When in despair, stay on the chair
I believe I am guardian of the worst sentence written in the English language, ever.
A big claim? Read on.
In an earlier manifestation as a shoulder-padded, briefcase wielding London girl, I earned a living as a copywriter. I wrote glossy corporate stuff, the kind that sits on coffee tables in company lobbies. Sometimes I wrote company magazine articles and press articles. Once, I wrote a long love letter for an illiterate ex-convict, begging his wife to come back to him, reminding her of all the good times they’d shared. He talked (and cried) and I put it into words.
Jobs could be easy or otherwise, depending on the client’s ‘vision’ but I will never forget the most tortured phrase a client ever stunned me with.
In good Ronnie Corbett style, let me digress to explain why the sentence I term ‘the worst in the English language, ever’ pulled me into the abyss of despair. I had left a safe job in a PR company to have a baby. Going it alone as a freelance was nowhere near as mainstream as it is now. People told me I was ‘brave’ in that tone of voice that implies, ‘doomed’. Anyway, I gave up the day job in 1988 and it sort of worked. The wolf hung about the door, but was kept from entering by good luck, credit cards and the fact that mortgage rates were low. Electricity and gas bills were a laughable £60 a quarter. I mean, that’s half a tank of petrol now.
Then came the exchange crises of the late ‘80s/early 90’s, and over a series of black Mondays and murky Tuesdays mortgage rates shot up to 15%. In the same hideous week, I was sacked by all my mainstay clients who chucked their non-payroll staff over the side. My husband (I had by then married the father of my babe) was steering a small business through the rocks and was unable to pay himself a salary. Our outgoings shot to £1000 a month which was huge back then, with nothing coming in. In desperation, I got a job phone-selling replacement windows. I managed to sell not a single one. I had a man eagerly sign up to buy a double-glazed conservatory, but that fell through when it turned out he lived on the eighth floor of a tower block. At some point in this bad dream I was contacted by the client-of-a-former-client. They were desperate to get a brochure out in time for a trade fair, and their PR company (my former client) hadn’t time to write the copy for them. Would I?
Indeed, I would. The client made recording studio equipment, and this was long before recording was digitised. Their product range was speakers, synthesisers and big, black thingy-bobs covered in levers, knobs and buttons. Their approach was deeply technical, they spoke a form of Klingon and they wanted two thousand words by Friday. Oh, it had to be upbeat and sexy, short columns wrapped around photographs of their gizmos. Plenty of quotable quotes too, please. Normally, I would visit the company, stroke their products and interview the main parties. But as it was now Wednesday afternoon, we agreed they would simply fax me background info so I could get going. I stood by the fax, mentally preparing myself for a couple of late nights. The fax beeped, and out came yards of close, black typeface. Headings, subheadings, sub-sub-headings and biblical columns of Klingon. They had photocopied and faxed their technical user manuals.
I tried to pull a story from it, a thread, a theme. I worked clean through Wednesday night. Thursday, having taken my infant to nursery, I carried on until it was time to pick him up again. The minute my husband came home, I went back to the computer and worked continuously as night fell. I am not a panicker by nature but I was facing the reality of having to ring the client and say, “Ummm you know your vital deadline? Well, I blew it for you.” At four am on Friday morning, I crashed head-first into that sentence. I cried and prayed, please stop Friday happening.
At four-forty-five am, I heard the clink of the milkman. Friday was by this time unstoppable. So I stopped hyperventilating and thought; write. Just write. Stop belly-aching what you don’t understand, jump in. Start off each section with a verbal drum roll, as in:
“Sound-industry professionals love the broad choice available from La-la-la Company. Backed by solid research and development, each and every one of La-la-la Company’s systems provide sound engineering solutions for a vast range of production environments. “
Bollocks, indeed. But by now, the toddler was up and holding onto my knees in his pyjamas. Having chewed pencils and paperclips for about thirty-seven hours, I got the thing written in eighty minutes. Yes, it relied heavily on the marketing tripe I had digested over a ten year career in PR but La-la-la Company got its brochure to take to its trade fair. I got paid. I forget how much, probably about £500 which kept Team Us on the road for a couple of weeks. And the experience taught me a hugely valuable writer’s lesson which I pass on to you in short sound-bites.
- Believe in You
- You can pull off tricky writing projects by gritting your teeth and staying on your chair.
- Write through the sticky stuff
- Five hundred words of clunky, cringe-making burble is worth any number of blank pages.
- Once you’ve got black on white, you’ve got something to work with.
- Forget perfection, forget dark night of the soul. Ask, what does the client/reader want from the end product and just go for it.
Oh, and the Worst Sentence, Ever? It was on page 47 of that fax and I’ve kept it by me for reasons even I don’t understand. Here it is, with its original sub-heading:
- Stereo Subgroup Module
This module provides a balanced mix to the stereo bus of the input channels which are routed to it, stereo width and balance controls being provided in the same way as on the stereo input module as well as eight auxiliary sends, one insert send, internally selected as either pre or post fader and talkback or tone to be selected to the group output as selected on the talkback or oscillator modules and each module can be routed to eight of the stereo group buses but self exclusion is built-in to avoid howlround problems.
Howlround problems? I’ll say. I’m crying all over again.
Thanks Phanzeen for translating this so brilliantly for me. See comments.
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