Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? By Alan Weisman: A Lesson in Styles

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Consider this paragraph from journalist Alan Weisman’s 2013 nonfiction book, Countdown, about overpopulation and its impact upon the Earth and its residents:

The first to speak, Dr. John Guillebaud, is professor emeritus of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London. Guillebaud, his dark suit punctuated by an orange daisy in his lapel, notes that every year the world adds the equivalent of another Germany or Egypt. He invites people to try to imagine where to fit another of either on the planet. He talks about the human gluttony behind the recent BP--née British Petroleum--outrage in the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of a bit more of the world’s remaining known oil (Weisman, Alan. Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for A Future on Earth? New York: Back Bay, 2013. Print. 112).

Now consider this paragraph in the hands of a news editor. It might be returned to the author, Weisman, with the following marks:

The first to speak, Dr. John Guillebaud, is professor emeritus of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London. Guillebaud, his dark suit punctuated by an orange daisy in his lapel, notes that every year the world adds the equivalent of another Germany or Egypt annually. He invites people to try to imagine where to fit another of either on the planet. He talks about the human gluttony behind the recent BP--née British Petroleum--outrage in the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of a bit more of the world’s remaining known oil.

The imaginary news editor has eliminated unnecessary words. He would tell the author that a daisy in the lapel is purple prose, a phrase so flowery (forgive the word play, please) as to draw attention to itself and away from other content. He would argue the daisy is unnecessary. He would view the new topic, BP's gluttony, as material for a new paragraph.

I would argue the daisy does not detract by distracting the reader. The daisy brings a bit of life to an otherwise dense work of nonfiction on a rather dire, if dry, topic.

What would you argue?

Now consider the paragraph once more, this time with the help of an English teacher’s red ink:

The first to speak, Dr. John Guillebaud, is professor emeritus of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London. Guillebaud, his dark suit punctuated by an orange daisy in his lapel, notes that every year the world adds the equivalent of another Germany or Egypt. He invites people to try to imagine where to fit another of either on the planet. He talks about the human gluttony behind the recent British Petroleum’s BP--née British Petroleum--outrage in the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of a bit more of the world’s remaining known oil.

The English teacher, like the imaginary news editor, chooses to use capital letters for Guillebaud’s credentials, eliminate unnecessary uses of that, and unnecessary words in favor of a cleaner, leaner paragraph. Each of the recommendations has merit, but each could be argued as simply a matter of taste.

I would argue the author’s original wording stands on its own merits without the English teacher’s editing suggestions.

Reading Challenge:

So much may depend upon a touch of orange.
Al Griffin Photography
Read Weisman’s work of nonfiction, Countdown. Consider how often he seems to detour into description but arrives at the appointed place with enhanced understanding as a result of those detours. Consider also how much a reader may enjoy the occasional bursts of description juxtaposed against the weight of fact.

Writing Challenge:

Rewrite a paragraph according to the standards preferred by 1) a news editor, 2) an English teacher, and 3) a writer of fiction.