Thoughts on Writing

To write well, sweat the small stuff

It was only after My Fair Lady was showing in the cinemas that its set designer Cecil Beaton noticed a mistake he had overlooked: towards the end of the film, in the scene where Eliza Doolittle sang “Without You” while watering plants, the jug she was holding was too modern-looking to be from the Edwardian era.

Beaton reproached himself for this minor oversight.

I used to think Beaton was too hard on himself. Only after I became a writer did I understand his fastidiousness: what bothered him was not so much the fact that a wrong jug was used, as his realization that his ability to pay attention to details wasn’t as dependable as he’d thought.

I had a Wrong Jug Moment yesterday: when I gave a draft one final look, I caught sight of a slight disruption in the flow of my copy – the problematic part is highlighted below in capital letters.

“Perhaps Beijing’s success in pumping fear into Hong Kong educators is one reason why last week, it banned a cinema from showing “Inside the Red Brick Wall,” a documentary on the stand-off between the police and protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2019. NONE OF THOSE WHO’D ALREADY WATCHED THE FILM WOULD HAVE FORGOTTEN THIS SCENE: the frayed nerves and frazzled faces of over a hundred heads of secondary schools, as they sheepishly got on with their assignment of persuading the students who had barricaded themselves in the campus to leave.”

I noticed the capitalized sentence didn’t exactly follow smoothly from the sentence preceding it: I started the paragraph by saying Beijing had a role in banning the film, but I then jumped straight into speculating on the film’s impact on the audience. The train of thought I presented would have been made more intact had I continued to bring Beijing into the equation when I wrote the capitalized sentence. So, I revised that imperfect sentence accordingly: 

“Perhaps Beijing’s success in pumping fear into Hong Kong educators is one reason why last week, it banned a cinema from showing “Inside the Red Brick Wall,” a documentary on the stand-off between the police and protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2019. SURELY, BEIJING WOULDN’T HAVE WANTED THIS SCENE FROM THE FILM TO BE FOREVER ETCHED IN PEOPLE’S MEMORY: the frayed nerves and frazzled faces of over a hundred heads of secondary schools, as they sheepishly got on with their assignment of persuading the students who had barricaded themselves in the campus to leave.”

The difference between these two versions is so slight that most people wouldn’t have spotted it had I not pointed it out. Still, I was glad I managed to detect I hadn’t expressed myself in the clearest possible manner in the first version, because this was confirmation that my self-critical faculties were in good working order. I guess Beaton would, too, have felt this sense of satisfaction had he caught his lapse over the jug on time.

Those who think I’m making much ado about nothing by dwelling on minor mistakes are themselves mistaken: One minor mistake is probably minor, but pile up two or three minor mistakes in a row, and you’ll probably end up with writing that’s jarringly off-key. Take for example this sentence Priscilla Leung (梁美芬) has written:

“It is not by entangling in unresolved political deadlock could the liveliness and strengths of (Hong Kong) be restored.” 

Had Leung been sharp-eyed enough, she would have worked on rectifying these errors:

– A political deadlock is by nature unresolved, so there’s no point in inserting “unresolved” before “political deadlock.”

– “Could” indicates possibility while “can” indicates ability. Since Leung wanted to express confidence that Hong Kong can recover its old self, “it is not by entangling in unresolved political deadlock COULD the liveliness and strengths of the city be restored” should have been “it is not by entangling in unresolved political deadlock CAN the liveliness and strengths of the city be restore.

– Compare “the liveliness and strengths of the city (can) be restored” with “the city can reclaim its dynamism.” An active voice would have served Leung’s purpose better.

In fairness to Leung, she did make an effort to lend her sentence an air of sophistication. She floundered because she didn’t go that extra mile in ridding it of its niggling defects. So, the best way to go about writing is, try your best not to let even one slipup take up residence in your copy. You will surely fail at that – we are all imperfect – but at least you’ll end up making one mistake instead of three.

(The paragraph I discussed above came from this column I wrote for Apple Daily)

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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