The frou-frou cuteness of the New York Times style section

Caroline Tompkins for The New York Times

The New York Times traffics in clear, straightforward text. Except, that is, in the Sunday Style section.

Having no style myself, I’d typically skip the Style section, but an article by Penelope Green on birds sucked me in yesterday. I like birds.

I read it. I’m still dizzy.

If you like metaphors, you’ll love the title: “Young Urban Birders, Open Your Hearts to the Treetops! The birds come, the birds go. All that changes is the pecking order.”

Cliches are fun. But all those metaphors in a row change direction faster than a flock of starlings divebombing a broken-field running back who is dancing an interpretive dance to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.

In my experience, yes, birds go. That’s why you don’t open your heart to the treetops, in case a bird decides to go. Ew.

Here’s the lede, which sets the tone:

On Global Big Day last month, birders around the world counted all the species they could spot in 24 hours. It was a super-birding event in the bonanza that is spring migration — which runs from late April to early June, but peaks for songbirds in May — when millions of birds make their way from parts south to breed in the Northern latitudes.

In Prospect Park, members of the Feminist Bird Club did their bit for this enormous citizen-scientist data collection effort.

Once you get past super-birding and bonanza in such close proximity, one question stands out. How can a bird club be feminist? Are the girl birds getting a raw deal and the club is out to fix it? This demands an immediate explanation.

Too bad, you have to wait three paragraphs (in the New York Times Style Section, the explanation can wait because everyone is a feminist). The clarifying description finally appears on the next page in a sentence that made me nauseous:

Though Ms. Adams, who is 28 and the outreach coordinator at the New York Aquarium, would certainly describe herself as a feminist, and her club’s manifesto reads, in part, that it is “dedicated to providing a safe opportunity to connect with the natural world in urban environments and having an ongoing conversation about intersectionality, activism, and the rights of all women, nonbinary folks, and members of the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community,” this was not a dogmatic crowd, nor was it mono-gendered.

That’s a Thanksgiving dinner of a sentence. It’s not just a turkey, it’s full of stuffing with pineapple on top. Journalists other than Tom Wolfe do not get to write 83-word sentences. Here are all the things you really shouldn’t do that are packed into this sentence:

  • Open a sentence with “though” and then wait 70 word to resolve it.
  • Describe a person, a club, and a crowd with diverse characteristics in one sentence. (Think of me as the cop approaching the mob of gawkers and saying “break it up, folks.”)
  • Use the word “and” five times (and “nor” once) in a sentence.
  • Drop jargon like L.G.B.T.Q.+ and intersectionality without further explanation.
  • Invent the word mono-gendered and use it to describe a crowd. (People can be bigender. Crowds don’t have gender — they’re diverse.)

A few more sins for your perusal:

Younger urban birders — yubbies? — like those led by Ms. Adams are the new faces in the birding world. [Clever. Do they call themselves that, or are you creating a neologism that they’ll hate forever?]

As Jonathan Franzen, still the literary world’s most famous birder, discovered, many soon find that without the structure of birding, “the stimulations of nature,” as Mr. Franzen wrote in “My Bird Problem,” his coming-out-as-a-birder essay in The New Yorker, remain “stubbornly theoretical, like sex on Prozac.” [Another sentence that swerves like a cabbie with a mood disorder on FDR Drive.]

They also keep up to date with Twitter, now abuzz with local bird alerts. [Abuzz? As long as your prose is this weird, why not take the opportunity to say that, “Twitter is atwitter with local bird alerts”?]

There’s Starr Saphir, the flinty matriarchal figure who led birders even as she became significantly ill with cancer, and Chris Cooper, 55, a biomedical editor who birds by ear (using birdsong to identify his quarry) and whose elegiac exposition on what he called the “7 pleasures of birding” pops up the all over the internet. [Pops up all over the Internet? What does that mean?]

t was after dusk on Sept. 11 a couple of years ago when Annie Novak, 35, an urban farmer, writer and educator at the New York Botanical Garden — once voted the cutest organic farmer in the country — became a birder. [Imagine for a moment how the Feminist Bird Club members will react to a sentence about how one of their members won a contest based on cuteness. And if you follow the link, you’ll see that it’s really about which farmer is sexually “hottest.” Horrors.]

Learn from this

Art in writing is fine. But meaning is more important.

If you don’t want your prose to be the subject of giggles:

  • Keep the adjectives in check.
  • Break up the sentences. Instead of linking things together with lots of subordinate clauses, create shorter sentences that tell a story.
  • Limit the physical descriptions of people whose accomplishments aren’t based on their physiques. Are the women in your piece are all cute and the men all distinguished? If they were Nobel Prize winners or candidates for the Senate, would you describe them this way? It’s better to use the physical adjectives to describe what’s happening, rather than to characterize the people.
  • Metaphors are great. Try not to let them run into each other.

Vivid prose describes what’s happening. It draws attention to what it describes, not itself. If you want to impress readers, stop showing off and start telling stories.

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  1. Jeebus. You ok after reading that hot mess? I’m concerned. I recommend some Chaucer for a complete mental flossing; perhaps the Muppet Show would do in a pinch, it’s my usual solution.

    Yeesh. How disappointing.

  2. Now writing a prescription for Dr. Wobs’ verbal cleanse solution, which also has the beneficial side effect of diminishing the amount of gas passed in writing.

  3. Excellent entry into the classic bad writing contest: “It was a Dark and Stormy Night”……LOL!