Thursday, 9 February 2017

Bespoke or off-the-shelf phrases.

I received a charming letter this morning from a well known author of wizard books who begs me to preserve her anonymity. I will not name the lovely lady, who shall be known simply as JK for the purpose of this post.
Might I, asks JK, review the first page of her next book? Indeed I might. Few things give one greater pleasure than to edify and instruct. And so I began to read...
An acute observer stationed near my desk might have noted the vertical grooves between my eyebrows deepen in direct proportion to the progress of my reading through JK's rough prose. With a sigh I reached for my pen, and before you could say 'quidditch' a few grams of red-ink had been judiciously distributed across the page.
There had been nothing wrong with JK's subject matter- assuming you are happy to read utter nonsense about magic- nor with her plot, characterisation, or cognitive montage. No, the shortcoming that had attracted my criticism was her lazy choice of phrasing.
Consider such a phrase:
'It was a good job Harry had his wand handy.'
Or, more generally:
'It was a good job [noun] [verb] [subject] [qualifier].'
All perfectly acceptable in everyday speech, but not in literature. If you wish to improve your work, and to attain a standard of perfection that will have publishers gagging to offer huge advances, it is important to expunge from your prose any instance of what one might call 'off-the-shelf' phrasing.
Like its big brother, the cliché, the off-the-shelf phrase is a sign of laziness in the writer, and a cause of ennui in the reader.
Is there a solution to this scourge? Is there a source of help for the struggling author? Certainly! As long ago as 1957 I published in The International Journal of Applied Literature the following simple technique for evaluating the quality of a work. Take a sample of 10,000 words, rounded up or down to the nearest complete sentence. Count the occurrence of off-the-shelf phrases. If the total is less than three your work is acceptable. If it is more, then take each offending phrase in turn and re-word it to achieve a less-common expression.