A lament for the dying art of craftsmanship

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This article first appeared in Marklives. 

In a time of conversations being led by little yellow smiley faces, are we losing the art of craftsmanship and being a wordsmith? And does this matter?

I recently picked up a beloved book from my childhood: Roald Dahl’s “Enormous Crocodile”. I hadn’t looked at this book for decades but, after opening its pages, I was instantly transfixed by its beautiful, and witty, language. He writes about the crocodile being “a wicked beastly beast”, “a foul and filthy fiend” and how the other animals in the jungle hoped that he got “squashed and squished and squizzled and boiled up into crocodile stew”. How wonderful and delightful to read, despite it being aimed at children. I would be hard-pressed to find many adult books today written in such enticing English.

Around the same time that I picked up this old book, I also paged through a UK high-end fashion magazine, which offered a contrast. Silly articles about silly people and brain-deadening lists of acronyms, peppered with lolzes. To be fair, I like a fluffy celeb piece as much as the next person but, in this case, there were “features” that were so badly written that, if they had been Google-translated from Greek, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

So, is this really an issue? Does caring about this make one a miserable old nit-picking fuddy-duddy? Maybe so, and millennials may snigger behind their hands as much as they like. And, yes, language does — and should — change and develop over time.

Some years ago, we all thought emoticons were weird childish things that only kids (or maybe the Japanese — just check out Guadatama for reference) would find relevant. But, these days, everyone, including my pensioner mother, litters their communications with said little faces. Execs at Facebook recently talked about this, how language is moving towards simplification and how emoticons represent an intuitiveness that transcends language and political borders. Brands are following suit; there are some that now run transactions and customer services not just through bots but through a predetermined set of emoticons.

Perhaps this simplification is not a dumbing down but rather a move, driven by globalisation, to the creation of a way of communicating that breaks down barriers to a common understanding that is accessible to all. But, hell, how I miss some of the craftsmanship of our past.

There is an argument that, before we simplify, we need to have mastered the complex. Picasso, known for his crazy, stylised artworks, had mastered incredible realism in painting before he moved onto his famous stylised works. It was this that made him a master — he had perfected the perfect, and so moved to something that could be expressed better through simplification and stylisation. That’s what makes him a genius, rather than artists who used simplification because they were unable to master the complex.

The same could be said about language.

In our industry, yes, it is important for us to be able to communicate in a way that is accessible to all. The problem is that many people in our industry perhaps are unable to communicate in any other way. This is an issue because we are supposed to be experts in communications, and our clients are paying us for this expertise.

Maybe no one cares. But maybe they do.

I stopped visiting a local restaurant because its awfully sub-edited (or lack thereof) menu pissed me off every time I went there. I couldn’t keep looking at “chocolate mouse” or “snail’s in Garlic butter” without having something inside me die. Said restaurant is now out of business. Perhaps the lack of care in the menu translated into the general lack of care to its overall business.

While 90% of the population may not notice or care, 10% do. We recently started working with a client that demands a certain level of care and craftsmanship in writing. In our first meeting, I was handed the following quote by art critic Robert Hughes, which has set the tone for the rest of the working relationship:

“I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling… I love the spectacle of skill… I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones…”

As with the articles in the UK fashion magazine mentioned before, I see countless examples in our industry of shoddy writing and a basic lack of understanding of grammar. I have heard time and again of agencies lamenting the lack of copywriters entering the industry and have seen too many examples to mention of “communications experts” publishing pieces that show an eye-watering lack of a basic understanding of grammar.

Where is the problem coming in? Is this a failure of teaching in our schools and tertiary educations? I certainly see countless examples of graduates who have no understanding of the different between “peek” and “peak” or who love to use random apostrophes or capital letters for no apparent reason. Or is it this same old argument of “millennials being different”? Again, perhaps so. The people who literally never read a book (or magazine or back of a cereal packet) seem to be demonstrably more so than those who do.

Maybe we just need to change, and to accept the move towards a future where we communicate in a new kind of sign language based around yellow faces and little pictures of monkeys covering their eyes in shame? Or maybe not. Because if Dahl could use beautifully crafted and intelligent language to thrill children and adults alike, decade after decade, could we not do the same?

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.