Monday, April 11, 2011

The worst writer on Fleet Street

My job includes 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 irks 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'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 be 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 the match 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. 

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 read 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.

6 comments:

  1. Spot on. His inability to write either match reports or comment pieces drives me mad.

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  2. http://mccarraschoolofjournalism.wordpress.com/

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  3. Decided to google Kevin to find out what he was up to as I really miss his writing. Got a great laugh from this blurb. I think kevin wrote well. Clear and descriptive the language he used I liked. i miss his writing for the Guardian and others must do also. As for your writing I would not cross the street to read it.

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