Critical word for writers and editors: Why?

As an editor, I like to know that writers use their words deliberately.

If I know that the writer picked her words intentionally rather than carelessly, I can do a better job of editing.

question-mark-2123969_1280Many sentences that I encounter employ words in a way that my high school English teachers would have considered incorrect, ungrammatical or even immoral (I’m not kidding).

A stickler by nature and training, I revise or suggest improvements to stuff that other people write. More and more frequently, I ask a question that other editors and writers might find useful: Why?

Why did you choose present tense rather than past?

Why did you spell “colour” that way?

Why can’t I find a verb in what you’re trying to pass off as a sentence?

Did you really mean “their pronouns” or should it be “my pronouns”?

Present tense might be the preferred style, depending on the context. “Colour” may or may not be a typo. The missing verb? A quirk, maybe, or a simple mistake.

Pronouns are more complicated than you might think, as I’ve learned in recent years. My pronouns, for example: he/his/him. Few of my readers need to know that, but the concept of gender-neutral pronouns and inclusive language can be critical in some writing and conversation.

“Why?” can help the writer improve. The answers can be surprising and even educational, for writer and editor.

Takeaways

  • Writers: Choose your words carefully.
  • Editors: Ask why.
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Robert E. Lee as tragic figure?

Not too long ago I started following more conservatives on Twitter and reading—or trying to read—articles that might help me understand them better.

This article caught my attention today, in no small part because of my recent renewal of interest in the song that it features:

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

I’ve always liked the song but had never before reflected very deeply on its meaning. It is moving and tragic and, as that article in The American Conservative said, it is sad. I re-read the quote from a Wikipedia page that the writer cited just a couple of days ago.

The AC article was interesting but ultimately a disappointment as it tries to get the reader to sympathize with Southerners and their “shame-honor” culture. I was buying it all until this part of the article:

Robert E. Lee embodies the tragedy of the American South: he was the best military man in America — remember that Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army — and wanted to keep the Union together.

Never mind that others say Lee’s flaws and bad decisions were key to the defeat of the Confederacy. Never mind that he so wanted to keep the Union together than he went to war to destroy it. He “wept tears of blood” over the decision, the article says. How many shed real blood in those years and how many died in that war?

To position Lee as the embodiment of that tragedy is a grievous insult to the memory of the millions of enslaved human beings that he and his army fought to keep enslaved.

While touching and sad, the AC article’s portrayal of white Southerners as helplessly and hopelessly loyal to family and place by virtue of their Scots-Irish cultural heritage reads like a lame excuse for owning slaves and going to war to keep them. My own Irish roots are rather deep, but I have never heard anyone in my extended family, or anyone else for that matter, lionize Irishmen who killed innocents with car bombs the way Lee has been idolized in the land of cotton.

Lee made his choice, and calling it honorable is to pervert the very meaning of the word.

But, the song…

Again and again in recent weeks I’ve watched and listened to the video that turned up in the AC article, the one of The Band performing the song about “the night.” I don’t see it as glorifying the rebels or Lee or even the war, although I understand why some might. It is about terrible loss in more than one sense and, if anything, a reflection of the tragedy that is war.

I always wonder about the seven words one of the musicians says just before the music starts:

“It’s not like it used to be.”

In some ways it is, in some ways it isn’t.

Imagine there are mountains

Imagine a bull moose, shy and alone, just out of sight to the left, the east. There is no fog to the south, just pine-covered rock piles, gap-toothed hills blocking your view in the near distance beyond the meadows. More distant, through the gaps and barely visible, untold miles away in the sunshine, there are mountains.

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Near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. August 2017

Writing with bad intent: Mongering fear

Inform, instruct, train, sell products, sway votes, incite a riot, make people laugh, get clicks.

I used those all recently as examples of what a writer’s intent might be. A bit later I mentioned another example: Scare people so they will buy guns and ammunition.

So what if you write with the intent of starting a riot and nobody shows up? What if no one is buying what you’re selling?

It’s possible that your message wasn’t clear. Maybe your writing is just crappy, or boring, or both. It happens.

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A few other possibilities:

  • You don’t understand your audience, the people who are your prospective customers, so your message doesn’t move them.
  • Your message just isn’t compelling.
  • Your intent was bad, even creepy (hey, Aqualung).
  • Your product stinks or catches on fire at inopportune times.
  • Perhaps you’ve written and published so many distortions and fabrications (i.e., lies) that people just no longer trust you.

So what do you do when your message falls on deaf ears?

Take a close look at what you’ve been doing, from execution (writing, editing and publishing your words) all the way back to your intent. Be open to change and taking a different approach.

Example:

Gun sales spiked during the Obama administration, as people who had much to gain from spreading fear managed to convince their target market that the government was plotting to take their guns. When it turned out that didn’t happen, and Obama was no longer president, gun sales dropped. (Link added 9/14/2017.)

Having had some success with fearmongering and hate before, the NRA refocused its sights on Black Lives Matter, “leftists,” the media and other perceived threats. Its primary purpose these days seems to be more political than ever, even though selling guns and retaining power remain important. 

As effective as it looks lately, maybe someday the raw, vicious messaging will backfire. Maybe responsible gun owners will tire of the cynical marketing and politics spewed out by NRA leadership. Maybe they will leave the NRA in droves, or simply man up and throw out the creators and purveyors of such dangerous and deadly marketing content.

Maybe pigs will fly someday, too.

Update 7/28:

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The NRA: Going armed with intent?

On the off chance that you haven’t read my previous post, please take a couple of minutes to do that. At the end of it I said I’d share my thoughts on the intent of one of the videos linked to that post.

My thoughts, as promised:

The video, like a number of others from the National Rifle Association, was crafted to support more than one objective. The intent isn’t to support the safe, responsible use of firearms, as I remember the NRA doing when I learned about those things as a Boy Scout in the 1960s.

No, today’s NRA wants people to be afraid of each other, so it uses frightening imagery and scare words, often in the form of lies, to engender fear and hate.

Why? The other reasons are pretty clear from this and other NRA messaging:

The NRA does this because its leadership, supported by what we must infer is a large percentage of its membership, believes in white supremacy.

The NRA does what it does to maintain and increase its membership.

The NRA does what it does so that people will buy more and more guns and ammunition.

The NRA’s intent is to maintain and increase its own clout and to keep the American people buying guns and ammo from the association’s corporate backers.

This is all revealed more grotesquely in a newer NRA video that I will not even share here. It is that vile. In one sense, what the NRA does is akin to going armed with intent. That’s a felony in some places.

There’s no doubt that writing with intent and passion can be effective. Depending on the intent, such content can be destructive and even deadly.

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