Friday, October 28, 2011

You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me

Humor, reduced to its most simplistic denominator, is revelation of an uneasy, often sad truth.  Unconscious humor is the analog of taking aim at some target, then promptly shooting one’s self in the foot.  Unconscious humor is you, astride your high horse, poking fun at something in a manner certain to expose your own absurd behavior.

You are not alone in seeing absurd behavior in others, nor, at times, in yourself.  We all have suitable receptor sites for the awareness of humor in others and receptor sites of equal suitability to help us ignore its presence in ourselves.  In similar fashion, there is a tendency inherent in communication, made even more obvious in written communication, to use habit words.

Any word may become a habit word provided it is used often enough to call attention to itself.  The one you notice with the greatest regularity is “and,” an innocent enough word on its own until you see it creeping through your sentences and paragraphs like a trail of ants across a gleaming white tablecloth.

 Another habit word invading your prose is “accordingly,” which scores bonus points because it is an –ly adverb, and because of your frequent placement of it at the beginning of a sentence to sum up and restate material from the immediate sentences which should, if they’d been given proper rendition in the first place, need no summary or restatement.

Yet other habit words earn bonus points for the fact of their being unnecessary.  One such word is “very,” another of similar nature is “quite.” We need all our imagination to imagine the distinctions between having a character who was annoyed, very annoyed, or quite annoyed.  Some critics in our midst might venture the opinion that quite is a degree beyond very, at which point you would become annoyed in sufficient degree to stop following the argument, regarding it as time not well spent.  Don’t forget “just” as in just not or just as I was beginning.  Of course “only” may be substituted for just.  I only wanted you to see-- Yeah, well.  If you wanted us to see, did you have to want to so often?

The detection and purging of habit words is a major step in revision, tightening the noose of clarity, dimension, and intensity about your prose, culling the indecisions, the “somewhat” and “slightly” from their squatter occupancy of our verbs and nouns.

Writers whose work conveys such immediacy and purpose, such as Joan Didion and Christopher Hitchens, have built into their sensitivities an ability to convey us without bump through the hills and valleys of their argumentive landscape, paving each step with care, yet seeming to toss things off in a conversational tone.  You may be sure each has taken pains to produce not a mere slice of an argument but a full-on cameo, etched with precision, clotted and cluttered with no habit words or ambiguity.
They continue to resonate among us because they cause their intentions to spring from the page or screen, already vibrant with the vision they evoke.

To this date, you have written yourself in the neighborhood of seventeen hundred fifty notes herein to yourself.  You have surely been aware of a number of your habit words; those already listed herein plus such additional ones as “writ large,” “on steroids,” “nevertheless,” and a great favorite, “thus.”  After all this hoopla about habit words, they and others like them have butted in to the head of the line in front of your vigilance. Habit words are things you watch for when you undertake revisions.  Habit words, unconscious repetitions rather than deliberate repetitions made for some effect or another, are of themselves sufficient reason for the use of at least one form of editor—the content editor.  They are also sufficient reason to employ the services of the copyeditor, she or he who approaches the text for the purpose of examining consistency of usage.

Written language often has the appearance of informality, perhaps even of being conversational, even while in the face of our awareness that conversation sounds often inane or banal, sometimes repetitious.  Conversation rendered in complete sentences runs the risk of sounding by degrees too formal.  As any number of individuals you observe, your spoken narrative is often accompanied with a display of hand and body gestures, an emphasis here, a lifted eyebrow there, the flutter and dart of both hands about you as though you were patting out a fire that had begun in one of your jacket pockets.

What you are attempting to do, written or spoken, is what the accomplished magician does—use the hands as distractions while creating an illusion at once plausible, mystifying, curiosity inducing.  Your great pal, Barnaby Conrad, caught that imagery in his dedication to you of his penultimate novel, The Last Boat to Cadiz. You did not consider yourself the magician he claimed you to be, merely an editor, doing a friend a favor.

Writers and editors have no secrets from one another; friends have no secrets.  Most assuredly of all, they have no habit words between them, only the honesty of artful narrative.

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