I was proofreading the horoscope for the Sunday editions* and took particular note of my own:
Practice the spirit of the holiday season in the week to come by being friendly toward everyone.
At the moment, that leaves me less than an hour to discharge a large reservoir of spleen. And it is NOT HELPFUL that two people who are much nicer than I am have taken it upon themselves to suggest that my strictures against holiday cliches are too severe.
The eminent Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe, while conceding that some of the forbidden phrases land with a thud, suggests that “veteran editors can also become too cliche-aware. After years of exposure to journalistic prose, they’re bound to be tired of some phrases; it’s satisfying to put them on a blacklist and declare them dead and gone.” And that “an editor who imagines that readers despise “ ’tis the season” is an editor who needs to get out more.”
Of course, the reason that readers don’t despise the cliches more is that at least some of the more reprehensible efforts are gently suffocated on copy desks. I can—and am willing to make good on the threat—to go down the stairs to the crypt in this cold, damp, unsalubrious weather to fetch up some of the ghastly examples I use to frighten the children in my editing class to make them good. Trust me, you don’t want to see them.
Also today, at the Frederick News-Post Terence Walsh writes, “I'm all for a fresh take on the familiar rituals of the holiday season. If you can write a Christmas story that has truly never been done before, bring it on. But what would such a story even look like? While lists of don'ts provide valuable guidance, it is easier to say what not to do than to write an effective story that avoids these hazards. To put it another way, the line between cliché and tradition can sometimes get blurry.”
And further: “I do not defend tired, lazy or trite writing. But I humbly suggest that every Christmas-related news story may not be the place to, to use another cliché, reinvent the wheel.”
And yet, hmm, he could not resist quoting strictures against some of the riper excesses. And he does call You Don’t Say “an excellent blog,” which—oh God, is that seasonal friendliness seeping in?—suggests that his life should be spared.
What it comes down to is this: There is much more bad writing than good. As I commiserated with a colleague recently, our task as editors is often to take the execrable and render it merely mediocre. Someone who writes a “’Tis the season” lead for a publication that has already used it, more than once. and probably displays the phrase in at least a dozen advertisements throughout the publication, is a hack who imagines himself to be clever and original. Spare me.
*Here’s another useful British word, dogsbody, a person doing menial work, a drudge.