blogging friends are up to without having to lift the dreaded telephone, etc. But one thing that has sorely disappointed me when it comes to the blogging form is that most blogs provide only a mediocre reading experience.

There are indeed a few sterling blogs that can be read for the sheer pleasure of the prose, but they are rare. Most blogs are about (a) laffs, (b) straight-up information, or (c) personal gushing and whinging. As a result, most people read blogs to “get a fix” of info or gossip and not for the pleasure of reading.

Print media, on the other hand, can be wonderful. There are, of course, entire forests’ worth of printed tripe and trollop, but the respectable editors and publishers of the world go to great lengths to shape and sculpt their writers’ work into text that doesn’t just inform and entertain, but enthralls with its own beauty.

Put another way, blogs are like street food. Salty, greasy, of questionable hygiene, often overcooked, but cheap and plentiful and in their own way very tasty. But the printed word from a respectable publisher is like the fare from a high end restaurant.

Unless, that is, you live in the 21st century, where even respectable publishers have been slimming their budgets by cleaving off the fluffy unnecessaries such as proofreaders and copy editors. After all, we’ve become so used to reading sloppy web-based text that it seems entirely reasonable to assume no one actually values the good stuff. It’s salt and grease we want, not painstakingly executed sauces and finely crafted plats.

In this I pity Martin Amis, as he’s still alive and has to put up with this decline in the respectable press. I doubt he ran squealing to his local news agent in London when word of Mark Medley’s National Post article came out, but if he did he was probably reduced to tears.

That’s because Mark Medley’s article suffered from a distinct lack of editorial oversight. To wit:

Yo, that long, repetitive sentence (highlighted in yellow) never would have passed Go on my editorial board. And hey, nice typo!

Then there’s this:

Missing sarcastic editor’s note: “as articulate as this?” That long sentence needs to be trimmed, or broken up into two or more sentences in order to be articulate.

It goes on:

Hello, online newspaper! Nice sentence to nowhere!

To be clear, none of this is Mark Medley’s fault. Writing is hard, and very few writers went so unedited in the antediluvian world before blogs. If I had see those errors in a blog post I wouldn’t even have blinked. But this is The National Post!

In a professional context we used to rely on editors and proofreaders to find and correct these problems. But what happens when we start treating newspaper content the same as blog content? (As in, raw, unedited, unpolished.) We get stuff that lacks clarity and focus, carries little authority, and fails to inspire.

Blogs and other forms of so-called “citizen journalism” have an important role to play in our information culture, but it’s a role both in opposition to, and complementary with, the establish mainstream press. But we need both for that dynamic to mean anything.

Fly vs. Flies

This morning, Martine found the following sentence in a recent Vanity Fair magazine article: “The couple still fly separately.”

There are two problems with that sentence; first, “the couple” is a singular object, so the verb should be “flies” not “fly” (Bob flies, Bob and Fred fly). So the immediate reaction is to change the line to “the couple still flies separately.”

But that doesn’t account for the second problem; “the couple” — as a singular object — cannot fly “separately” because, well, it’s a single thing. So it’s not just a grammatical issue; there’s a conceptual mistake.

Vanity Fair, as far as I can tell, has high editorial standards, so how could this double-whammy get through? In seeking the rationale for the first problem (fly vs. flies) I thought, “What would Bill Walsh do?” (If you have any interest in editorial machinations in a context that is generally free of the polarizing descriptive vs. prescriptive arguments, you should read Bill’s blog and his web site. Bill flies no flags, he just makes sense.)

Then, as I brushed my teeth, it came to me. “The couple,” in this sentence, is shorthand for “the members of the couple.” So in fact, it is a plural, not singular. The “error” is in not spelling it out, but the editorial argument is (probably) that doing so is unnecessarily awkward, and in the context of the paragraph, the context of “the couple” is obvious. Note that this interpretation solves both problems.

Prescriptivists (of which I am not but am often accused of being) will reject that position, and the descriptivists (whom I have been accused of disliking, when in fact I often side with them) have already stopped reading this post because they never saw a problem in the first place.

But what I’m interested in is the editorial position. Personally, I would have re-cast the sentence as “Mendez and Winslet still fly separately,” or simply “They still fly separately,” but it depends on how the rest of the paragraph is cast.

However, I now understand the choice of “fly” over “flies” even if I don’t fully agree with it. And now I will move on to the next thing.

And so passes a Sunday morning chez nous.