Has anyone else noticed an annoying trend in contemporary writing? OK, there are probably several that spring to mind (“I was sat?”), but the one I’m thinking about today is “See what I did there?”
You’re likely to encounter this phrase any time the writer has used a rather obvious pun, but it could appear after any piece of wordplay. Here’s an example from the Washington Post:
“The Chargers, on the other hand, have an electrifying offense (see what I did there?).”
You see, he’s talking about the Los Angeles Chargers, a football team, but “charge” can also refer to electricity, so “electrifying” is really clever, isn’t it? Do you get it, or would you like me to explain it even more?
That’s my problem with the phrase “See what I did there?” It shows that the writer really doesn’t think much of the reader’s ability to detect a joke or a piece of subtlety in writing. Horrified at the idea that a clever piece of wordplay might go unnoticed or unappreciated, the writer can’t resist calling attention to it by elbowing in the ribs, pointing over your shoulder and saying: “See what I did there?”
Here’s another example, from an article in The Guardian on the zero-waste revolution:
“Begin by zeroing in (see what I did there?) on an area where you generate a lot of waste, such as drinks in plastic bottles.”
Again, the pun is painfully obvious, but the writer doesn’t trust us to spot it. Or maybe she worries that we’ll see it but think it was unintended. Either way, it’s annoying and kind of insulting.
Oh, and you’re not safe on social media either:
Let’s face it: most puns are not that funny in the first place, and calling attention to them in this way is like making a weak joke even less funny by explaining it. In fact, one of the main purposes of puns and other forms of wordplay is to give reader’s the mild satisfaction of discovering them. It’s like an Easter egg in a computer game (or in a real-life egg hunt, for that matter): if you tell everyone where it is, there’s not much point.
Fortunately, the trend doesn’t seem to have infected fiction writing yet. You don’t see Julian Barnes calling attention to a symbol or allusion by adding: “See what I did there?” He trusts his readers to discern that a broken egg might have something to do with fertility, and he accepts that for many readers, it’ll still just be an egg.
Good writing, after all, works on multiple levels—you can read quickly and enjoy the plot and dialogue on the surface, or you can pay attention to the symbols and metaphors and so on. If you want, you can even do extra research to trace some of the references that elude you at first, or you can discuss them with others (my post on Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending generated over 500 insightful and interesting comments on all the things that Barnes sensibly left ambiguous). You could even go the whole hog and write hundreds of pages of critical analysis.
Writers should be open to any of these approaches and be aware that their words will take on a different form in the hands of each individual reader. Even for those whose conscious minds don’t process the pun or other literary device, perhaps it affects them at some level anyway. It’s possible for the image of a broken egg to evoke thoughts of fertility without consciously thinking, “Oh, I see what Julian Barnes did there.”
So please, fellow writers, have a little more confidence in your own readers and in your own ability to convey your meaning effectively. Trust that your words will be accepted and appreciated, and accept the fact that this won’t always be the case. Your work will be skimmed, pored over, loved, hated and shrugged at. You can’t control that. What you can do is give your readers the satisfaction of finding the puns and allusions for themselves, without eagerly pointing to your gems and saying, “See what I did there?”