“I once had the easiest job in journalism: editing Christopher Hitchens,” tweeted his Slate editor June Thomas, shortly after his death. A short tribute, but a touching balance of the personal and the professional; and also, an accidental summary of the thing I hate about his work. Christopher Hitchens wrote with such an assured and powerful voice – exactly the same voice he spoke with – it’s easy to believe that editing would require only the lightest touch. All the words are correct, and in their right places. Nothing needs changing, except for the fact that whole pieces could benefit from being run through with a red pen.
It is a pretty structure, isn’t it? It makes you think of something stable, solid, well-linked. […] And it is possible that the explanation is neither remote not metaphysical: to say “beautiful” is to say “desirable” and ever since man has built he has wanted to build at the smallest expense and in the most durable fashion, and the aesthetic enjoyment he experiences in contemplating the work comes afterward. Certainly, it has not always been this way: there have been centuries in which “beauty” was identified with adornment, the superimposed, the frills; but it is probable that they were deviant epochs and that the true beauty, in which every century recognises itself, is found in upright stones, ships’ hulls, the blade of an ax, the wing of a plane.
Primo Levi (on the alloxan molecule), The Periodic Table (Abacus, 1986), p. 179
I write well, but I type hideously. Inefficient, clumsy, tiring. I’ve been working on a word processor since my early teens, and at some point (like Joel with Street Fighter) I settled into a style that was just adequate to my needs and never attempted to get any better. My wrists scrape the edge of the desk. I only use four of my fingers consistently, and can’t even keep to the habit of tapping the space bar with my thumb. It’s possible to type quite fast like this, but never really fast, and certainly not really fast for long periods of time – and really fast is the way in which I need to work.
Between blogging, reviewing, transcriptions and interviews, I have weeks where I’m rattling out over 20,000 words. I work in the evenings, and within school hours one day a week – once I’ve taken into account the watching, reading and listening that goes into this work, it’s obvious that I can only manage this (as well as the emailing, tweeting and gchatting that goes on in an average day) by being competent with a keyboard. And I have other projects I’d like to work on, things which demand more time and more typing. I have realised how right Dan Baum is when he says:
being able to type fast can mean the difference between having good and great interviews to work with, and that teaching oneself to type fast – very fast – is as important to one’s career as a journalist as being well informed or understanding grammar.
But I wonder whether the grotesquery of my typing style has had a formative effect on the pretty solidity of my writing style. When I write, I am always trying to “build at the smallest expense and in the most durable fashion”. I keep my sentences tight, select my words carefully, build up stylistic devices when I know they’re right for the argument or the impression I want to convey, and try to ensure that whatever is published under my name will be resistent to the most stubbornly unsympathetic reader.
Concise, accurate, effective – shouldn’t that be how every writer wants to work? And as a bad typist, the necessity of avoiding waste is even stronger. I never go substantially over the wordcount in a first draft, because getting the words down in the first place is so tiresome; I make most of my revisions mentally before they hit the page, because re-writing is hard work I’d rather avoid. I am trying to become a better typist so I can be a better journalist, but I hope that in the process I’ll remember everything my sausage fingers have taught me.
© Sarah Ditum 2009