Thursday, March 3, 2011

The worst writer on Fleet Street

I have plenty of bad habits, but self-deprecation is one of the worst. But if I'm honest with myself, I'm actually a good editor, which is lucky, since that's what I'm paid for. The downside is that it does strange things to one's brain, such that even now I'm worrying about the second comma in that last sentence. Or should that be 'past sentence'? Still, at least I know that the question mark goes outside the quote marks. And so on. And don't ask whether I should allow myself a verbless sentence like the last one. Or whether I should start a sentence with 'and'. Or 'but'. Or 'or'. Want a fight about it? Bring it on. I'm good at this. Being a good editor doesn't mean I'm any good at writing of course, but if you've got this far then you're probably prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt.

One rule of editing is that any piece can be improved by deleting the first paragraph and the first sentence of the next, so you can ignore all that preamble and start here. My job means dealing with 80,000-word screeds by experts who know everything about their business but next to nothing about communicating in English. I edit their work, I suggest ways to improve it and I warn the ambitious ones against trying to produce great literature, but I don't expect much. However, I do expect much from professional writers, which brings me to Kevin McCarra of The Guardian.

In a world where talented journalists can't find work, it offends me that one of the best newspapers in the land employs, on staff, a chief sports writer who cannot write.

I don't want to be an internet troll here. I have two friends who write for the same paper as freelances, one of whom has just been subjected to a virulent piece of abuse from a blogger who has made nasty and inaccurate assumptions about her based purely on her name. I'm sure McCarra is a nice guy who knows his subject and I don't want to upset him beyond saying he should go on a writing course. And I can't believe I'm the first person to have suggested this. Look at the opening paragraph of his report on Birmingham City's victory over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final on Sunday:
If Birmingham City held one advantage over Arsenal it lay in the art of endurance. A side striving not to fall out of the Premier League reached a peak in their history by defeating opponents who took far too long to discover impetus in this Carling Cup final. After 89 minutes, the substitute Obafemi Martins thrived on hapless defending to notch the winner. Alex McLeish's side had brought the club their first trophy since taking this prize in 1963.
This is not a paragraph. It's a vaguely related set of sentences that bear little or no relation to each other. It could almost be written as bullet points, the flow is so lacking, and yet it's the first paragraph of the paper's main report. It might be forgiveable if McCarra had been attempting a stylistic opening (albeit a botched one), but all his writing is like this.

Not having a thread is bad enough, but losing it half-way through a sentence is simply incompetent. Let's see how McCarra handles the winning goal in a major cup competition:
Koscielny moved as if to kick a long ball from Foster and distracted his goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. He then let possession spill to the Nigerian Martins, who…

Well, we're getting really excited here, since this is a rare description of a goal (Robin Van Persie scored a terrific equaliser for Arsenal, but his name is not even mentioned in McCarra's report). We're so excited, we can almost ignore the missing comma or the fact that we don't know whether "he" refers to Koscielny or Szczesny (readers will assume it's the defender, but anyone who saw it knows he must be talking about the goalkeeper). We just want to know what Martins did. Did he…
pounce on the loose ball and stroke it into an empty net
react fastest with a striker's instinct to follow up and score
charge into the penalty area to punish the mistake, tearing the Gunners' dreams to tatters and sending the Birmingham fans into raptures
Any of those standard football-reporter clichés would do, but no, this is McCarra's effort:
He then let possession spill to the Nigerian Martins, who came to Birmingham last month on loan from the Russian club Rubin Kazan.
And that's the complete description. There really is no excuse for this. It's not a case of bad sub-editing. Heaven knows, I've been a sub-editor and I've fouled up enough good pieces with inept subbing, and bad subbing doesn't look like that, unless The Guardian employs a sub whose only task is to squeeze the rhythm and logic out of all McCarra's work. Maybe the same sub also inserted the nonsensical word "co-conspirators", to distinguish those who conspire together from one who conspires alone.

This rant isn't part of a personal grudge. Do you think I do unpaid, fantasy subbing on every article I read? That's what Wikipedia is for. McCarra only caught my attention because Guardian sports reports became so difficult to read that I felt compelled to ask, "Who wrote this?" And the same name kept cropping up. Look for yourself.

I stopped reading the BBC's website at the end of last year when its standards began plummeting. I started buying (yes, buying!) The Guardian because I like quality and I care about football. I can find (and sometimes supply) amateurish, opinionated drivel for free online. That's what the internet is for. A national newspaper should do better.